This dubious mix of war combat and faith-based inspiration is as well directed as any of Douglas Sirk’s films, even if literally every scene seems to be saying the wrong thing. Combat pilot Col. Dean Hess helped found and publicize a major orphanage in South Korea, but as personified by a pious Rock Hudson his story comes off as a public relations gambit. A fine cast empowers the grandstanding bid for sainthood, where ‘Killer Hess’ channels his guilt into good works. The aerial footage is outstanding — Sirk really loved his airplanes.
KL Studio Classics
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date April 27, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Rock Hudson, Dan Duryea, Anna Kashfi, James Edwards, Martha Hyer, Philip Ahn, James Hong, Don DeFore, Jock Mahoney, Carl Benton Reid, Alan Hale Jr., Bartlett Robinson, Carleton Young, William Hudson.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Russel F. Schoengarth
Art Directors: Alexander Golitzen, Emrich Nicholson
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Written by Charles Grayson, Vincent B. Evans
Produced by Ross Hunter
Directed by Douglas Sirk
To what degree can we trust director interviews? Douglas Sirk had a pretty amazing career in theater and art before he became a filmmaker, first in Germany and then the U.S.. I’ve read articles that assert that when Sirk was given a project with a faith-based theme — The First Legion, Thunder on the Hill, Magnificent Obsession — he quietly subverted their content, using his visual skill to undermine the heavy-handed religious themes. Sirk’s status as a cultural subversive was once the fallback interpretation for his overheated soap opera films as well, expanding the problems of Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman etc., to massive dramatic proportions. Reading Sirk’s own words, it seems more accurate that he liked those themes, believed in them and even asked for them. He welcomed the chance to film Battle Hymn, a project led by his main man at Universal Ross Hunter. Sirk wanted to get out of the studio to film an aerial epic with those shiny P-51 fighter planes. But he was also fascinated by the reverend-pilot-author Dean Hess, seemingly in the same way that director John Huston was intrigued by war hero-turned actor Audie Murphy. Hess was a man of contradictions, known in WWII as ‘Killer Hess’ and later on as a savior of children.
Colonel Hess was involved in the relocation of hundred of Korean orphans to an institution he helped found on the Korean Cheju-do (now Jeju) island. He published a spiritually-inspired autobiography in 1956, which was immediately snapped up for filming. Hollywood was on a big recruiting and PR push for the armed services in the 1950s. MGM signed up James Stewart to play Carbine Williams, about a moonshiner convict who invented the M-1 rifle. Warners made The McConnell Story, a CinemaScope biography of Captain Joseph McConnell, the top air ace of the Korean War. Like McConnell, Sirk’s Battle Hymn has a prologue in which a general addresses the audience. Hollywood’s biggest USAF recruitment epic was likely Strategic Air Command, which wasn’t biographical but starred Air Force officer James Stewart, doing his thing for personnel retention.
Colonel Dean Hess was somewhat a different case — being both a preacher and a self-promoter, he wasn’t the Alvin York type that wanted no part of fame. Hess was much later accused of stealing the credit for the noted ‘Kiddy Kar Airlift’ that evacuated almost a thousand orphans from the path of advancing Red forces. Hess reportedly donated the profits from his book to the orphanage and continued to promote it.
Douglas Sirk said that he wanted to further fictionalize the movie version of Battle Hymn but Colonel Hess wouldn’t permit it. As it is almost everything in the movie is made up along the same lines as a Hollywood musical biography. Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession certainly impressed Universal, Ross Hunter and filmmaker Sirk with the profit potential in gaudy inspirational melodramas. Battle Hymn brought in a war theme as well, and would surely be the ultimate feel-good faith-based movie. What could be more inspirational than a ‘killer pilot’ who both shoots Communist enemies and saves little children?
Charles Grayson and Vincent B. Evans’ screenplay makes Hess’ story fit the inspirational mold. After the war, former fighter pilot Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) decides to quit preaching because he can’t shake his guilt for accidentally bombing a German orphanage in 1945. Hess takes leave of his wife Mary (Martha Hyer) and re-enlists in the Air Force to train South Korean pilots on-site in Korea. While getting a disused air strip into shape he takes an interest in the Korean refugee orphans that wander into camp for handouts. When a North Korean saboteur uses the kids for cover, Hess has to get them off base, so he enlists the beautiful En Soo Yang (Anna Kashfi) and the wise old Lun-Wa (Philip Ahn) to found an orphanage. Hess’s top Sargent Herman (Dan Duryea) ‘scrounges’ Navy supplies for the kids. Hess visits often. The kids love him and Lun-Wa offers nuggets of wisdom, but En Soon Yang is disappointed to learn that Dean is married.
The training unit is told to avoid combat so as not to lose planes, but Dean’s old buddy Captain Skidmore (Don DeFore) breaks that rule and attacks an enemy column. Lt. Maples (James Edwards) unfortunately repeats Hess’s error by strafing a truck carrying civilian children. Hess doesn’t preach — he even avoids saying grace — but he provides an uplifting example for all. After Hess helps Maples deal with his guilt, he himself is traumatized when he must shoot down an enemy plane to save a buddy.
