Rock Hudson Reenlists With Director Douglas Sirk for Faith-Based Korean War Drama.
DIRECTED BY DOUGLAS SIRK/1957
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 27, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
If you’re wondering how the Right Reverend Rock Hudson goes from giving ineffectual church sermons to guiding a ragtag caravan of hundreds of Korean refugee children through the war-torn desert, then read on…
A reasonably good story though no ones’ best work, 1957’s Battle Hymn is nonetheless a rare bird. A faith-based film before the phrase existed (though no less pablum than the genre is known for), Battle Hymn is a Korean War-set biopic. Per film historian Nick Pinkerton’s audio commentary, the number of Hollywood films about said war is far, far fewer than those made about World War II. Yet, of the overall limited offering, Battle Hymn stands among the most well-known Korean War films.
For this tender-hearted cinematic military maneuver, director Douglas Sirk more or less gets his old band back together. Cinematographer Russell Metty is once again behind the camera, and Rock Hudson takes center stage as true-life preacher-turned-bomber pilot, Colonel Dean Hess. Yet, when this proven collective set their sights above the domestic confines of the baroque 1950s melodramas that Sirk is today best known for (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind), things don’t fly quite as well. Though the scope of Battle Hymn soars far beyond that of those quality slow-burn weepies, the element of international Air Force aviation during wartime only serves to weigh the movie down. Add in an overriding moralistic element, locking Hudson’s character into infallible do-gooder-ism, its then a wonder that things fly as well as they occasionally do.
Battle Hymn is not a complete dud, though it is too long (though it’s actually under two hours) and always on the edge of didactic in its moralizing. Hudson, ever reliable in terms of depicting dutybound earnestness, does all he can as Dean Hess. The real Dean Hess, Pinkerton tells us, was an active advisor to the film, and too much of an outsized meddler as far as Sirk was concerned. Not that Sirk’s unrealized push to introduce the main character as a heavy drinker- a completely untrue detail about the real, lifelong teetotaler Hess- was necessarily what the film needed. Sirk wasn’t wrong, though, that the something more was needed to elevate the interest level.
As it stands, Battle Hymn is the story of a man so haunted by a single past action that he spends the rest of the story trying to make amends. An early WWII flashback depicts an incident when, on a bombing run, Hess accidentally blows up an orphanage, killing thirty-seven children. Understandably, that’s quite a load to bear. His postwar career as a preacher turns out to be unfulfilling. Hess wanders around outdoors wondering what he should be doing with his life.
When the war in Korea breaks out, Hess reenlists. This means leaving his wife in Ohio, assuring her that this time, he won’t see combat. (Later, we find out that she’s pregnant with their first child). He’s placed in charge of a remote Air Force strip in South Korea. Hess whips the slacker base into shape, and even begins feeding the desperately hungry local children who’ve been routinely scavenging the trash bins for food. Soon enough, to the chagrin of some of his cohorts (including Dan Duryea, doing what he can liven things up), the base is doubling as a soup kitchen for the local junior population.
But then the attacks begin. Not only from the air (inevitably forcing Hess back into battle), but on the ground. At one point, things get murky when a female caregiver of the hungry children (now a fixture on base) is revealed to be an enemy agent. She is shot and killed with a grenade on her person. For solace, Hess begins spending time in a nearby Buddhist temple, where a Korean elder Christian man resides and dispenses advice. One supposes it’s here that the strict Christian audience might be lost, as tolerance for other religions isn’t a hallmark of today’s faith-based films. Yet, the heightening secularism of the 1950s from whence this film hails is a different beast (also one that the studio, Universal International, could, from a traditional commercial standpoint, more readily embrace), and Battle Hymn actually isn’t off-base with its wizened Buddhist-friendly Christians.
Two such characters are En Soon Yang (Anna Kashfi, the true female lead) and Lun Wa (Philip Ahn), both of whom take Hess under their wings in his times of altruistic wandering. A budding attraction between Hess and En Soon Yang imbues the otherwise unblemished Colonel with a certain uncharacteristic complication. This, of course, is where Battle Hymn begins to display a pulse. Alas, little comes of this angle. Hudson, playing a moralistic married man who was on set, keeps his character’s feelings for Kashfi’s character muffled, though she does not. One wonders what discussions this depiction might’ve triggered in the real Hess household after the premiere.
Anyhow, as the war escalates all around them, Hess and En Soon make it their priority to shepherd hundreds of Korean orphans to safety. Tension derives from the fact that even as they trudge across the desert away from the fighting, no one can be quite sure where said “safety” might be. Will the U.S. Air Force, in all its hawkish hyper-focus on war, be able to help with this desperate situation?
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of Battle Hymn preserves what little Sirk-ian visual flair that was able to be served up in this otherwise sand-colored CinemaScope affair. Nick Pinkerton’s commentary is one of his more rote efforts, almost immediately skidding into actor resume recap hell. Pinkerton does his research and always arrives knowing his stuff, though not unlike the film itself, it is, from the outset, difficult to stick with.
The outset of Battle Hymn itself could not be more boring. It opens with a real-life general stepping before Hess’s real plane for a direct preface to the camera. If you miss the man’s name, you won’t miss his “fruit salad”-heavy uniform- clearly the point of pride of his inclusion. Stilted and wholly unnecessary, this cardboard preamble sets the stage in a wanting way for what Sirk would come to consider one of his lesser films. For a far finer Sirk/Hudson aviation-themed film of 1957, check out their William Faulkner adaptation The Tarnished Angels. That film, realized with moments of stunning black and white photography, lands as a better effort of moral trauma amid ariel daring.