Saturday, March 5, 2011

#70 - Hail the Conquering Hero

BACK-STORY: “Hail the Conquering Hero” is a comedy war movie set in home front America in World War II. It was released in 1944 and is a black and white classic directed by Preston Sturges. It is considered by many to be his best movie. He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Fans of Sturges will recognize several familiar faces from his “stock company” including William Demarest who made ten movies with Sturges. The movie came out a year after another Sturges home front satire, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (which also starred Demarest and Bracken).

OPENING: In a bar, the depressed Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is drowning his sorrows. His father was a WWI hero who was killed at Belleau Wood and it had been Woodrow’s dream to follow in his father’s footsteps, but a case of hay fever got him discharged from the Marines and now he is too ashamed to return home. When a group of Marines cannot afford to buy any more beer, Woodrow pays for a round thus catching their interest. When Sergeant Heppelfinger (Demarest) learns of Woodrow’s plight and his love of the Corps ( he can recite all the battles the Marines have fought in), he and the others decide to escort Woodrow home.

SUMMARY: The reluctant Woodrow hops a train with the six Marines and when they arrive the guys insist that he don a Marine uniform replete with medals. Heppelfinger insists he will “just slip in”, but there are four brass bands (playing four different songs) and the whole town waiting to greet him at the station since one of the Marines had called ahead. The now very reluctant Woodrow is forced off the train by his buddies. A young boy asks him “How many Nips did you get?” Woodrow is in deep.

The six Marines are put up at Woodrow’s home where his mother is naturally very proud of her boy and is small town hospitable to the Marines. A typical example of Sturges’ sharp satirical dialogue comes when she serves pancakes and the Sarge suggests they would be better with butter. Mrs. T: “Maybe you haven’t heard Sergeant, but there’s a war on”. Woodrow discovers that his girlfriend Libby (who he had written to not wait for him) is engaged to the mayor’s son (who could not volunteer because of – hay fever).

At Mass, the sermon is about our hero and the town has been inspired to pay off his mother’s mortgage. The hole gets deeper. The opponents of the pompous Mayor Noble get a bright idea for a candidate that can oust him in the upcoming election. Can you guess who they decide to run? He’s a war hero and plus he is honest! His attempts to avoid the noose confirm his admirable modesty. The deal is sealed after the Sarge compounds the lie by telling a crowd how Woodrow saved his life in combat. (Why would he do this when he knew Woodrow was already in a deep hole that the Sarge had assured him he would not get in?)

Woodrow is heading for a landslide win. They are singing songs about him. Libby is having second thoughts about her engagement. The Mayor’s campaign manager decides to see what dirt he can dig up on Woodrow. He discovers the truth. To preempt the tarring and feathering moment in his immediate future, Woodrow comes clean at a campaign rally.

FINAL SCENE: After Woodrow’s confession and exit, the Sarge takes the podium. At the train station, Woodrow prepares to slink out of town. Libby wants to go with him. Suddenly a crowd comes marching forward (to lynch him?). It seems the Sarge convinced the town that love of mom equates to good mayorship. He insisted that Woodrow’s confession was the bravest thing he had ever witnessed. This is coming from a veteran of Guadalcanal. So Woodrow is destined to be the new mayor. In politics, if the populace wants you, they want you. They don’t need reasons. That’s small town politics. The six Marines leave town to the strains of the “Marine Corps Hymn”.


Action – N/A

Acting – 8

Accuracy – N/A

Realism – 6

Plot – 6

Overall – 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Since this is not really a war movie, it will probably appeal to women who do not like war movies.  It does star every woman's dream - Eddie Bracken!  Actually, a good reason to get your girl to watch this movie with you is hopefully you can compete with Eddie (Brad Pitt, he ain't). 

However, keep in mind it is a 1940’s satire which is not for everyone. Also, much of the humor is lost to anyone not familiar with the home front in WWII (which would be pretty much every woman less than 70 in America). Don’t forget satire requires intellect and old satire requires historical intellect. This is a warning to both men and women. That does not mean the movie is not entertaining for a modern clueless audience. It just means most will not get all the jokes. 

ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue with this movie. With that said, it does a fine job of portraying life in small town America during WWII. Keep in mind that it is a satire so it paints the town and its people in broad and humorous strokes.

The movie does reflect the concern in 1944 that the populace was becoming less patriotic and more lazy as the war effort was waning a bit. Although the government did not encourage Sturges to tackle this problem, it must have been pleased with the film.

CRITIQUE: “Hail the Conquering Hero” is an excellent example of 1940’s comedy and in particular the satirical style typified by Preston Sturges. This makes it more comfortable in a time capsule than a modern movie theater. Check out this exchange in the bar. Woodrow (complaining about a sentimental song being sung): “Why don’t they sing something gay?” Bartender: “Why don’t you acquire a gay viewpoint?” See what I mean. I like old comedies, but this one is not particularly funny. It has its great lines, but seldom is LOL funny.

