“Hail the Conquering Hero” movie poster from 1944

It’s a scene utterly familiar to World War II America. A war hero returns home, and receives a hero’s welcome. The band plays. The crowd cheers. As the Mayor delivers a rousing speech, a mother and heroic soldier son are tearfully, happily reunited. How heartwarming it all is!

But for United States Marine Woodrow Truesmith [Eddie Bracken], it’s the worst day of his life.  Medically discharged a year earlier, he’s thoroughly ashamed of the fanfare. And despite the huge personal and professional gain at his fingertips, Woodrow will not stand for it.

In Paramount Pictures’ 1944 film Hail The Conquering Hero, America 2011 has a luminous lesson in Integrity.

Political Integrity.

Grateful for his generosity when they were broke and thirsting for beer, six feisty Marines – just back from Guadalcanal – have forcefully escorted Woodrow home as a war hero. Poor Woodrow. From the get-go, he agonizes about the fraud. He protests. He physically struggles against the Marines. But in their scheme, they prevail. Woodrow The War Hero, it is.

You’ve got to do it for your mother, they insisted. Your father was a war hero, killed in combat. Your mother deserves a hero son.

Though Woodrow’s mother means more to him than the whole world, from the moment he steps off the train, he tries to set the record straight. With her. With his former girlfriend. With anyone and everyone. But, enthused by the Marines’ fraudulent hoopla about his heroism, no one will listen.

Instead, his adoring townsfolk nominate him for Mayor!

Woodrow agonizes. He takes to drinking oodles of cooking wine. He openly denounces himself. He thinks up hare-brained schemes to escape. Yet, wedded to their grand perception of him, no one wants to hear his Truth.

Finally, Woodrow has his chance. Standing on stage before the entire town, he denounces himself as a phony, and prepares to do the right thing: leave town, duly ashamed.

That was every day America, 1944.

And I ask you: in America 2011, when do we witness similar acts of Integrity in our candidates?  Or in our elected officials?

Writer and director Preston Sturges would be astounded to hear that the film he crafted to ridicule America’s awe of war heroes today stands tall as testament to classic moral American character.

The good moral character utterly ‘in abstentia’ in most of our public officials.  Officials who, though steeped in corruption, oily with lies and deceit, and masterful at voter manipulation, have the outrageous gall to close their speeches with “God Bless America”.

How dare they assume they have this right?

How dare they ask God to bless America, as they snuff out God’s presence from schools, rub God’s name off the face of our coins, and strip from our cities and towns any and every reminder of God’s existence?

How dare they invoke His Name for political profiteering?

This matter goes beyond flagrant human disrespect of God. Think about it. Raise yourself above this country, and look down. See what God sees.

If you were God, would you be motivated to bless America?

Integrity was the most valued virtue in 1944 America. In 2011, what is extolled?

Vice.

How disgusting, that in 2011 America, the word “politics” is literally synonymous with “corruption”.

In fact, were this film’s storyline re-written for today, small town Mayor Woodrow Truesmith would have gone on to be elected United States President!

As Hail The Conquering Hero draws to a close, Sgt. Julius Heffelfinger [William Demerast] declares to the townsfolk that in Woodrow’s public admission of the fraud  perpetrated by him and his fellow the Marines, it was “real courage” that he displayed.

For Woodrow could have had it all as Mayor. Influence, respect, status. A good, reliable income. He could have married the girl of his dreams, whom he painfully left behind to join the military. But none of that trumped the workings of his conscience. What mattered most to Woodrow was his Integrity. In service to Integrity, he happily chooses nonentity, unemployment, and the prospect of shameful exile from his beloved home town.

Why is Woodrow Truesmith so politically important today?

For this pure and scintillating reason: he was a man of good moral character.

If, at the end of his mayoral withdrawal speech, Woodrow said “God Bless America”, he could do so with clear conscience.

Next time you hear a politician say “God Bless America”, step forth and ask what he or she does for God, in exchange for this invocation.  If he or she looks surprised, and fumbles for an answer, take notice.

And as you turn away, remind this politician that relationships require mutuality.

From his modest corner of America, WWII Woodrow ‘got it’.

With God, Integrity matters.

Writer’s Note:

Hail The Conquering Hero is often aired on Turner Classic Movies. It is also available on DVD.