Thursday, August 4, 2022

War month begins with a Battle Hymn

Battle Hymn

Prayer is pretty basic to the Christian life, and not just life among the clergy. The Apostle Paul wrote that we should “pray without ceasing." When He gave His disciples The Lord's Prayer, Jesus provided a prayer believers recite from memory as well as a blueprint for new prayers. 

In its most basic form, prayer is just talking to God. It's not surprising that even atheists have thrown up plenty of “God, I don’t really think you’re there, but if you are…” from foxholes.

So it’s rather baffling why, in the film Battle Hymn, the Rev. Lt. Col. Dean E. Hess (Rock Hudson) is so hesitant to pray, even in a wartime setting. (The film has scenes both in World War II and the Korean War, which is fortunate as this is War Month here at Movie Churches.) The film was based on Hess’s autobiography (also entitled Battle Hymn), and is directed by Douglas Sirk (the acclaimed director who fled Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife).

After an introduction from General Earle E. Partridge, a four-star United States Air Force general who expresses his admiration for Hess and declares the film to be “an affirmation of the eternal goodness of the human spirit,” the story begins with Hess (Rock Hudson) as a World War II bomber pilot over Germany. A malfunction causes a delay in dropping one of his bombs, causing it to land on an orphanage, killing 37 children.

He is wracked with guilt. The film makes it appear that he enters the ministry to assuage his guilt, but Hess had been ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church prior to the war. We see him preaching on a Sunday morning, “A broken and contrite heart the Lord will not despise.”

After the service, one of the church officers gives a mild critique of the sermon. Hess talks to his wife (Martha Hyer) and mourns, “He’s right, Mary. All I seem to be able to do is repeat words from a book.” 

Considering that the book he is talking about is considered the very word of God in his denomination, perhaps he shouldn’t have such a lowly opinion of that work. He seems to be in ministry only to deal with his guilt, but he says, “I’ve tried for two years. When I became a minister, I thought I would find a way to live with it, but I haven’t.” Anyway, he decides to rejoin the military when the Korean Conflict begins. He tells Mary he is enlisting again to fly and fight (“One doesn’t always have to have a clear reason for the things he does, he just feels it.”)

Hess is assigned to train South Korean pilots. One of the American men serving under him is Captain Dan Skidmore (Dan DeFore), a friend he served with in WWII. Dan remembers Hess by his nickname, “Killer”, and has no knowledge of Hess’s work as a pastor. (Skidmore is unpleasantly surprised when he sees a letter addressed to Rev. Hess --from the same church leader we saw earlier). Why would Hess keep his ministry history secret from the other soldiers? 

We learn why when his men discover he's a minister.  They practically revolt, worried that a minister won’t be ruthless enough to lead them in battle. This seems rather absurd. The soldiers have surely seen many military chaplains whose training was the same as theirs, who faced the same dangers in battle they would face. Eventually, they come around to trusting Hess again.

The problem, though, isn't just that Hess hides his calling from the men. He seems to want to hide his faith completely from his men. At their Thanksgiving meal in the field, one of the soldiers stands up and says, “On the farm, my pa always said grace at Thanksgiving. Not that we were particularly religious. Is there someone more qualified to pray?”

The ordained minister stays seated and allows the farmer’s son to pray awkwardly. Later, when that man learns of his superior’s other profession, he’s steamed. “You mean Thanksgiving you just let me fumble around?” 

Hess tells him, “You did fine, Frank. People who volunteer usually do.”

There is another more serious instance in the film where Hess avoids praying aloud. With his friend, Skidmore, they fly into battle against the North Koreans. Skidmore’s plane is hit, and Skidmore is hit as well. He manages to land his plane and Hess pulls him from the cockpit.

Skidmore says to Hess, “Could you pray for me?” 

Hess responds, “I already did.” 

This is a jerk move. If someone is in pain and dying, one doesn’t just say one prayer and be done with it. If someone believes in God, in prayer, they will not just pray once and be done with it. And Skidmore asked for prayer. Many people, even those who don’t consider themselves religious, will find some comfort in hearing a prayer, or perhaps a recitation of the 23rd Psalm. Hess denies his friend this comfort but provides some words of encouragement.

You may be wondering, at this point, why they even bothered making a film about Hess. Well, he was part of two rather worthwhile projects. He helped found an orphanage for Korean children and when that orphanage was threatened by the North Koreans, he helped evacuate the orphanage. These were wonderful acts, but he confesses to a wise old Korean man that while working with the children, “I couldn’t find anything to say, even a prayer.” 

The old man assures him that his acts of kindness are a true presentation of the Gospel. There is truth to that, but many other important participants in these projects weren’t necessarily people of faith. So his work for the orphans was good work, but was it really the work of a clergyman? And after the publication of his autobiography, there were some who accused Hess of taking more credit for “Project Kiddie Car Airlift” than he deserved.

Hess seems to have been a good man, but as a clergyman, the best we can manage to give him for a Movie Churches rating is Two Steeples.

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