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Dean Hess, who entered the ministry to atone for bombing a German orphanage, decides he's a failure at preaching. Rejoined to train pilots early in the Korean War, he finds Korean orphans raiding the airbase garbage. With a pretty Korean teacher, he sets up an orphanage for them and others. But he finds that to protect his charges, he has to kill. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Douglas Sirk's career at Universal throughout the fifties was a constant battle. It was a battle to make quality movies despite the often dire screenplays and less than talented casts he often had to put up with. Miraculously he most often was victorious despite the odds. "Battle Hymn" was one of his defeats. It remains his least likable film.
In his book "Sirk on Sirk" Michael Halliday sheds some light on this. Sirk had broken his leg badly and had to direct from a wheelchair which severely limited him. But the main reason for this somewhat heavy handed film was the presence of Dean Hess on the set and his overseeing each scene.
The film is a biography of Dean Hess himself. A man who turns to the church after the trauma of bombing a German orphanage and killing 37 children, Hess leaves his position of preacher in small town Ohio and volunteers for service in Korea. It's an odd choice for a man of his past, but "Killer Hess" as he was known, gets the opportunity to save Korean orphans in the process, putting to sleep his inner demons and putting things right in the world.
Sirk was very put off by Hess' presence on the set and more so by his input. He was clearly a man of much ambiguity, something that fascinated Sirk. Yet Sirk was unable to really express this in meaningful way on the screen. He wanted to give Hess a drinking problem as a way of expressing his pain, but Hess would hear nothing of it. He clearly wanted to be portrayed as a holier than though hero. The result is that the film has an awful self congratulatory feel about it.
Sirk was fascinated by characters who conceal within themselves a deep conflict. To him these were the most interesting of all. In all the movies Sirk made with Rock Hudson, he always cast him as the stabling influence and a foil to those unstable characters around him. Robert Stack in both "Written on the Wind" and "Tarnished Angels" is a perfect example of a split character playing against Hudson as the basically good, well grounded opposite. It's of course extremely ironic since in real life Rock Hudson was surely terribly conflicted by his concealed homosexuality while idolised by the masses as a model of masculine heterosexuality. Perhaps that is part of Sirk's affinity for him. Yet Sirk felt that Hudson's simplicity and basic goodness were suited to playing uncomplicated characters. "Battle Hymn" is the only film in which Sirk cast Hudson as a conflicted character. Had his character been better written there may have been a chance to pull it off. But as it stands, it's a competent and respectable performance, but something of a missed opportunity for Hudson.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves well. Anna Kashfi is particularly effective with her ethereal presence. James Edwards deserves a mention, since his role as a black fighter pilot was certainly ground breaking for its time.
There are however some really cringe inducing moments such as the aforementioned James Edwards breaking into "Swing Low" after an air raid and the final scene of the Korean orphans singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for Hess as he returns to Korea with his wife. These moments are meant to be uplifting, but seem now to be in somewhat poor taste.
The Korean children in the film were actually Korean orphans and they are a delight. Sirk had great affinity with young children who in turn gave memorable performances in his movies.
But when all is said and done, "Battle Hymn" is a film best forgotten, unlike his other war film, the remarkable "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" which he would soon make.
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