#36 — Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Surges, 1944)
It was Sandy Sturges, the wife of Preston Sturges, who offered the ideal summation of the writer-director’s approach to tugging his own brand of creativity through the many graters of oversight required during his time in Hollywood. She offered, “What Preston said he did was: ‘Obey strictly the letter of the law…and totally ignore the spirit.'” Sturges had plenty of overseers whose strictures he chose to evade. Not only was he confined by the so-called Hays Code and the constantly voiced dismay of his studio bosses (after leaving Paramount Pictures, Sturges maintained, “no one there ever understood a word I said”), but during the years of World War II his pronounced social cynicism had to somehow pass muster before the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information. How that last ruling body was ever persuaded to acquiesce on the content of Hail the Conquering Hero is one of those cinematic mysteries that’s too enjoyable to ever solve.
Hail the Conquering Hero stars Eddie Bracken, Sturges’s newfound comedic ringer who’d starred in the filmmaker’s major hit The Miracle of Miracle Creek. Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, a small town fellow who tries to live up to him family lineage (his father died in heroic fashion in World War I) by enlisting in the Marines. Woodrow doesn’t last long, receiving a discharge after only a month due to his chronic hay fever, about as pathetic a reason as Sturges could possible conjure up. Unwilling to admit the humiliation to his dear old mother, Woodrow sends her letters supposedly from the battlefield while actually working stateside. His ruse escalates when he encounters some actual Marines in a bar. Sympathetic to his tale, they lend him a uniform adorned with medals and pump up the falsehoods with additional details of extreme valor. By the time Woodrow is back in his hometown, the legend has reached such levels that he’s greeted with parades and immediately drafted to run for political office.
Right in the heart of the noble wartime effort, Sturges takes aim at every block of rah-rah coal used to keep the engine of useful patriotism roaring. Woodrow is no con man — he’s a beleaguered innocent swept along by his cowardly lie — but that doesn’t make those who gaze at him with stirred hearts and inspired minds any less worthy of being described as suckers. Sturges exposes how cavalierly greatness is bestowed upon individuals, reserves of inner strength and personal fortitude ascribed as inherent truths on the basis of the skimpiest evidence. Simple human endurance or even blind luck could be transformed into acts of astonishing valor by a society eager to project value on a long, brutal war effort. Sturges takes his own bayonet to that particular house of cards, sending it tumbling downward with brilliant, bleak comedy.