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Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero

As questions of morality, ethics and honor in our society become ever more ambiguous, it might be salutary to see an American comedy of the highest order dealing with these troubling issues, made while World War II was daily in a different way bringing them vividly to the fore. During 1944, the inimitable Preston Sturges wrote and directed one of his most enduring works with these themes: HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (available on DVD). It was the seventh picture in that most extraordinary run of eight consecutive movies over four years, all brilliantly conceived, written and directed by Sturges (here’s the Link to a piece I did on this very special picturemaker years ago).

Six Marines, survivors of the fierce battle for Guadalcanal, try to cheer up a very sad, hayfevered Marine reject (Eddie Bracken) by passing him off to his hometown as a genuine hero of Guadalcanal; they are so convincing that he wins his girl back, and the typically American small town wants Woodrow (that’s his name) for their mayor!  Of course, the real point of the tale lies in how Woodrow finally deals with the truth.

The performances are all top-notch, with a flawless comic rhythm that is uniquely Sturges, which is why he kept using the same stock company of actors——they knew his beat—like a conductor with his own orchestra.  This was especially important with Sturges, who created his scripts by improvising them out loud for his secretary to write down.  That would have been something to see!  His widow, Sandy, who served as his girl Friday for a while, told me he was one really hilarious performer.

Eddie Bracken, whom Sturges had already used earlier in the same year—-for the uproarious Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (see the review from my book, Movie of the Week)–gives a superbly real comic performance in which his pain and humiliation is both funny and palpably touching.  He receives wonderful support from Sturges’ ever-present character-men par excellence, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn and Franklin Pangborn.  As Woodrow’s girlfriend, the lovely Ella Raines, a Howard Hawks discovery of the year before (for Corvette K-225, which Hawks only produced), is notably un-cutesy and straight.  Former boxing champion Freddie Steele is especially memorable as a bass-voiced Marine, whose favorite human is his mother and who holds the very image of Mother as sacred. 

Although this is done partially for the comedy of a macho mama’s boy, the question still occurs: Where is the America of that sentiment?  Indeed, what has happened to the cloistered small town of the country’s heartland?  The innocent America, which Sturges’ half-European upbringing made him see from unconventional angles, is never sent up.  On the contrary, one of the most lasting impressions of Hail the Conquering Hero is how much it makes you miss that America, which now only exists in older movies of this quality.

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Mr. Wu

Every time I listen to early John Cougar Mellencamp I wonder the same thing about our vanished heartland. I suppose our innocence ended sometime between Dallas in '63 and our adventure in Vietnam. Innocence is a beautiful thing that never seems to last; such is its nature, I suppose.

Jesse L

This film is one of my favorites of writer/director Ed Biden (Sturges). A couple of things: he always came up with great character names like Woodrow Truesmith and his Marine father whom his buddies called "Hinky Dinky" Truesmith. I also love Raymond Walburn's vocal tic as Mayor. On almost every line of his he starts off with "I mean to say…" What a great thing for a politician to say. What do you mean to say, Mr. Mayor? Sturges was a genius. And you are correct, Peter, in pointing out the touching parts of the film as well as the comedy. Bracken and all the rest give great performances. I could go on and on. Thanks for bringing this one up, Peter.


Such a wonderful series of films. And a special joy to see with an audience, should you get the chance.
Mention should be made of the great contibution from cinematographer John Seitz, who also shot MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK on some of the same small town sets. There are amazingly fluid long takes in both films, and CREEK may the the only Hollywood comerical film ever shot without using a single over-the-shoulder/reverse shot. Yet, it looks completely natural.
(Steven Soderbergh says he's going to quit directing because he can't bear to set up another one of those dialogue reverse talking-head shots. Maybe he should have a look at what Sturges & Seitz pulled off. LOL)

Jesse L

Mak, glad you brought up the two amazing tracking shots in Morgan's Creek. They are simply astounding. I would have loved to have been there to see them set up and shot.

Dylan Bradford

The Sundance Film Festival's 6 head programmers have acknowledged that they do not in fact watch the over 10,000 film submissions, and that they hire "someone" else, ( 30 to 40) other people to screen them before they are passed along ( in their own words) so why don't they divulge the information as to the qualifications of these people? Why would any serious filmmaker feel comfortable about the fairness and spend 65.00 or 75.00 to simply let anyone look at their film? Would you "pay someone from craigslist" for instance and say, I will give you money to let you look at my film and tell me what you think.
This is about as ludicrous as stupidity can get, but Sundance operates as do other film festivals off of desperation, and John Cooper doesn't care about watching these films, he is out and about traveling the globe looking at films from other festivals, he does NOT watch the films.
Sundance films are not independent, its who you know, not what you know or what you have made, they could care less and there is proof of that being made into a film that reveals the corporate corruption including interviews with those who worked at Sundance and behind the scenes. The movie is called "Scam Fest" and this film will open filmmakers eyes to what really happens to their films, and money. John Cooper, Shari Frilot, Jill Miller, Keri Putnam and all the rest of them are sold out and corrupt people, they have no talent, never made a film, have no qualifications other then to sit in a chair and push around paper and distribute money, and all the while Robert Redford does nothing, he simply states his usual rhetoric, "We support filmmakers" he is like a wind up doll.
Well known film reps bring in 4 to 10 films and have private screenings and pay nothing, while your film sits in a box waiting to be watched by some college nit wits busy on their text phones forwarding through submissions, that wouldn't have the time, patience or intelligence to know what a really great film is, and know what? Who gets duped in the end? You the people, the arts, movie goers, and so we have the same old cliches only boxed up "independently" and the real gems go to the garbage. The only people that have the nerve, and the integrity to stand up to Cooper and all his cohorts in their money making scams is the Yeager's whose film Jesus of Malibu was never given the chance, the film trailer, e-mails, and info all reveal specifically how corrupt Sundance is and has been for over 25 years. It is only a matter of time when the states attorney shuts them down from ripping the general public off of millions of dollars each year, millions do the math, and has every filmmaker agree to their terms which is a contractual agreement, if this were any other institution, these people would be behind bars in prison, but the same old show goes on and on, smoke and mirrors, and the on-line publications encourage it, and they don't write about it either, Filmmaker Magazine, Film Threat, Indie Wire, all of them don't want you to know either because they are all making money in this, if not why don't they tell you some really important information like Sundance is corrupt? Why don't they get down to the question and interview; "Dear programmers tell us, who watch's the 10,000 films and can we speak with these "people" please? That won't happen, and so in the meantime I not only tip my hat to the dear filmmakers William and Anais Yeager who have in my mind made the greatest film the world my ever have had a chance to see, but has brought all this to our attention, and it is quite obvious when you look at the film trailers for Jesus of Malibu, that this could be the most creative and solely true independent film ever made, way ahead of it's time, and when you consider that Sundance had no interest in simply answering the Yeager's e-mail or phone call regarding their film trilogy, it is obvious that it is about who you know, and Kevin Smith will always get in line before you or I ever do.
Lets call this what it is for once and for all, its a big party, its about money, not about art, and it is about ripping people off, real indy filmmakers who keep submitting for years and years what a sad thing this has become, and shame to all those who don't tell you about it, shame on them and you filmmakers who keep feeding this "beast".

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