Hail the Conquering Hero - 1944

Hail the Conquering Hero - 1944

Hail the Conquering Hero - Released Aug 9, 1944. Directed by Preston Sturges

Ace comedy writer and director Sturges brings in the Marine Corps (led by William Demerest) to get Eddie Bracken (as boot camp wash-out Woodrow Truesmith... he has an extreme form of hayfever) back home to his mother (Sturges even throws in a song titled "Home to Mother" early in the film). Truesmith is too embarrassed to return to his home town where his girlfriend Libby (Ella Rains) has been told to give up waiting and to instead marry the son of the local mayor (played by Raymond Walburn, who eats the screen alive every chance he gets).

The Marine Corps unit that befriends Truesmith (he buys them sandwiches and beer when they're flat broke and on leave, having lost nearly everything playing craps) comes up with the idea of just decorating Truesmith in an extra Marine uniform with medals and getting him into his hometown with the pretense that he's a veteran from Guadalcanal, just another American soldier that's been honorably discharged. It's a perfectly reasonable plan ("Like rolling off a log" says Wm Demerest as "Sarge"), but Truesmith wants nothing to do with the idea of impersonating real soldiers and the Marine unit, fixated on Truesmith's mother wanting her son back, won't take "no" for an answer and they practically kidnap him on their mission to bring about the reunion of the two Truesmiths. It's almost like a parody of the theme of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, only 60 years early.

Writer Sturges' gift for dialogue is so advanced we almost don't need any scenes to move the plot. Everything is explained, changed, and switched back again via people talking (or shouting, which happens a lot in this movie). Director Sturges keeps everything organized with the screen often filled with faces of minor characters and bits of physical slapstick from competing marching bands trying to outplay each other, to political rallies, and then family get-togethers, church meetings and even then the physical slapstick turns into springboards for more comedy dialogue, the script weaving each piece together about as seamlessly as anyone has ever done on film.

Sturges makes the most fun of the characters he loves best, and Eddie Bracken as Truesmith is put through a wringer trying to keep all the lies being told about him straight and simultaneously trying to keep his dignity (which doesn't work). Patriotism, mother, politics, fatherhood, old maids, marriage and of course the Marine Corps are all kicked in the shins a few times by Sturges' script, but he also can't help but ladle his affection all over them at the same time.

Though the film is a farcical frenzy like many of Sturges' films, there's also an underside which Sturges layers into the edges, for example the mother-obsessed Marine named Bugsy (Freddie Steele) who stands guard over Truesmith all night because "I don't really care about sleeping" and whose other odd behaviors are dismissed by Sarge with "he just got a little shot up, nothing to worry about." With this and some other minor elements, Sturges' makes his light-hearted home-front comedy a funny portrait of small town life, but at the edges of the frame is a dark and almost seeable presence of the planet in flames with a world war.

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Original Page August 2017

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