On the day he is to be transferred Col. Hess discovers that Red troops will overrun his airfield and the little orphanage. When efforts to find transport fail, he joins En Soo Yang and En-La in evacuating the orphans, hoping that his superiors will come to the rescue.
Depending on the viewer Battle Hymn is either mildly diverting or an insult to the intelligence. Critics of the 1950s couldn’t risk calling this kind of film spiritually bogus; even Bosley Crowther limited his review pan to charges of terminal cliché corniness. When confronted with his crisis of conscience, Hess blocks out his wife and climbs a high, photogenic hill to seek an answer from God. You know, like Alvin York. Col. Hess’s superiors come to the rescue with a score of cargo planes. Of course it was a great thing to do, but the USAF also accepts a halo for generous philanthropy (in CinemaScope and Technicolor).
Sirk’s film often plays like a satire of stories that warp reality to serve faith-based aims. The awfulness of war is reduced to simple formulas: when Americans kill civilians it’s always ‘accidental.’ Our wonderful soldiers are men of conscience who must wrack their souls to reconcile themselves with their deeds. Dean Hess took part in WW2 fighter-bomber campaigns, as shown in the rather bloodthirsty William Wyler/John Sturges film Thunderbolt. That documentary doesn’t pussyfoot around the nature of the search-and-destroy missions. To use up ammo on the way home, the planes shoot at any target opportunity available, even civilian farmers. The bombing of the German orphanage in Battle Hymn is presented as a tragic fluke, sidestepping the fact that bombing campaigns couldn’t always be precise.
Forget mistakes. WWII’s strategic bombing often targeted cities, statistically measuring the effect of different bombing strategies. It’s obvious that Hess is not personally responsible. He’s traumatized by his personal moral deficit, when his colleagues are incinerating big chunks of German and Japanese cities? The ugliness of Battle Hymn is its refusal to acknowledge the necessary barbarity of war, even when fought by the ‘good’ side. It’s the American Denial Machine: the fantasy must be perpetuated that our warfare is humane, a cultural hypocrisy that goes way beyond movie entertainments.
But this is Hollywood moviemaking so it’s all so personal for Col. Hess. By re-writing him to be a plaster saint, Battle Hymn turns a complex man into an unpleasant public relations hero. In spiriting hundreds of Korean children from danger, Hess cleanses himself of the curse of killing 37 German children. There’s no denying that the movie’s visuals dramatize this well. Douglas Sirk maximizes the conflict with his typical brilliance — his key shot is a low angle of a mob of tykes running like the Dickens for the haven of a row of Skymaster cargo planes, angel transports sent from heaven. The dynamic shot is an instant Reynold Brown painting — it’s impossible not to be emotionally captivated.
The storytelling choices Sirk uses elsewhere are jaw-droppingly unsubtle. The presence of a stained glass window lets cameraman Russell Metty frame preacher Hess in a rainbow of color, a halo of piety. Preacher Dean Hess just announces to his wife Mary that he’s gotta go fight, leaving her in the lurch. She has no problem with this, as if she secretly knows Dean can walk on water and then turn the water into wine. About halfway into the movie she reveals that she’s pregnant, so I guess we can agree that Dean hasn’t been gone more than nine months.
Battle Hymn received good marks for sensitivity to the Koreans, but it’s still exceedingly condescending. Anna Kashfi’s presumably destitute but beautifully attired and utterly gorgeous En Soon Yang is still a ‘China Doll’ character who quietly lusts after the handsome, gentle American. She thinks that she and Col. Dean have a destiny together until he blurts out ‘My wife and I are having a baby!’ Rather than declare herself, En Soon Yang relates the tale of two trees that intertwine in perfect harmony, a come-on line if there ever was one. Hess ignores it. He’s too virtuously focused on saving the orfinks. In filmic terms, this mainly means hugging one or two ‘special’ kids every time he drops by, flashing his disarmingly sincere smile.
En Soo Yang falls prey to the unacknowledged Production Code dictate regarding mixed-race relationships. It’s 1957 but the axiom still stands: if a Yankee falls in love with a woman of a different race, it’s curtains for one or both of them, usually the woman. Having our flawless Col. Hess be married is even more of a guarantee of a bittersweet finish to the compartmentalized En Soon Yang subplot. Dean Hess’s virtue is upheld yet the audience gets its quota of quasi-romantic meetings and a sad farewell that says ‘romance.’
Philip Ahn’s casting would win the approval of activists that insist that every Asian character be played by an actor of the correct ethnicity. He’s Korean-American and a very good performer. Ahn’s Lu-Ahn is a mostly inoffensive example of the ‘magic Asian’ who has a handy aphorism for every problem. He even intuits the White Hero’s romantic issues. Ahn looks great in his traditional costume too — his Lu-Ahn keeps saying goodbye but keeps showing up to help out those little orphans. *
Unlike the reality of war (or violence of any kind), death in Battle Hymn is always inspirational, poetically appropriate and morally instructive. Co. Hess holds a buddy in his arms while he dies. Lt. Maples can’t deal with his refugee-killing mistake, although it’s absolutely not his fault. In the most irrational bit of aerial combat ever filmed, a dogfight seems to take a pause while Col. Hess forces himself to break his promise and shoot down an enemy fighter plane — ‘only to save another flier,’ mind you. This movie invention has nothing to do with the real Hess, who had a very honorable combat flying record.
