Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Douglas Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.
Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.
Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?
Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’). Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.
‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.
The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.