Hail the Conquering Hero

Like other Hollywood directors, Preston Sturges also made movies about small towns during the World War II.

However, compared with most war films set in small towns (Tortilla Flat, 1942; The Human Comedy, 1943; The Fighting Sullivans, 1944; A Medal for Benny, 1945), in their theme, wit, and style, Sturges’s films seem to have been created in another country and another era.

In similar vein to Orson Welles and Hitchcock, both intrigued with exposing the darker and invisible facets of small-towns, Sturges confronted his subject matter in an original mode, turning upside down the established conventions of Hollywood’s portraiture of small-town life. The eccentricity of Sturges’s characters was meant to demonstrate the more multifarious and resourceful nature of small-town folks who only appear” to be plain and ordinary.

Sturges’s comedies, beginning with “Sullivan’s Travel” (1941), reflected the influence of film noir on every genre at the time, including screwball comedies. Along with Billy Wilder, whose directorial career began at the same time, Sturges embodies in his films a cynical view, exposing the downbeat side of “normal” American life. As Allan Silver has observed, Sturges incorporated into his comedies “noirish sentiments of meaninglessness and abject existentialism.”

Flaunting a caustic and crackling dialogue, his comedies portray not winners, but losers, individuals who resort to absurd strategies to survive the day. Sturges’s protagonists refuse to accept “the hand of fate” as a controlling force of their lives, attempting to overcome insurmountable obstacles; that they seldom succeed is beside the point. Moreover, unlike typical noir heroes, his are not weary or beaten by life, always hoping that life would turn out better for them. Sturges’s brilliant style combines sparkling narrative situations with witty dialogue, mixing farce and slapstick with a subtle and sophisticated brand of American comedy.

In Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (both in 1944), Sturges expresses ambivalent emotions toward basic American values and institutions. Hail centers around an army reject who is accidentally thought to be a war hero, whereas Miracle is a satirical folktale, spoofing just about every sacred mores, including motherhood.

A comparison between Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero is in order, not only because they were made in the same year and shot on the same Paramount backlot, but also because they feature Sturges’s great ensemble of character players.

The hero in both films is played by Eddie Bracken, though his role is quite different. In Miracle, Bracken is an orphan living at the periphery of town, but ending at its center by accident, through manipulations of others. In Hail, Woodraw is also fatherless, but he boasts a prestigious lineage. Woodraw was reared in the shadow of his father, Hinky Dinky, a brave Marine who died in action in WWI, and his Congressional Medal of Honor. “I grew up with it,” says the exasperated Woodraw, “They hung it on me.” His grandfather, also in the military, continued to wear his Civil War uniform for the rest of his life.

In Hail, Woodraw is not completely innocent; after all, he initiates the fraud. He is responsible at least in part for the mess in his life. But if Woodraw is initially a small impostor, his fraud gets bigger and bigger, reaching a point where it becomes disproportionate to the original conceit.

The reverend Dr. Upperman states at Church that the mortgage on Woodraw’s mother’s home will be paid by the town. The incumbent mayor (ironically named Everett Noble) and the boss are both corrupt. The judge wishes Woodraw would run for mayor: the town needs someone who’ll help them “transcend their own lives and interests.” He thinks that Woodraw possesses two great assets, honesty and popularity, and that he has a “natural flavor for politics.” Honesty is not sufficient in itself. The other candidate, Doc Bissell, a veterinarian, is an honest man, but nobody would vote for him other than his brother; there are even doubts whether his wife would.

Woodraw tries to explain that his medals were pinned on him by mistake, but no one will listen. Hail the Conquering Hero shows society’s desperate need for heroes, even if they are fake, and that heroes are not expected to substantiate their claim to celebrity. “I been a hero, you could call it that, for twenty five years,” says Sergeant Heffelinger, “and does anybody ask me what I done” If they asked him, he could hardly tell, as he has told it “so different so many times.”

The statue of General Zabriski, which decorates the town’s square, also suffers from obscurity. “All everybody knows is he’s hero,” but no one could identify him or say why he became a hero. The only difference between Zabriski and Heffelinger is that the birds sit on the former’s statue.

