Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards coming this Sunday, we’re highlighting work by master filmmakers who never won the Best Director Oscar.
Battle Hymn (1957)
Like many classical Hollywood filmmakers, Douglas Sirk gained his reputation as an artist when “rediscovered” by auteurist critics and feminist scholars. Melodramas like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation Of Life were commercial hits, but critics of the era dismissed his focus on female domesticity through overexaggerated colors and performances. But one Sirk film became an immediate classic halfway around the world. Battle Hymn looks like total Oscar fodder by today’s standards: a Korean war drama based on a real-life pastor who saved the lives of hundreds of orphans. (It won a Golden Globe for “Promoting International Understanding.”) While forgotten in the United States, Battle Hymn has become a television mainstay to celebrate Commemoration Day in South Korea; many consider it a yearly tradition, like watching It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmas.
Sirk’s muse Rock Hudson plays Colonel Dean Hess, a pastor in Middle America who can’t shake nightmares of an orphanage he bombed in Europe during World War II. Unable to find solace in the Good Book, Hess reenlists as a pilot instructor to aid in the Korean conflict. The air combat, performed by the actual U.S. Air Force, carries a striking realism in its clarity of space, but the dominant action occurs on the ground. Hess notices small children sneaking around the camp to steal scraps of food in the background of the CinemaScope frames. Hiding his Christian profession, the pastor teams up with a local schoolteacher to protect and feed the young children in the middle of a war zone.
The film’s sentimental moments are occasionally cringe-worthy, but Sirk finds a complexity to the role of both race and religion through more quiet moments. These elements emerge through the forbidden romance between Hudson’s Hess and a local schoolteacher (played, problematically, by the India-born Anna Kashfi), and Korean-American star Philip Ahn as an elder providing guidance to Hess’s closeted faith. The film’s restrained tone in its performances and muted shades emphasizes the internal desires that bubble under the surface. The closest Sirk came to an Oscar-bait picture, Battle Hymn tones down his most common tropes, showing the director working in an alternative emotional register.
Availability: Battle Hymn is currently available on DVD from Amazon or your local video store/library. It can also be viewed on YouTube.