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Having been discharged from the Marines for a hayfever condition before ever seeing action, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) delays the return to his hometown, feeling that he is a failure. While in a moment of melancholy, he meets up with a group of Marines who befriend him and encourage him to return home to his mother by fabricating a story that he was wounded in battle with honorable discharge. They make him wear a uniform complete with medals and is pushed by his new friends into accepting a Hero's welcome when he gets home where he is to be immortalized by a statue that he doesn't want, has songs written about his heroic battle stories, and ends up unwillingly running for mayor. Despite his best efforts to explain the truth, no one will listen.Written by
J. Adam Ingle
In a wonderful series of films between 1940 and 1948 Preston Sturgis rewrote the idea of film satire in Hollywood, taking apart political and business sacred cows, and showing a remarkably realistic view of sex in America despite the continued use of the so-called Hays Office and the moral code.
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is one of the best of these films. It deals with the issue of heroism and it's political value in wartime. Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is a 4-F who has been working in California in a plant because he could not get drafted. But his family and neighbors expect him to be in the army. His father was a war hero in World War I (he was named Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith after President Woodrow Wilson, General John Pershing, and the Marquis of Lafayette - supposedly Pershing's staff Major, Charles Stanton, made the statement "Lafayette we are here" when our troops arrived to help the French in 1918 - so that Woodrow was born about 1918). Bracken has lied in letters to his mother that he is a marine and a hero. He tells this to a small group of Marines, led by William Demerest (and including one named Bugsie, played by former boxer Freddie Steele) who decide to accompany him back to his home on their furlough. They go with him, and back up his lies, so that Bracken finds himself the town's leading hero - and a potential piece of political timber.
The town is run by two men, Al Briggs (the quiet but intelligent town boss) and Raymond Walburn, the richest man in town who is the mayor as well: Everett Noble. Walburn is always blustering, but he basically knows what's what. However it is Briggs who asks the right questions. When the reform party nominates Woodrow for Mayor, Briggs asks, "I wonder if he really is a hero?" And he starts making inquiries.
They have an unwitting ally: Woodrow himself. He finds the expansion of his lies too much pressure on him, and he questions it's value. But he can't buck his mother, his girlfriend (Ella Raines), nor Demerest, Steele, and the other Marines. They've learned that Woodrow is the only hope for the town's future because it's currently somewhat shoddy and corrupt in it's goals and actions. They can't let Woodrow confess.
What makes a hero? In HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, set in the middle of WORLD WAR II, it turns out that heroism is not only found on a military front or battlefield, but can be found on the home front as well. It can take many forms, and sometimes it is at great personal humiliation and hurt. Bracken never had a better role (except for his other starring role for Sturgis in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK), and demonstrate the growth of his moral stature quite well. Demerest, Walburn, Raines, Briggs all do well (Demerest in an oddly different role - he's a soldier, not a wise guy), and Freddy Steele's "Bugsie" is a wonderful portrait of a slightly mentally ill soldier with a mother fixation. Steele had a a career in movies in the 1940s, mostly in bit roles. This was his best performance.
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