Phony Soldier

Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero was released in August 1944, nearing the end of the third year of the US involvement in World War II. The Allies had landed at Normandy a couple of months earlier and were fighting their way through France. The war in the Pacific was still in its grueling island-hopping phase. The six-month Guadalcanal Campaign had begun exactly two years earlier with the first amphibious attack of the war.

The story of Hail the Conquering Hero is built around but not on the Marines fighting for Guadalcanal. Sitting in a bar one night, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), born the day his father was killed in battle in World War I and the descendent of a long line of military men, pays the tab for six broke Marines. They discover that Woodrow had joined the Marines a year earlier but was drummed out of basic training for chronic hayfever. Ashamed to admit his failure to his mother, he’s dug himself into a hole by pretending that he was shipped off to Guadalcanal, he’s broken off his relationship with his girlfriend, and he’s been working in a shipyard as a clerk.

Bugsy (Freddie Steele), an orphan who thinks Woodrow is doing his mother an injustice by letting her think he’s in danger calls her and tells her Woodrow’s back from the war. The Marines — led by Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest) conspire to help Woodrow get back home without breaking cover by giving him one of the sergeant’s WWI medals. It being a comedy, things snowball. The town sets up to give the “hero” a giant welcome. Woodrow is unhappy with the plan from the beginning and tries a number of times to tell people it’s a sham. His ex-girlfriend is about to get married to the sleazy mayor’s son but still loves Woodrow. The townspeople buy up and burn the mortgage that the hero’s mother took out to get through hard times. They plan to erect a statue of Woodrow and his father shaking hands.

And to top it off, the long-time opposition to the mayor decides that a newly-minted war hero would be just the thing for their ticket to finally beat the mayor.

Of course, everything is set straight in the end. It’s a comedy. And the townspeople not only forgive Woodrow for his attempt to spare his mother’s feelings, they admire him for his honesty when he comes clean and the manner in which he does it.

At the time Hail the Conquering Hero came out, the campaign for the Mariana Islands was under way. Marines had landed on Saipan in June and captured it a month later. Fighting on Guam and Tinian was still going on (a year later, B-29s would take off from Tinian to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Almost 4,000 Marines died in the Mariana campaign.

But that didn’t stop this kind of movie from being made and actually being popular. A film about a guy who tells everyone that he’s off at war, who gets sucked into a narrative about being a hero, and who is redeemed by coming clean about his failings.

I just have a hard time imagining anyone doing the same kind of story now.

Happy Birthday, Dad.