This article originally appeared in CTEQ: Annotations on Film, no. 1 (1998), published in Metro, no. 113/114 (1998), p. 131. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

At the same time that Orson Welles applied his seemingly endless virtuosity to refashion the Hollywood drama (Citizen Kane [1941], The Magnificent Ambersons [1942]), Preston Sturges was doing the same at Paramount in a series of written-produced-directed films from The Great McGinty (1940) to Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Very little is written of Hail the Conquering Hero1, dwarfed as it is in this regard by commentary on the screwball/romantic comedy aspects of The Lady Eve (1941) and Sullivan’s Travels (1942). But one may make significant claims for it: it is certainly as good as any Sturges, which means it is among the best comedy produced in America, and it is probably more seamless, assured and complete in its daffiness than any of them. It is certainly, with Citizen Kane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), one of the exemplary examinations of the relation of heroism and lies, a complex orchestration of successful, overlapping and ongoing falsehoods, deceits and evasions, all of which – of course! – have serious consequences.

It is a traditional to remark upon the film’s audacity in lampooning the phenomenon of the (false) military hero at the height of World War II’s public relations war drive, but the film is hardly unique in this (its script was submitted for and received approval through the usual wartime channels); Marion Hargrove’s humorous book about Army boot camp, See Here, Private Hargrove, was a wartime bestseller, quickly turned into a successful movie (1944); Humphrey Bogart with the help of Peter Lorre, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers as comic gangsters stymied Nazi Fifth-Columnists in All Through the Night (Vincent Sherman, 1942); gambler Cary Grant dodged the draft in Mr. Lucky (H. C. Potter, 1943); and, most famously, Ernst Lubitsch sent up Hitler in To Be or Not to Be (1942). Sturges himself had already had a nibble at the topic in his earlier The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (completed in 1942 but not released until early 1944), which turns on Trudy Kockenlocker’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a result of a bibulous night with the boys from the local Army camp the night before they shipped out for overseas; she can’t really remember the guy, but thinks he had a name like “Ratzki-Watzki”. An inveterate public observer of what he called “the cockeyed caravan” – American life as it unrolled – Sturges could hardly be expected to overlook as huge a social event as World War II.

A good deal of writing about this – and all the other – Sturges films takes the form of understandably enthusiastic descriptions, attempts to sketch or recreate the experience of the film. Since this has already been done, I am spared the obligation. It is, in any case, very difficult indeed to lay a glove on a Sturges film. They must be seen and heard to be believed. It is current to discuss some films as “rides” in the sense of rollercoasters or theme park attractions; in this 1944 film, as in all his Paramount films, Sturges constructed a kinetic energy apparatus – which we experience as a ride – for the purpose of pleasurably hornswoggling viewers. He is able to do this because, with Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, he was equally at home with screenplay writing and with direction, that is, with construction and with mise-en-scène. Sturges is a master of pace whose favourite mode is pandemonium, and the bigger the throng the better. He achieves the heights of hectic not merely by going fast and faster, but through a gift of simultaneity, having an amazing number of things happening all at once. See, for instance (and hear: what an amazing sound mix for 1944), the arrival of Woodrow Truesmith (our hero) and the Marines at the small town train station.

Hail the Conquering Hero is an epic summary of so many strains and registers of the American language at mid-century, a deep comic involvement which stretches from Mark Twain through the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields to such precisely and deftly tuned modern ears as Amy Heckerling, Elmore Leonard, Robin Williams and Kevin Smith. Sturges orchestrates this vast panoply through his instruments: his swiftly, perfectly established comic types, played by a surfeit of character actors. Here strut Sturges’ sharpers, fixers, slickers, tinhorns, thimbleriggers, four-flushers and pettifoggers; mugwumps, ribbon clerks, rubes, boobs and hicks; buncombe artists, humbugs and windbags; flibbertigibbets, wheedlers, blatherskites, blanket heads, bumblers, hacks, fussbudgets, true believers and truly perfect moms. And they all swim together – a feeding frenzy of character actor sharks, ready to devour any hapless civilian actor wandering in from some more ordinary province of Paramount – sustained by Sturges’ other enabling simultaneity: his ability at once to celebrate and deplore, to understand and to satirise, and in a Will Rogers-Jean Renoir way, to always love them all for their reasons.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944 USA 101 mins)

Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod, Dir, Scr: Preston Sturges Phot: John F. Seitz Ed: Stuart Gilmore Art Dir: Haldane Douglas, Hans Dreier Mus: Werner Heymann

Cast: Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Elizabeth Patterson


  1. This is not to slight some very good writing. Elliot Rubenstein’s “The Home Fires Aspects of Sturges’s Wartime Comedy”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 7, no. 2 (Spring 1982), pp. 131-141, is an excellent literary analysis. Brian Henderson’s introductory essay in his Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), provides an excellent production history and close reading, followed by a photocopy of Sturges’ own copy of the shooting script. Diane Jacobs provides detailed biographical context in Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Behind all this is a piece of writing from an American writer as crankily and breezily eccentric as Sturges: Manny Farber’s “Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies” (written with W. S. Poster), collected in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (New York: Praeger 1971)

About The Author

Rick Thompson co-edits Screening the Past; his interviews with Samuel Fuller appeared in Film Comment and Movietone News c. 1976.

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