Carl Dixon (Michael Douglas) walks back home through the Arizona countryside, after dropping out from college, to see his family one more time before he goes off to war in Vietnam. He was not drafted, he wants to go and enlisted, but his reasons are more complex than simple patriotism since he has a father, Albert (Arthur Kennedy) who he has continually failed to impress for many years now. As he strolls along, he adopts a happy-go-lucky demeanour, and when a truck carrying some of his father's workers draws up close behind him, he uses his jacket to pretend to be a matador and plays with it, to the amusement of the occupants. They cheerily offer him a lift, and he climbs aboard, barefoot and carefree...
The Vietnam War was of course a hot topic for America, and indeed the world, in 1969, as it would be to this day, and the films about the situation were beginning to be made, though this example was far more about the ethics of those back home than it was about the fighting. The actual combat was left to other pictures and documentaries - and the nightly news, which was beaming images of terrible brutality into American homes that could not stop it breaking the nation in two on the subject of whether this was really worth the lives of their young men. Hail, Hero! on the other hand was more of a character study about the tensions one young man suffered with his father who believed he should fight after all.
Carl is shown to be a peace-loving young man, a peacenik if you will, at least in the eyes of those around him, making it a curious matter that he has decided to go off to war to please a father who will apparently never be satisfied anyway. But that was a conflict of personalities that the film did not so much struggle with, as veer away from whenever the opportunity for a serious discussion arose, preferring to digress into unsatisfying scenes where he interacted with the folks he would be leaving behind, most obviously his brother (Peter Strauss) who he knocked off a horse by flinging a snake at him a few years before and permanently damaged the brother's leg in the fall. But there was also a shot of Douglas starkers, in his debut role, as he went skinny-dipping in a local pond, summing up the confused view the film had of its titular hero.
Either he was some kind of flower child exuding an inner light of youth and positivity, or Carl was a troubled soul encapsulating the issues of following the desires of their elders and supposed betters when those desires were destructive and aggressive. That could have been a dichotomy that brought matters to a head, but it was clear the script had no idea of how to resolve what it was bringing up, and preferred its diversions into, say, a cave where Carl smokes dope with a spaced out wild woman (Louise Latham) who asks questions like "How do you wash your private parts?" Seriously, the whole thing was pretty hopelessly tone deaf when it came to tackling anything of any validity head on, and the further it went on the further Douglas's affected performance of upbeat innocence threatened with doom and gloom began to grate.
Former Hitchcock heroine Teresa Wright was there as his mother, at that stage in her career where she was fretting in maternal roles which were a waste of her talent, but it was Kennedy's blustering patriarch who the argument was with, and as both he and his son were intractable the story felt strongly like a complete waste of time, telling us nothing of the real world where people were dying in war, and nothing of the hippies since Carl was the only one we saw and didn't appear representative. It was directed by David Miller, who had helmed Michael's father Kirk Douglas's favourite role in the modern Western Lonely are the Brave of a few short years before, but that picture's spirit of rebellion and standing up to care in an uncaring world were miles away from the bromide on offer here. About the best you could say about it was the scenery was attractive. Music by Jerome Moross, with a song by Gordon Lightfoot which was more sickly sweet than perceptive, much like the movie.