Hail the Conquering Hero 1944 ★★★★½
joshmatthews’s review published on Letterboxd:
This wartime Preston Struges comedy, which outright names some of the most brutal battle of the WW2 theater, including Bataan and Guadalcanal, seems to mock fog-of-war political machinations as much as it encourages viewers to support the war.
Consider the plot: a lone soldier (Eddie Bracken) has been discharged from the military because of severe hayfever, but he avoids going back to his hometown to avoid disgrace. Six marines meet him in a bar one night, and as they get to talking, the marines concoct a phony story of heroism about this soldier, informing his mother, who informs the town, that he’s a war hero. By convenience, it happens that this soldier’s father died as a WWI hero on the same day he was born.
The soldier returns to his American hometown to glorious fanfare. He thinks he can end the charade, only he can’t. Before he knows it, he’s being nominated for local mayor, and his former sweetheart is having second thoughts about marrying her fiancee, who missed the war because of the same hay fever problem.
The heart of the movie, then, is that the military makes up phony stories to propagandize the population to support war. There’s a line from someone at some point about not being able to swing a cat without hitting a war hero or two. The movie reeks of discussion of psyops while couching it in comedic nonsense.
I won’t give away the ending, although the resolution had to suit the censors, and yet what’s ultimately being considered is whether we should elect American politicians who aren’t war heros and who for whatever reasons missed the most important combat opportunity of their lives. On reflection, I hadn’t realized that the movie aims to mess with us. This wartime duty stuff seems to come up every election, with politicians using their military duty to promote themselves, or they use it to attempt to smear their opposition — e.g., “why didn’t Candidate X serve during Vietnam? He got a deferral for what?”
The inextricability of the military from US politics continues, with current President kowtowing to generals and his opponents attempting to smear him for supposedly insulting soldiers while never enlisting during Vietnam himself. Not long after Sturges’ movie, Eisenhower was elected President.
There’s more. I’m trying to say that this movie is wiser than the average screwball, wartime nonsense produced by Hollywood, and Sturges’ nose for sniffing out universal political principles and peppering their aromas throughout his work, has gone underappreciated.
Because of all this, I’ll be watching this movie multiple times.