#48 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
There’s an interesting drama developing about halfway through this movie until it suddenly becomes a little comedic war movie. Well, I think Ford was at a period in his career where he had really tried to do something different with The Fugitive, got slapped down hard by critics and the movie going audiences, and just retreated into crowd pleasers. When Willie Came Marching Home isn’t a bad movie by any means, but it’s so light, frothy, and ultimately unfocused that it’s not really good either. It’s okay. It’s mildly entertaining for 82 minutes.
It’s 1941 in Punxsutawney, West Virginia and William Kluggs (Dan Dailey) is just another guy in the town, practicing with his band in the back of the local drug store because it’s owned by the father of one of his friends, and he has a girl, Marge (Colleen Townsend). When news reaches the small town of the attack on Pearl Harbor, William is the first in line to volunteer to enlist for the armed forces. His town is ever so proud of him, throwing him celebrations for his desire to serve his country. On top of the world, he tells Marge’s younger brother Charlie (Jimmy Lydon) that he’s not old enough to join up and that he needs to let the older guys take care of the Japanese. Basic goes well, especially when his drill sergeant discovers his incredible skill as a gunner, and he’s ready to be shipped off to war. The train back east from boot camp makes a stop at a familiar place, though, and William finds himself back in Punxsutawney with a twelve hour leave before they continue on. Feted again, he’s still king of the town.
That is, until he finds out the next day that he’s going no further. He’s being stationed at the base five miles away as a gunner instructor for airmen. Two years pass as news reaches the United States of Patton’s movements through Africa and beginning up into Italy, but William just stays on base, always asking to go and always being denied, granted medals of Good Conduct instead, and going home on a weekly basis for dinner. His star has faded in the town, and he’s gone from hero to object of derision.
Up until this point, I was mildly entertained, but there were about two minutes where I thought this movie was going to turn into another hidden gem of a find, lost in the bulk of Ford’s length body of work. Charlie has gone to war, joined the navy and fought in the Pacific, given a weeklong furlough back home. There’s a celebration in Charlie’s honor that William reluctantly goes to. Charlie is regaling the older members of town, who all saw action in World War I, with his tales of action, and Charlie has nothing against William’s experiences during the war, knowing how dangerous student pilot missions can be. However, the elders are dismissive of William and push him away, shutting him down when he tries to relate experiences that were as life threatening as Charlie’s. Dejected, he leaves the party. I really, honestly, thought the movie was going to pursue this line for the rest of the runtime, and I was prepped.
That’s not what I got, though. William’s efforts to go into combat finally come true when he volunteers as a last second replacement belly gunner for a flying fortress destined for England, and the movie becomes something close to a slapstick comedy. William falls asleep upon the aircraft’s approach into England, stymied by heavy fog that leads the crew to abandoning the plane, pointing it directly south, and leaving William aboard on accident. When he wakes up, he jettisons as well, ending up in the hands of French Resistance fighters. After proving his Americanness by answering questions about who Mickey Mantle plays for and such, he witnesses the launching of a German rocket that Yvonne (Corinne Calvet) has filmed. He then has to become the vessel for getting the film back to England for British intelligence through getting drunk at a wedding, riding a torpedo boat through enemy fire, onto a motorcycle to London, and finally delivering the intelligence to command personnel.
His adventures aren’t over yet as he must report to the American command in Washington which includes a flight in a fighter plane all the way back across the Atlantic, robbing him of any sleep over the eleven hours that precede several tellings of the same story to different personnel in the Pentagon, leading to a temporary stay in a psych ward before he escapes onto a train that lands back at Punxsutawney where he gets praise for his top secret work that he accidentally came upon.
It’s a slightly entertaining way to give William his victory in the eyes of the townspeople who had begun to deride him for not contributing, giving him a wildly eventful three days that ends with him back in his own living room. It’s not hilarious or anything, not the kind of ratcheting up of comedy that something like Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three is, but it’s fine. I would have been okay with the film using the dramatic center point of the film as a turning point into making the film overall an outright laugh riot, but I never had more than a mild grin on my face.
It’s a fine little movie, mostly lost amidst the years of the Cavalry Trilogy, and it’s easy to see why. In the middle of three John Wayne westerns, a little movie about a guy who can’t get into World War II just feels wane.