The most outrageous character in Hail is Bugsy (Freddie Steele), the marine who “got a little shot.” Obsessed with mothers, he is shocked to hear that Woodraw has not visited home. “That’s a terrible thing to do to your mother,” he says, “you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Obsession with motherhood prevails from the very first scene, in a San Francisco bar, where a singer sings: “Home to the arms of Mother. Safe from the world’s alarms. As you stood in the gloaming. To welcome me home. Home to the arms of Mother. Never again to roam!”

Touching (too) familiar chords, Woodraw asks for another song, “something gay.” Woodraw is mother-fixated, his behavior motivated by a strong need to please his mom. “I know you meant it for me, no matter what anyone else might think,” says his mother.

And at the end, when Woodraw resolves to leave town, he tells his mother: “If I can find a nice place, I’ll send for you.” Back in town, Woodraw has no time for himself and no privacy. Sturges pits Woodraw, the hapless individual, against the Marines, the bands, the Judge’s delegation, and the town’s crowd.

Sturges’s visual framing is extremely busy, always cramped with many people. Lacking depth or background, they convey the frantic world his narratives are set in. Yet, as James Harvey noted, “no one in a Sturges’s crowd fails to register his special and unique relation to it and to the others.”

It’s not an anonymous, faceless crowd. As a town, Oakridge is more individualized and richly characterized than Morgan’s Creek: It is a close-knit community, with a strong “we” feeling. With all their eccentricities and peculiarities, the characters in Sturges’s film are integrated within larger contexts, as members of social groups, and the interest of such groups is always superior to the individual’s.

For example, the Marines who bring Woodraw back to town are unified in an intimate camaraderie. The warm welcome they receive, particularly from Woodraw’s mother, makes them want to stay in town. They adopt Woodraw, taking care of him; Bugsy, for example, watches Woodraw while he’s asleep. But the Marines are outsiders and, at the end, they have to leave town so that order and equilibrium could be restored. Creating chaos and precipitating a chain of events they themselves could not have foreseen, their departure is necessary. At the last scene, again set at the train station, the whole town waves goodbye to the Marines.

Woodraw is also an outsider, but temporarily so. The town is willing to do anything to embrace him–not only to make him an insider but also to crown him as its leader. When Woodraw tells his former sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) that he is a phony, she exclaims in disbelief, “You! A phony”

Sturges reverses another convention: In most war films, it’s the girlfriend or wife who are unfaithful, dating others while their men are fighting (Medal for Benny, Best Years of Our Lives). However, in Hail, Woodraw decides to release Libby from commitment to their relationship.

Another strategy Woodraw considers is to start an honest life somewhere else. Standing on a platform at the political rally, Woodraw finally confesses his deception, taking the whole blame on himself. “I stole your admiration,” he says, “I stole the ribbons I wore, I stole the nomination.” Relieved of the burden he has carried, Woodraw feels like a “coward, at last cured of his fear.” But Woodraw’s revelation demonstrates that he is honest, making him a real hero. He is nominated again, this time for his true self. Woodraw thus becomes a local hero in spite of himself.

In both Miracle and Hail, Sturges’s style is hyperbolic and the pace rapid. His camera moves fast, recording people who are always on the move; there are many pratfalls. An example of Sturges’s touch is the hospital sequence in Miracle, with the nurse running in panic in and out of Trudy’s room, bringing a blanket for the first baby, then another blanket, and another….

The hectic speed of Miracle and Hail reflects the notion of life in constant motion, of dynamic reality, even in small towns. In Hail, and to a lesser extent in Miracle, Sturges uses the basic paradigm of balance, followed by disruption and imbalance, and then back to balance. However, Sturges’ small towns never seem to be in total balance or complete equilibrium.

Sturges’s vision of small town life is richer and more complex than Capra’s, stressing inherent tensions, contradictions, and ironies. In Capra’s message-oriented films, appearances are deceiving and one has to dig deeper to reveal the genuine human essences buried underneath (most women in Capra’s films begin as deceivers, but later reveal themselves to be honest). By contrast, in Sturges’s work, appearances have their own reality and logic, and as such, are just as important as the other, presumably “deeper essences.”

Oscar Alert

Hail the Conquering Hero was nominated for Original Screenplay. The winner, however, was Lamar Trotti for the biopic Wilson.