Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges did something delightfully subversive in this film, choosing to make another movie that appears on the surface level to be about patriotism and supporting “our boys” in the war effort. What he did was make a satire upending military hero worship and some of the core ideologies of bourgeoise America. During my viewing, I sat there stunned at how much he was getting away with, convinced that the censors at the time were dumber than I thought. This is a criminally underrated, wholly American movie that most definitely could not be made with today’s sterile corporate Hollywood environment.
Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is a small-town guy who was discharged a month after becoming a Marine due to chronic hay fever. Instead of going home, he writes letters to his mom lying about his tour in the Pacific Theater while holding down a job at a shipyard. One night, Woodrow meets a sextet of Marines on leave and tells them his sad story. One of the soldiers calls his mom and spins a lie that Woodrow is home, wounded in battle. Woodrow is forced back home by this group of rowdy soldiers, and when he arrives, the entire town is buzzing with excitement. As the day goes on, it gets worse and worse, and the young man finds it harder to keep up the lie. Things get really bad when Woodrow is offered up as a candidate for town mayor due to his valor in battle.
Sturges’s main focus in the film is mocking America’s never-ending obsession with worshipping soldiers and the military. The homecoming scene is a beautifully directed piece of celebratory chaos as multiple bands have shown up and become the bane of the Reception Committee Chairman’s life. He’s played by the hilarious Franklin Pangborn, a character actor known for playing uptight, snob stock roles. This is Pangborn’s pinnacle performance, starting out calm with slightly frazzled nerves before he becomes overwhelmed by the demands of parade-goers and the bands. It’s the sort of manic comedic performance you would expect in Loony Tunes but presented in live-action.
The supporting cast is peppered with familiar Sturges’ faces like Jimmy Conlin, Al Bridge, Harry Hayden, and more. Sturges knows them all so well at this point that he casts them perfectly, and I suspect he wrote each part with the actors in mind. He understands their physicality as well and how to play comedically with visuals. The most prominent one in the cast is William Demarest playing Sgt. Heffelfinger, the ringleader of the Marines who befriend Woodrow. Heffelfinger is well-meaning but also manipulative, what draws him to Woodrow is the young man’s offer of drinks and food. When the homecoming is brought onto the table, Heffelfinger pushes for both out of admiration for Woodrow’s marine father and for the chance to have a place to bed down and plenty of grub.
Woodrow is ultimately a victim of his dead father’s memory, a war hero who died in battle during World War I. His mother has built a shrine to the fallen patriarch, the town has constructed a statue, and Woodrow holds pathological shame about being a washout. By having the hero of the picture being a phony, Sturges seems to be saying that uplifting any person for some tale of valor above other people is a foolish move. There’s a very telling scene in the third act where Woodrow wakes from a nightmare about being caught. One of the marines chimes in that he should know what it feels like to have nightmares every night, a nod to the severe PTSD soldiers from both World Wars were stricken with.
Sturges holds contempt for the norms of his culture. The way mothers are worshipped in the same way as military heroes, turned into this massive homogenous blob where the details and distinctions are blurred. His townspeople are another raucous rumbling force of nature, much like the residents of The Simpsons, their attention spans minuscule and spurred on by a shallow rousing speech. Sturges actually believed in the ideal of the individual that American often says it is all about. It becomes apparent when a person truly stands out from the crowd in the States, they are unwelcome, the culture holds substantial discomfort when it comes to change. Hail the Conquering Hero is a movie all about wanting people to fit into preconceived notions and how we rewrite history to make them fit.