Hail The Conquering Hero

Hail The Conquering Hero

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrea Mullaney

Near the start of this film, Eddie Bracken's idealistic, patriotic Woodrow Truesmith, heartbroken because his chronic hay fever has kept him out of the Marines, recites a list of great victories they were involved in. It's with an abrupt shock that you hear him include Guantanamo Bay. Yes, this is truly the kind of movie they can't make anymore, for more than just the usual reasons.

A real classic (though not Preston Sturges's best film, which would be the perfect Sullivan's Travels), Hail The Conquering Hero manages to sustain its charm despite being drenched in the kind of patriotic, gung-ho sentiment that we find uncomfortable nowadays. Of course, it helps that the six burly Marines whom Woodrow hooks up with, who decide to help him with his problems whether he wants it or not, are on leave from fighting a cleaner, more justifiable war. But it's also that Sturges is not making the kind of bland, my country right or wrong and don't ask any questions kind of flag waver that you might see now as a Bruce Willis vehicle.

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Woodrow, his new friends find out, has been unable to admit to the folks back in his little town that he has not been fighting the Japanese overseas but has been working in a shipyard in the city. The rather nutty Bugsy (a funny performance by Freddie Steele, played dead straight) decides this is a terrible neglect of his dear old mother and so the non-Marine is quickly outfitted in a borrowed uniform and medals, and frogmarched off home as a returning "hero". With gruff Sergeant Heppelfinger in charge (the ever-reliable William Demarest, as tough as concrete), things spiral out of hand and soon the freaked out Woodrow is the most popular man in town, being forced to run for mayor.

It's in the satirical portrayal of small-town life that Sturges's democratic principles come out. "There's something wrong in this town," says the decent but uncharismatic local politician who thinks that Woodrow can put it right where he has failed. People are selfish and the corrupt, self-serving current mayor (who incidentally happens to be the prospective father-in-law of Woodrow's confused ex-girlfriend) is at the head of the "me first" movement. Though Woodrow's reputation is based on a lie, he gives the town a focus for restoring a sense of justice and duty. Even though it's wartime, Sturges seems to be saying, there's no reason to abandon the principles that lie behind the American Dream - in fact, if anything, they are more important. That's an utterly contemporary lesson that those behind the more recent notoriety of Guantanamo Bay should listen to.

Which makes it all sound very serious. Actually, the film is a hoot, with very funny, broad comic characters and some great farcical set pieces, like the hopelessly complicated welcome party at the station, with five bands playing different tunes at once while the harassed organiser - the rubber-faced Franklin Pangborn - panics.

As well as lovers of classic film, Hail The Conquering Hero should also appeal to those who generally find old movies a bit slow, as it's very fast paced and both the dialogue and the acting are of great precision.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2005
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Hail The Conquering Hero packshot
Marines conspire to turn a man discharged from marines due to hay fever into a hero.
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