One Man's Hero

One Man's Hero

DVD cover
Directed by Lance Hool
Produced by Lance Hool
William J. MacDonald
Conrad Hool
Written by Milton S. Gelman
Starring Tom Berenger
Joaquim de Almeida
Daniela Romo
Mark Moses
Gregg Fitzgerald
Ilia Volok
Patrick Bergin
James Gammon
Music by Ernest Troost
Cinematography João Fernandes
Edited by Mark Conte
Hool/Macdonald Productions
Distributed by Orion Classics (US)
Release dates
  • September 24, 1999 (1999-09-24)
Running time
126 minutes
Country United States
Language English

One Man's Hero is a 1999 historical war drama film directed by Lance Hool and starring Tom Berenger, Joaquim de Almeida and Daniela Romo. The film has the distinction of being the last film released by Orion Pictures' arthouse division Orion Classics, as well as being the last Orion Pictures film, until 2013, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer revived the Orion Pictures brand to release the remake of the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

The film is a dramatization of the true story of Jon Riley and the Saint Patrick's Battalion, a group of Irish Catholic immigrants who desert from the mostly Protestant U.S. Army to the mostly Catholic Mexican side during the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848.[1]


The story centers around Sgt. John Riley and 16 men of his U.S. Army battalion who (against military law) are whipped for "desertion" only because they had traveled (permission denied) to the Mexican side of the border to fulfill their religious obligation to attend Mass, and because they are thought to be "Papists" whose loyalty is ipso facto suspect in the eyes of their Protestant commanders. Sgt. Riley, with regard for the safety and well-being of his men, releases them at gun-point from the lash. He escorts them across the border to Mexico to hopefully find at Vera Cruz a ship back to Ireland, only to be violently captured by the revolutionary Juan Cortina as enemies of Mexico. Riley, wounded in his thigh, is nursed by Cortina's woman Marta. As Cortina considers what to eventually do with Riley and his men, news arrives that the U.S. and Mexico are now at war, and if they are captured they could be hanged. Because of this, the Irish deserters are presented with the choice of joining and fighting on the side of the Mexican revolutionaries under Cortina, or be executed by him as enemies of his country.

Cortina and his forces are soon taken by Col. Maximo Nexor, commander of the Republican Army of the Mexican Government, and given the choice of fighting for Santa Anna against the aggressor U.S. Army, or be executed as traitors and bandits. Cortina reluctantly surrenders himself and his revolutionaries under Nexor's command. Riley is made a captain, in charge of all the Irish-immigrant U.S. soldiers who have come over to the Mexican side in increasingly large numbers, (as General Zachary Taylor puts it, "because of sex, saints and sadism"). For encouragement they are given their own green flag as the Saint Patrick's Battalion.

Several key battle engagements are highlighted, with dates, and a cease-fire is reached. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is threatening to impeach President Polk as world opinion turns against U.S. aggression and the invasion of the Republic of Mexico. The cease-fire is soon violated and hostilities resume. Gen. Zachary Taylor, unlike Gen. Winfield Scott, deplores the war, but he obeys his commander-in-chief.

As it becomes increasingly evident that the war is being lost by Mexico, Riley's men debate what to do. There is a difference between desertion and treason. Those who deserted before the war and are taken back to the U.S. will be lashed and branded; those who deserted after the declaration of war will be hanged as traitors. They decide to die as men fighting for freedom. When they finally lose, Cortina has escaped with many of his forces, and the Irish are taken prisoner. Many of them are still officially British citizens, having never yet been granted the U.S. citizenship they had first been promised for enlisting in the U.S. Army. General Winfield Scott utterly rejects the appeal of the Mexican Government, presented by Col. Nexor, to recognize Riley's men as Mexican citizens and prisoners of war; protests have come in from all the nations of the world denouncing their punishment as barbaric and an utter contradiction of the principles of the American Revolution. Scott is adamant: the deserters will be lashed and branded, and forced to watch those condemned as traitors hanged, whose heads will be forcibly faced in the direction of Chapultepec to watch the taking of that stronghold and the sight of the lowering of the Mexican flag and the raising of the Stars and Stripes, so that this will be their last sight—they will be hanged at that instant.

On the day of their execution, in sight of the men on the scaffold, Riley is lashed with a cat-o-nine-tails: 50 strokes. He is then branded on his right cheek with a large letter D "just below the eye, so not to impair his vision." The soldier ordered to wield the red-hot brand is told to do it quickly, as "Riley must be conscious when it is done!". Visibly shaken, the soldier sears the brand into Riley's face upside down (backward). He is harshly reprimanded, then told to "do it right!", but he vomits and faints, and Riley is branded on his left cheek by the officer in charge of punishment. Riley is then forced to watch the executions ordered by Scott. He loudly cries out encouragement to them, who shout back as they are hanged.

Some time afterward, while working in a stone quarry for military prisoners, Riley is told by his former U.S. commander that he has been freed, to which he responds, "I have always been free". Riley returns to Mexico, locates Cortina, and finds Marta still alive. She still has the green flag of the St. Patrick's Battalion. Cortina recognizes her love for Riley and departs. Riley and Marta disappear into the wilderness. The epilogue explains that Gen. Winfield Scott, who had hoped to become President of the U.S., was defeated, and Gen. Zachary Taylor, who only wanted peace, was elected. To this day the St. Patrick's Battalion has been honored annually by Mexico and Ireland.


Prince Albert of Monaco, using the stage name of Kelly (his mother's maiden name), had a cameo appearance in the movie. He has a connection to Mexico through his grandfather, Prince Pierre, Duke of Valentinois, whose mother, Susana María de la Torre y Mier was a member of the Mexican nobility.


Award Category Nominee Result
2000 ALMA Award[2] Outstanding Director of a Feature Film Lance Hool Nominated
1999 Sundance Film Festival[3] Exposé Award One Man's Hero
Human Rights Award
Peace Award


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