Battle Hymn (1957): Douglas Sirk’s Korea War Drama, Starring Favorite Actor Rock Hudson

Very loosely based on the true story of Dean ‘Killer’ Hess, a pilot-turned-preacher, this sentimental war melodrama is directed by Douglas Sirk, starring his favorite actor of the 1950s, Rock Hudson, as a WWII pilot who accidentally bombs a German orphanage.  Guilt-ridden, he atones by helping Korean orphans during the Korean War escape the Communists attacks.

The movie begins with an introduction of a military officer, before switching to the summer of 1950, one month after the invasion of Korea.  Hudson is first seen in the small town of West Hampton, Ohio, preaching to his public, but he’s dissatisfied with his life, telling his wife “Martha Hyer) that “I’m not cut out to be a minister.”  A flashback depicts his military experience and his big mistake, the bombing of an orphanage.

Meanwhile, his wife gets pregnant but wants to keep it a secret from Hess.   They communicate via telephone and mostly through love letters, which are read aloud onscreen.  “In reaching beyond myself, I found myself,” Hess writes to his wife, indicating that he had redeemed himself and found peace of mind.

The choral religious music in the background makes the tale seem bombastic and schmaltzy at the same time.  The movie contains some exciting aerial action scenes, during which Hess flies missions and trains pilots, hoping for redemption.  But “Battle Hymn,” is uncharacteristic of Sirk’s more polished and ironic melodramas of the 1950s.

Lt. Col. Hess, the film’s technical advisor didn’t succeed in making the film more authentic, but he voiced his opposition to Universal’s first choice to play him, Robert Mitchum.

The movie was shot in Nogales, Arizona, and  the director of the Orphans Home of Korea brought 25 orphans to reprise their real lives on film.

Popular at the box-office, Battle Hymn earned $3.9 million, reaffirming Rock Hudson’s star position in the late 195os and 1960s.

Release date: February 14, 1957.

Running time: 108 minutes


End Note:

For Douglas Sirk-Rock Hudson collaborations, which are better and more enjoyable, please read our reviews of “Magnificent Obsession,” “All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind,” and “The Tarnished Angels.”