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.
This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).
The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylon. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot introduces Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are. Setting what a melodrama in this milieu can generate means it is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)
I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film is and how much it resembles classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.
The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many of his other film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.
The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Antonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).
But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.
The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.
Captain Lightfoot is a Hollywood film adapted from a story by the prolific W. R. Burnett. It is mainly interesting as an example of the genre films with A list casts and budgets released by the studios at the time when they were trying to assert film’s dominance in the face of television’s rapid rise. The two important ingredients were the location of the story – a ‘runaway’ production in Ireland – and the combination of Ross Hunter as producer, Douglas Sirk as director and his protegé Rock Hudson as leading man.
The film was shot completely on location – in County Louth and in various country houses around the country. Sirk, quoted in Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk (1997), remembered how much he loved Ireland and enjoyed the shoot despite some of the production difficulties. The story refers to attempts by Irish villagers to create a revolutionary ‘Society’ in 1815. Hotheaded local Michael Martin (Hudson) falls foul of the British and is hunted by dragoons before being rescued by a clergyman (Jeff Morrow) who turns out to be the notorious highwayman Captain Thunderbolt in disguise. Thunderbolt is the main funder of the rebels, stealing from the British in various ways, including the operation of an aristocratic gaming house in Dublin. Martin is soon inducted as Thunderbolt’s second in command and given the title ‘Lightfoot’. Lightfoot will cause various problems when he falls for Thunderbolt’s impetuous beautiful daughter (Barbara Rush).
Shot in Technicolor and early CinemaScope (2.55:1 with separate 4-track mag stereo) this is a vibrant and colourful action adventure with appropriate romance and historical/political elements. Sirk remembered that he and his cinematographer (Irving Glassberg) were required to work on early ‘Scope films in such a way that the film would work on both Scope and Academy ratio cinema screens. At this time many cinemas were still in the process of converting to widescreen – the same requirement would be made in the 1970s when most films expected to find their audience on 4:3 TV sets. Sirk also had to contend with Irish rain for many outdoor shots but he discovered an appropriate lens and he and Glassberg produced very fine outdoor action sequences. He also discovered that Rock Hudson was equipped for screen comedy to go with his dashing good looks and boyish charm.
The film offers good light entertainment and enjoyable performances. Films that see Irish resistance to British colonialism always went down well in parts of North America and I was amused to see a fist fight reminiscent of John Ford’s The Quiet Man made in the West of Ireland a few years earlier. Overall, however, I was most impressed with the confident staging and direction of actors from Douglas Sirk who was by 1955 established at Universal with Hunter’s backing and access to stars. Hudson’s performance here comes between two of his performances in Sirk’s melodramas – Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). The relationship between Morrow and Hudson was taken as the basis for the Michael Cimino film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (US 1974) with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.