Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) was an American preacher when the attack on Pearl Harbor struck, which persuaded him and countless others of his countrymen to sign up, and his choice was the U.S. Air Force. He ran successful missions over Germany, bombing enemy targets but one of those raids would haunt him for years to come as during it one of his bombs was stuck below his wing, and when he managed to shake it off it landed not on a Nazi base but an orphanage, killing dozens of children in the process. He then returned to his home life in America with his wife Mary (Martha Hyer), not realising there was another war in the Far East for him to participate in soon...
You may think Hollywood (and not only them) are keen on biopics now, but 'twas ever thus, and Battle Hymn was one of the most popular formats of the nineteen-fifties, the war story where the audience of the day could bask in the subject's heroism for a couple of hours. This was a little different as it was not about the Second World War which was the most popular setting for these, but the Korean War, something even at the time was neglected by filmmakers as the public were more keen on watching less problematic conflicts where they could be assured that the good guys would win fair and square, with no room for doubt.
This was directed by Douglas Sirk, who latterly picked up a strong cult following among those who could perceive a subversive tendency with his outsider's take on fifties America, though even they would be hard pressed to find much evidence of that approach with this overbearingly conservative production. And yet, there remained parts which spoke to a certain scepticism about the way the usual war movie went, nothing hugely controversial but nevertheless the early scenes where Hess shows up in Korea at the airbase he has been stationed and finds it a shambles of lax authority and uninterested staff spoke to a lack of conviction about the trappings of this conflict in the popular mind.
It was as if Battle Hymn was telling off the viewers for not taking the events seriously enough because they were not World War II, and even in 1957 when this was made that was the war that remained the benchmark for battles and moral righteousness, whereas Korea was mired in the fight against Communism that was still very much continuing at that point (and would for the next thirty years or so). There was little neat about it, it was a genuine fear for many in the West, and you would be hard pressed to identify many anti-Communist propaganda movies from this era that you could describe as classics, it simply did not lend itself to exemplary movie making for whatever reason, and not because the political leanings were too right wing, there was just something complacent about them.
The hook they found to hang Hess's tale on here was his guilt over bombing that German orphanage, which in real life did not affect him too much, he was pragmatic about it, but that fed into the movieland arrangement where to make amends he would first set up a new orphanage in Korea, then in a famous at the time rescue effort move all the children, hundreds of them, out of harm's way. Although this was based on his book, it was later found to be a self-aggrandising account where he had taken the credit for other officers' work, which tends to place a pall over the film, though he did contribute the profits he made from it to good causes, so there's no need to paint him as a villain. Also, this offered the chance to see pioneering African-American actor James Edwards, the trailblazer for Sidney Poitier, in one of his better roles, the first black American to play a pilot in Hollywood though sadly he is rather forgotten now thanks to a scandal involving his romances with white women at the time, not anything that would particularly be outrageous today, but pre-Civil Rights it harmed his career. Other than that, Hudson got to play the hero, and Marlon Brando's first wife Anna Kashfi got to play Indian-Korean in a rather absurd fudging of fact. Historically of some interest, but lacking entertainment. Over the top music by Frank Skinner.