by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Battle Hymn, a really peculiar 1956 Universal-International production directed by Douglas Sirk from a script by Charles Grayson and Vincent B. Evans in turn based on the true story of Col. Dean “Killer” Hess (Rock Hudson), a U.S. airman in World War II who accidentally bombed a church and an orphanage in the German town of Kaiserberg — which, by one of those coincidences one can’t help but wonder whether it’s part of the true story or a ghostwriter’s (or screenwriter’s) invention, was also the home town of the Hess family before it emigrated from Germany to the U.S. He was so overcome with conscience and guilt that after the war he left the service and studied for the priesthood, and got to the point of settling in a small town in Ohio and getting a job as pastor in a church, only to have the deacon (Carl Benton Reid) complain that his sermons are too downbeat and don’t emphasize the hope God offers for humanity.
This happens in 1950, just as the U.S. is getting involved in the Korean War — and, fed up and unfulfilled with his gig as a minister, he decides to answer a government call for veterans willing to be reactivated and deployed to Korea. He’s assigned to a base that’s little more than a patch of dirt and a decayed runway left over by the Japanese when they occupied Korea during World War II, and his official responsibility is to train local pilots for a future Korean air force (when he was ordered to train “rock pilots” I was briefly confused until I realized what I was hearing was “ROK” — the initials of “Republic of Korea,” the official name of the South Korean state). One of the officers already there is Captain Skidmore (Don DeFore), whom Hess served with in World War II and who expects a free ride from his old friend — and is thoroughly disappointed. Another is Sgt. Herman (Dan Duryea), who becomes basically Hess’s straw boss as he commandeers whatever road-working equipment he can find to get his runway in shape so the Korean pilots he and the other Americans are supposed to be training can fly the meager allotment of 10 planes he’s been given (old P-51 Mustangs from World War II — Korea was supposed to have been the first war fought with jet planes on both sides, but at the level Col. Hess was working he had to make do with the old propeller-driven technology instead of the new), with a solemn warning that he’s not supposed to do anything that would jeopardize the planes’ existence because if he loses one he’s S.O.L.
Hess also finds out that most of the towns in the area have been destroyed by the various occupiers — first the Japanese and then the North Koreans — and virtually the only two adult Koreans left in the area are En Soon Yang (Anna Kashfi, the first Mrs. Marlon Brando — their relationship was so tempestuous Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot looked like placid lovebirds by comparison) and an itinerant monk or something, listed in the credits only as “Old Man” (Philip Ahn — and yes, Charles and I were amused at seeing both him and Richard Loo in another war movie about a different war so soon after watching them in Submarine Raider), who start bringing children to the base. Hess, still guilt-ridden about having killed children in his last war, ultimately opens the base to them and feeds them, to the point where he has 400 children more or less living there by the time changing fortunes in the overall war lead the U.S. command to abandon the area and retreat. Meanwhile, despite their solemn orders to avoid combat, the unit has successfully attacked a North Korean supply convoy — only, under the impression (thanks to a misleading order from Captain Skidmore) that a truck off to the side had been part of the convoy and was trying to get away, Lieutenant Maples (James Edwards, African-American star of the pioneering war movie Home of the Brave and the man who should have become the first major Black male movie star — though for some reason he never caught on as a personality and Sidney Poitier had that honor instead) bombed a truck full of, you guessed it, orphans and ended up with the same guilt monkey on his back as his C.O.
The finale is a race against time as Hess seeks transport for 400 orphans under his care to fulfill his promise to Yang to take them to her native island, Che-Ju, and after initial turn-downs from both the Air Force and the Navy (the naval officer who deals with Hess turning up on his office doorstep and asking, “Where are your ships?,” fires right back at Hess and says, “You’re with the Air Force — where are your planes?”), Hess gets five troop transport planes ex machina and successfully gets the kids out of the war zone and sets up the Orphans’ Home of Korea, 25 of whose residents got a trip to Hollywood to be in the movie as themselves. Battle Hymn is a really schizoid movie because on the surface it’s a film justifying the U.S. action in Korea — it’s even introduced by General Earle Partridge, real-life commander of the U.S. Air Force in Korea, standing in front of the prop replica of Hess’s plane (director Sirk knew nothing of the prologue until Jon Halliday told him about it for their book-length interview in 1970; “I certainly didn’t shoot it,” he told Halliday, explaining that he never watched any of his movies after he turned in his final cuts “because if you see them you think of tearing them apart and starting all over again”) — and it had the imprimatur of being based on a series of articles in the Reader’s Digest that were later collected into a book.
At the same time, though, one can sense Sirk slipping in an anti-war message every chance he got — the lines in the film (especially from the character of Skidmore) that if a war is just then it doesn’t matter if some people who don’t deserve to die get killed in it are chilling and speak to the dilemma of the U.S. today in Afghanistan and Iraq — an indication that, as with Written on the Wind, the director’s sensibility is far more Left-wing than his material (when I first saw Written on the Wind I joked that it looked as if a Communist had been assigned to direct a Dallas script). Sirk told Halliday that he wasn’t interested in making a biographical film — especially about someone who was still alive, and what’s more was officially credited as a technical adviser and was on the set throughout the filming — but he’d always wanted to make a film about flying. He complained that Rock Hudson was miscast — he’d have wanted Hudson’s co-star from Written on the Wind, Robert Stack, to play Hess — and that “I couldn’t bring out the ambiguity of the character as I would have liked” with Hess hanging around the set telling him what he had and hadn’t done.
At one point Sirk wanted Hess (in the movie) to become an alcoholic and then realize that was a dead-end and try to square himself with his conscience by studying for the priesthood instead, but Hess (the real one) vetoed it by saying, “I didn’t drink.” I can actually sympathize with both parties; giving the character an interlude of dissipation would have made him more interesting and understandable to the audience, but at the same time I like Hess’s attitude, which was essentially, “Don’t resort to a stupid old Hollywood cliché by making me an alcoholic. Work harder and make the audience believe in me and my story as they were.” What’s really at once moving and frustrating about Battle Hymn is that a story that really needed a rough, edgy treatment — black-and-white, hand-held cameras and a more dimensional actor like Montgomery Clift or James Dean as Hess — instead gets the full-gloss Hollywood style, including glossy color, perfect compositions and a thundering music score by Frank Skinner largely based on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (the obvious source of the title) and the beautiful Korean folk song “Arirang.” (Charles said it would have been a better movie with Duryea playing Hess and Sam Fuller — who made what’s probably the best film about the Korean War, The Steel Helmet — directing.)
Given how God-drenched some of the dialogue is, at times Battle Hymn seems as if Rock Hudson’s character from Magnificent Obsession has gone to war — and at the same time there are wrenching scenes full of the sincerity of Sirk’s movies at their best, including the confrontation between Hess and Skidmore; Hess’s treatment of Maples after he had committed the same crime Hess himself had in the previous war; and the big North Korean attack in which Yang is killed protecting one of the kids. Battle Hymn is a really odd and frustrating movie that seems (as Charles said) to be at odds with itself — a critique of the whole business of war and imperialism at gunpoint masquerading as an inspiring story of the God-centered heroism of a fearless modern-day crusader against the Communist infidels — though Sirk deserves a lot of credit for getting some multidimensionality into it and also for taking Rock Hudson’s limitations as an actor and making them seem like quiet, sincere understatement (it’s no accident that Sirk made eight films with Hudson and was essentially the Rock Hudson director, the way John Ford was the John Wayne director, John Huston the Humphrey Bogart director and Tim Burton the Johnny Depp director).