The movie’s theme of how hero worship can get out of hand is well done and must have struck a chord in WWII America. It appears that Sturges was anticipating post-war America where heroes would be a dime a dozen. The movie also has some sharp things to say about small town politics. The mayor is basically a political boss, but there is still the democratic spirit that allows a hero to come from out of the blue and get elected. Sturges also taps into the American cynicism about the political process. At one point, the Sarge opines “Those ain’t lies, those are campaign promises – they expect them”. Even today, that line resonates.

Most importantly, the movie reflects small town America culture. This is important because American culture was based in small towns back then as opposed to modern America’s big city culture. The word quaint comes to mind in describing Woodrow’s home town. His mother is typical of mothers. He is in love with the girl next door. Everyone knows everyone. People say “jumping jehosofat!” and “holy mackerel!”. People are very patriotic.

Sturges directs with verve and there is snappy dialogue throughout. There are usually lots of people in a scene and overlapping dialogue. His stock company plays stock characters – the blowhard mayor, the cynical campaign manager, the stick in the mud fiancé, the saintly mom, etc. All are funny and comfortably within the box that was 1940s satire. The main actors – Bracken and Demarest – are outstanding. Bracken’s facial expressions are priceless. Raymond Walburn as the mayor is also quite good and some of his exchanges with his wife are hilarious. (Mrs. Noble: "Everett, I just have a feeling you're going to make an ass of yourself and I'm just going to pretend I don't know you." Mr. Noble: "I wish you didn't have to pretend!")

CONCLUSION: First, let me make it clear – this is not a war movie by any reasonable definition of what a war movie is. As my peer (All About War Movies) says, it is a movie set in a war. Of my top three war movie guides, only the most comprehensive (Brassey’s Guide to War Films) includes it. It is my opinion that it does not belong on the 100 Greatest list, much less at #70!

It’s a nice little movie with some good performances and some funny lines. It actually holds up pretty well for a black and white movie that is more than 60 years. However, two similar movies are much funnier and if you want to stretch the definition of war movie, then the Military History magazine panel could have embarrassed themselves less by choosing “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” or better yet, Jack Benny’s “To Have or Have Not”.

Next up:  #69 - Guadalcanal Diary


  1. Not for me this one, I'm sure but I like the idea that you sarcastically define what it takes to get a satire, stating this is a satire and then some lines later admit to not think it is funny... Hehe.
    This needs to be kicked out of the 100. You know my feelings,depending on how purist you want your list I would even kick out Casablanca, another "war time" movie.

  2. I agree on Casablanca. Great movie, but not a war movie. I do not see how anyone outside America would enjoy "Hail" and I also do not think many Americans below age 50 would like it. You might want to try those other two comedies I mentioned. I definitely think you might like "To Have or Have Not". In my opinion, it is the best WWII comedy. Are there any European WWII comedies you would argue for?

  3. Im a big Sturges fan. He had a great string of comedies starting with The Lady Eve in '41 followed by Sullivans Travels (my favorite and his best i think), Palm Beach Story, Hail and Miracle. After that not so good. Still easily one of the best American comedy directors.
    Your right, not his funniest movie. But like all the above movies well written. A few memorable lines and great acting all around. Bracken is wonderful here. I love when he sinks lower and lower in the pew in church. Demerest who was a Sturges regular probably has his best role ever here. Perfect for the sergeant.
    This was somewhat a gutsy movie for Sturges I think. He balances cynicism and comedy well and thats no doubt hard to do especially in 1944. Just two years later Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives. Much different movie. Shows how a service comedy was a staple of the war years, but once the war was over and the horror of it was "coming home" attitudes had of course changed alot.
    Perhaps belongs on the list, but not that high. I think its included simply because it captures the gung ho patriotic atmosphere of the homefront real well. Surprisingly it doesnt get sentimental until the last frames. Shows how good Sturges was.
    The scene that stuck with me after watching was this: when Bracken falls out of bed after a nightmare. The "momma loving" marine comes in to check on him. Bracken tells him it was just a nightmare. Like it was no big deal. The marine tells him he is lucky, some guys have them every night. Later Bracken finds the marine on "picket" in the hall. Still in the same matter of fact voice the marine tells him he never sleeps at night. Strong message there. Told well by Sturges in his style.
    Best WW2 comedy...hmmm. Thats tuff. Maybe Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Very daring for 1940.

  4. "Hail" is gutsy, but "Miracle" is ballsy. A 1940s movie about a single girl being impregnated by an unknown Marine and having the children out of wedlock. How did Sturges get that past the censors? Amazing.

    I like your analysis that during the war comedies were emphasized and after the war the fare was more dramatic. "Best Years" is #40 on the list.

    Good choice of memorable scene.

    I disagree on The Great Dictator - I think it is greatly overrated.

    A far as Sturges comedies go, I will stick with Miracle. The cast of Bracken, Hutton, Demarest, and , my favorite, Diana Lynn. It's the only one that I laughed out loud during. BTW three of Sturges' comedies are on the AFI Top 100 Comedies list - Sullivan's (39) Miracle (54) Palm Beach (77).

    I just realize I meant "To Be or Not To Be" - the Jack Benny comedy.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.