The effect of the second war was clearly quite considerable upon Preston Sturges with its shadow looming large over Sullivan’s Travels final act and the importance of finding happiness during such bleak times, and even more so in The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek as Eddie Bracken’s lead Norval Jones was enormously frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t go off and fight. With Hail The Conquering Hero Sturges goes even further though, it’s a farce still but nearly all of its lead characters are soldiers and how such figures were treated during the time is a major factor.
Eddie Bracken once again is the lead, and once again plays a character, Woodrow Truesmith, who saw no action in the war though at least on this occasion he made it in to the marines but when it was discovered that he suffered from hay fever he was given an honourable discharge. Deeply ashamed by this he refuses to return home to the small town he grew up in and the family he has there, until one evening a group of soldiers on leave led by Sergeant Heffelfinge (Sturges regular William Demarest) enter a bar flat broke and Woodrow buys them all a drink or two
Slightly conveniently it turns out that Heffelfinge knew and fought alongside Woodrow’s father in the first world war and soon a plan is concocted where Heffelfinge and his soldier pals contact Woodrow’s mother and say he’s coming home due to being injured in the war. Woodrow is strongly against the idea from the get go but is cajoled in to going along with it, and of course everything spirals out of control as the entire town are waiting at the train station to give him a hero’s welcome, and soon want him to run for mayor of the city, while his ex-girlfriend is engaged to another man but still clearly in love with Woodrow.
As with Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek Brabben spends the film a nervous wreck, certain that the truth is going to be discovered at any moment, and he becomes increasingly manic as the film goes on. Heffelfinge clearly thinks he has Woodrow’s best interests at heart but the increasingly dramatic stories of Woodrow’s supposed bravery slowly become more and more over the top and hard to believe, yet everyone initially does so, especially the Mayor (Raymond Walburn) who gives a good few pompous speeches that are funnier and funnier as they go on.
It’s packed with a great selection of very funny lines, Sturges was a master of the subtle insult and that’s on display again here in the way Heffelfinge comments to Woodrow “He was a fine looking fella, he didn’t look anything like you at all”. A song where the townsfolk declare their love for Woodrow is also great, and ex-girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) provides staunch support and has a good few lines of her own, especially when she has to deal with working with the mayor.
Unfortunately there’s a couple of moments which led to wincing, including the line “I kill nips with a wave of the hand” which is unpleasantly racist, and there’s a couple of other questionable moments too. It’s unusual to see such distasteful dialogue in the work of Sturges who was often congratulated for his treatment of other races, and inexcusable of course, but at the same time I hope it doesn’t put anyone off watching it as otherwise it’s a film that has a lot going for it.
The moralistic ending was always going to occur of course and Woodrow eventually comes clean, but the way this is handled is pleasingly non-melodramatic and the final scenes are feel good stuff indeed. All of the performances are extremely strong, Sturges may not be the flashiest director around but he’s very solid, and it’s a movie which is packed with a lot of extremely funny moments, a thoughtful message, and one which doesn’t outstay its welcome either.