Hail the Conquering Hero Movie Review

There's not a great deal of subtlety to Preston Sturges' genial 1944 comedy Hail the Conquering Hero, but when one is dealing with a political satire about a soldier returning home during wartime -- in a film shot and released during a world war when the movie business was heavily pressured toward the patriotic -- one should just be happy that such a non-formulaic film was made at all.

The guileless Eddie Bracken plays a returning soldier with the overbearingly heroic name of Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the legacy of a Marine father who died during World War I. The film's opening finds Truesmith drowning his sorrows in a gin joint, not looking forward to going home and letting his mother (who keeps a veritable shrine to her dead heroic husband) find out that contrary to all his invented stories of valor, he never served at all, and in fact was discharged from the army due to a hilariously bad case of hay fever. He hooks up with a passel of Marines (Guadalcanal vets), who, in the true nature of this period's films, all seem to hail from the same Brooklyn neighborhood. Having already lost all their money at the start of a multi-day furlough, and seeing in fellow Marine Truesmith a good-hearted sucker with a deep and guilty wallet, they all pile onto the train home with him, all the better to give the kid a proper homecoming.

The homecoming awaiting Truesmith is a classic piece of mistaken identity, with his entire town under the belief that he was actually a war hero. Streets throng with adoring, flag-waving crowds who are all too eager to anoint Truesmith the greatest American warrior this side of Sargeant York. A statue is planned, and in short order there is a vigorous campaign to get the bemused and sneezy Truesmith elected mayor of the overly excited crowd. He even starts winning over his ex, Libby (played with sly intelligence by Ella Raines), now engaged to a tall and handsome bore. Meanwhile, the Marines in Truesmith's retinue -- led by the reliably salty William Demarest, arguably the most welcome returning member of Sturges' company of players -- act as a sort of Praetorian Guard for the milquetoast non-hero, who eventually comes to grips with his newfound, if mistakenly bestowed, fame and respect.

It's all rather joshing in tone, before turning maudlin, with Sturges attempting to wring rather too much comedy out of a premise that can't really hold it, especially in a wartime film that can only flirt with satire of mass political and military fevers. There's barely a hint of the weary cynic who so devastatingly skewered the perpetual motion machine of urban political machines four years earlier in The Great McGinty, and not all that much evidence of the comedic stylist of The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story.

But still, half a Sturges is better than no Sturges at all, and there remains a small bit of perfection in the film's opening bar scene when the broke Marines try to buy a round of drinks by bartering a supposed war souvenir. The exasperated waiter whips out a Japanese flag, followed by a veritable truckload of other fake memorabilia which other grunts had used for beer money ("Here we have the seat of Rommel's pants. And last, but not least, we have a button from Hitler's coat ... although that one I don't personally believe") -- a helpful reminder that even during "The Good War," the conquering heroes occasionally had to scam a few drinks here and there.

Conquer that martini, soldier.


Hail the Conquering Hero Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 1944


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