The thought that any pro pilot would go into combat with a plane loaded with bullets and then balk at shooting them, is total screaming BS. Hess’s outfit massacres enemies by the score in their convoy attacks, but Hess draws the line at pulling the trigger himself? The Bind Moggles, as we used to say.
Nobody expects a 1957 movie about Korea to cut through the moral issues of ‘killing for peace’ and ‘fighting for the Lord.’ To its credit Battle Hymn never plays the card of ‘praying for permission to kill’ that crops up now and then in movies both good and bad. The movie doesn’t even make a direct Christian statement — Hess never preaches at anybody. Sirk is more interested in effective storytelling symmetry. He bookends his movie with orphanages — one blown to bits, and another established to take care of dispossessed refugees. We learn that a whole bunch of orphans from Jeju Island were shipped here to make the movie, all the way to Arizona. We don’t know the details — were they paid? Did the studio contribute to the orphanage? Who transported the children, Universal or the USAF? I’d hate to think that that they were imported to avoid the cost of hiring American children. Out in Arizona, Hollywood filming rules for the protection of minors might not even apply.
(What makes me so suspicious about this?)
One very good reason to see Sirk’s movie is to admire the flying scenes. The Texan Air National Guard maintained a wing of P-51 aircraft, that Sirk’s experts direct in well-planned, photogenic action. There’s much more good air combat here than in other Korean War movies, most of which concentrate on jet fighters. The crystal clear aerial photography is just as well designed as Sirk’s live-action — even though we’re told that Sirk broke his ankle and was in a wheelchair for much of the film.
Dan Duryea does yeoman’s work lightening up the story — he flashes a wickedly mischievous look when swiping candy and bubble gum from a Navy supply depot. Don DeFore’s Captain Skidmore gets to call the hero ‘Killer Hess’ for his record back in Germany. This is not a terrific role for DeFore (but he’s GREAT in a western called Ramrod, check it out). James Edwards gets a fully realized character to play for once, free of ‘racial exceptionalism.’ Jock Mahoney and Alan Hale Jr. are more or less along for the ride, as is second-billed Martha Hyer. The great James Hong plays a Korean Major but gives the part a good one-of-the-boys USAF spirit, without a heavy accent.
Hong goes un-billed, but the Korean orphan Jung’ Kyoo Pyo, a chubby little tyke who does a great cute act, is credited on screen. According to the AFI catalogue, an issue of Life published around the time of the film’s premiere featured a story about the adoption of the cute little guy by an American couple, Harold and Terry Friar.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Battle Hymn is a stunningly good encoding of this CinemaScope production in blazing color, originally Technicolor for release prints. Sirk composes his ‘Scope exteriors for maximum impact; on a reasonably big monitor we can remember how impressive this show and Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels were on the big screen. The aerial sequences have a sense of scale not often found in aviation films. Were all the aerial combat scenes filmed in Arizona? — the camerawork is flawless.
The trailer attached doesn’t play up the spiritual angle but assures us we’ll be greatly moved, that our lives will be changed. Artist Reynold Brown did indeed paint the posters for Battle Hymn, the main artwork of which shows Rock Hudson in a super-hero pose, holding an orphan under one arm and a pistol in the other. ← Another Reynold Brown poster design shows one of his typical excellent clusters of character faces.
Nick Pinkerton offers a highly detailed audio commentary, in which he goes over the mystery of Dean Hess and Battle Hymn in great detail. According to Pinkerton, having Hess break off from preaching to go to Korea is a total fabrication — the flyer had stopped preaching long before. We’re told that Col. Hess is now considered — by who exactly? — the Oskar Schindler of Korea. I suppose that the difference is that Schindler avoided publicity and Hess sought it out … to support his good works?
→ Pinkerton reads most of the Battle Hymn section of Jon Halliday’s fine interview book Sirk on Sirk into the commentary. Hess was apparently on the set at all times, ‘adjusting things.’ He wouldn’t allow his filmic counterpart to drink, for instance.
Sirk’s problem was not unique. At the same time over at Warner Bros., Billy Wilder stood by helplessly as Charles Lindbergh tore apart his already-filmed-and-edited movie biography, The Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh threw out many character embellishments as well as Wilder’s spectacular patriotic finale. In the Jon Halliday interview Douglas Sirk diplomatically refrains from criticizing Hess, calling him ‘complicated.’ But Sirk regretted making a film about a living, notable person… who could interfere with his direction.
* An interesting book about Philip Ahn, “Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-ethnic Performance,” by Hye Seung Chung, is readable online and has a lot of interesting detail about Battle Hymn. The author is Korean, and as a child in the ‘eighties watched the movie on television every year on June 25, the Korean War Commemoration Day. The book’s coverage on Battle Hymn appears to start on page 141.
Additional research by correspondent ‘B.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Well Made — but ‘complicated & problematic.’
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Film Critic Nick Pinkerton, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson