Review: Hill Number One – Family Theater: Hill Number One (1951)


Director: Arthur Pierson | 58 minutes | drama | Actors: Patrick Peyton, Gordon Oliver, Todd Karns, Roddy McDowall, Charles Smith, Ray Hyke, Spec O’Donnell, William Schallert, Dan Rankins, Marc Hamilton, Peter Similuk, Ruth Hussey, Henry Brandon, Leif Erickson, Nelson Leigh, Joan Leslie, Jeanne Cagney, Charles Meredith, Frank Wilcox, Peter Mamakos, Gene Lockhart, Everett Glass, Regis Toomey, James Dean, Terry Kilburn, David Young, Frederic Berest, Joseph F. Mansfield, Michael Ansara, Jack Baston, Pauline Crell, James Warner Bellah

In the early years of television, the phenomenon was not only used to entertain people, but also to educate the viewer. Educational programs, often very moralistic in nature, were rampant. A good example is the series “Family Theater”, which ran from 1951 to 1958. The series was broadcast by a religious group and it is noticeable. Religious propaganda is dripping from it. But because “Family Theater” was a springboard for many actors to the bigger work, the series nevertheless has in a sense eternal value. In “Hill Number One” (1951), a special Easter episode (and thus extra steeped in the religious message!) Of “Family Theater”, we see none other than James Dean present himself to a larger audience for the very first time.

The mound from the title of the series has a double meaning. On the one hand, reference is made to the hills that the US military conquer one by one from the Koreans. From there the story opens. After the umpteenth conquest, the soldiers (including Roddy McDowall in the ranks) wonder what the use of the war is. Coincidentally, the army chaplain has just come to visit and it turns out to be Easter Sunday. When the soldiers recuperate over a cup of strong coffee, he takes them to the original Hill Number One: Golgotha, the hill where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified according to the Gospels. He tells about what happened after Jesus died. Pontius Pilate (Leif Ericksson) is surprised when much of his people convert to Christianity. Following in the footsteps of Jesus ‘mother Mary (Ruth Hussey), his followers quote the “Our Father” after which Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated. The army chaplain uses the story to give the soldiers confidence again. “Deprivation, suffering, and self-sacrifice are never meaningless. They produce many virtues. Courage, heroism and love. “

The video ends with a sermon by Father Patrick Peyton. It is precisely this moralistic finale that cancels out a large part of the credit that was built up with the foregoing. While not the most exciting part of the Bible is discussed, “Hill Number One” just fills in a few gaps. The time between the death of Jesus and his resurrection has always been somewhat underexposed in cinematographic history, so in that respect the perspective can be called quite original. The rather slow film is also taken in tow by a variety of well-known actors, including a well-cast Leif Ericksson (ideal as the stiff and hard Pontius Pilatus), Ruth Hussey, Gene Lockhart, Joan Leslie and Regis Toomey. The role of James Dean, as Jesus’ most loyal follower John the Baptist, is very minor. Dean only has three sentences and hardly gets any space to profile himself.

“Hill Number One” is typically a product of its time: shamelessly moralistic religious propaganda was common in the 1950s. Although not too strong in terms of quality, there is little wrong with the series. Only when Father Peyton steps in to mutter his final thoughts does that religious domination become annoying. The tip of the day is therefore to turn off “Hill Number One” after about fifty minutes: just in time to still have a positive image.

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