Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is in a bar nursing a pint of beer and feeling sorry for himself one night when a group of six soldiers who are just back from fighting in Guadalcanal enter the nightclub and sit down. They have recently lost all their cash at gambling, so only one of them can afford a single beer, but Woodrow overhears and in a fit of generosity he sends them over enough for them all, plus sandwiches, and they head over to his barstool to thank him. But he doesn't look any happier, so they coax out of him his sob story: he was never in the Marines as his father was, because he was discharged with chronic hay fever. How can the soldiers brighten his evening?
They don't so much brighten his evening as send him to fresh depths of misery, entirely unintentionally, in the ironically-titled Hail the Conquering Hero, the supposedly patriotic effort for the then-current Second World War from comedy director Preston Sturges. He was at that time riding high with a reputation as one of the most vital talents in that field of the early-to-mid-forties, with audiences lapping up his intricately plotted comedies, often with a romantic element, but all that was about to come crashing down, making this entry his last, big hit before he sabotaged his career with his dentistry yarn The Great Moment the following year.
It was rumoured the big studio bosses didn't like Sturges because he tended to get his way on his own movies, and the fact that he created such popular efforts without them interfering with their suggestions was another bone of contention, not least after his censorship-baiting scenarios and dialogue, so they were happy to see him fall. He wasn't a spent force, but one look at this film will tell you why many were so suspicious of him as here he took a long, hard look at patriotism and far from finding it admirable he regarded it as wanting. The masses depicted throughout the plot, represented by Woodrow's home town, are so keen to get behind whatever their country does that it renders them dupes willing to believe any old rubbish as long as it endorses their world view.
Woodrow is not anyone's idea of a war hero, he's never even been overseas with the military having spent a year working in the shipyards and sending an occasional letter home to his mother (Georgia Caine) to tell her he's fine, so the soldiers he meets in the bar (led by the Sergeant, Sturges regular William Demarest) fix it to have his mother believe he is heading home after being injured at Guadalcanal, all to spare her disappointment, but by the time they accompany the hapless chap back to his smalltown they have put on a parade every local has turned out for to welcome him. The more Woodrow protests that he really isn't worth this fuss, the more the townsfolk dismiss this as modesty, and he is built up to demigod status by their constant adulation.
This reaches extremes when Woodrow is implored to become mayor, the soldiers are happy to endorse him having been caught up in the patriotic fervour too, even though they are well aware it's nonsense in this supposed hero's case. The point that Sturges was making, about people believing whatever they most want to believe no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, was nothing about the rights or wrongs of wartime foreign policy and more about self-delusion when it suits a desperate purpose, brave themes for this era, which proceed to grow darker as the film progresses. Indeed, by the time the frequently enraged Woodrow's sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines, seeming way out of his league) is pledging her love for him even though she's engaged to someone else the laughs have almost entirely dried up, and references to weak politicians and shell-shock make the tone curiously grim. As if to get away with these observations, Sturges ended with a finale which amped up the patriotism to treacly levels, yet after what we'd seen how could we accept it uncritically? Music by Werner Heymann.