Hail the Conquering Hero: Preston Sturges’ Vision of Small-Town America

Among other things, Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero shows that every society needs heroes desperately–even if they are fake.

Besides, no one is expected to substantiate the film protagonist’s 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 “I’ve 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.

Sturges’s town is not composed of an anonymous, faceless crowd. As a town, Oakridge is more individualized and richly characterized than Morgan’s Creek: It is a closely-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. The interest of such groups is always superior to the individual’s interest. For example, the Marines who bring Woodraw back to town are unified in an intimate camaraderie.

The warm welcome they receive, particularly by Woodraw’s mother, makes them want to belong. They adopt Woodraw, taking excellent care of him; Bugsy watches Woodraw while he is asleep. But the Marines are outsiders and, at the end, have to leave town so that order and some 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, set at the train station, the whole town waves goodbye to them.

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 screen 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 Life, Swing Shift). But in Hail the Conquering Hero, 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 about 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 of St. Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, Sturges’s style is hyperbolic and the pacing is rapid. His camera moves fast, people 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 then another…. The hectic speed of Miracle and Hail conveys 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 narrative paradigm of balance, followed by disruption-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 Frank Capra’s, stressing inherent tensions, contradictions, and ironies in such an existence. 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 they are just as important as the “deeper essences.”