Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on January 27, 1940
Directed by William Keighley
Written by Norman Reilly Raine, Fred Niblo Jr, and Dean Reisner
Cast: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, George Brent, Jeffrey Lynn, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Dennis Morgan, Dick Foran, William Lundigan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, John Litel, Henry O’Neill, William Hopper, Frank Faylen, George Reeves.
When I found out that Fritzi at Movies Silently and Lea at Silent-ology were together hosting a blogathon spotlighting World War I films, I jumped at the chance to take part, but the question was, did I actually know any World War I films to review? Offhand, the answer was no; I had to find a list of over 150 examples just to remind myself of what I had seen: Wings, The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia, and more recently, In Love and War. For the blogathon, I decided I wanted to try a movie that was not only new to me, but one that was close to the Hollywood mainstream, and featured a director and actors I knew and admired.
And that movie was The Fighting 69th, directed by William Keighley and starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, and a host of recognizable character actors, in a ‘fiction-based-on-fact’ account of the 165th Regiment, also known as The Fighting 69th, an Army unit made up predominantly of Irish-Americans from New York. Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett, an insolent wiseacre recently arrived at Fort Mills for training, who soon finds out he’s not quite the tough guy he thinks he is. Eventually, his trouble-making and false bravado provoke the ire of his commander and his battalion, and it’s up to Pat O’Brien’s company chaplain, Father Duffy, to save him, and in more ways than one.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was some sort of ersatz sequel to Angels with Dirty Faces, where Cagney portrayed a roughneck, smart-mouthed gangster and O’Brien a parish priest. In The Fighting 69th, Cagney essentially plays the same character—brash, confident, not one to be pushed around—who makes light of the preparations for battle overseas, much to the consternation of his superiors. The first half of the film seemed to promote this attitude, with soldiers trading jovial dialogue and comic one-liners, and treating their training as if it were a military frat party. It made me wonder: was this going to be a serious war film, or a lighthearted comedy with war used merely as a backdrop?
Nope, it was a serious war film, and that point was made perfectly clear with the regiment’s arrival in France, and their dismal, muddy march to the front lines, where the tables were abruptly turned on our happy-go-lucky story. Suddenly, the war was shockingly real, as the Germans released a relentless and frightening barrage of artillery fire on the trenches and outposts of the 69th; most of the dozen or so characters introduced to us in the first half of the film lost their lives, and were sadly and unceremoniously gone from the story. And it was here the audience was handed another shock: the film was not about Cagney the hero, who saves the day with his fortitude and determination like you’d expect, but was instead about Cagney the coward, whose fear and foolhardy behavior gets many, many men killed.
It was an interesting dichotomy, these two halves of the storyline. Not only was there a sudden shift from breezy comedy to action drama, but a shift in audience allegiance as well; I found myself becoming more interested in the other soldiers of the 69th—who took their responsibilities seriously, and displayed true heroism and courage—and less interested in the yellow-bellied Plunkett, who did nothing but create and promote an alarming level of dislike towards himself, and paid for his dubious actions throughout most of the film. Frankly, it would come as no surprise if he were a victim of friendly fire, and in fact, Alan Hale’s character amazingly hints to this very idea after another one of Plunkett’s meltdowns.
However, none of this is meant to imply that I didn’t appreciate Cagney’s performance, which I wholeheartedly did: I thought he was great in a difficult role, and offered yet another dichotomy to the film by suddenly transforming from one type of unpleasant character to another. The rest of the acting was stellar as well, and though I’m not normally a fan of O’Brien’s work, I really enjoyed what he brought to his role here; he was the glue that held everything—and everyone—together. The film also got a boost from Keighley’s direction, which was not only solid, but his way of framing scenes and shots really held your interest, and his battle scenes were well-paced, exciting, and tense. And at times, incredibly real.
What also worked in the film’s favor was the use of actual WWI situations, battles, and participants within the screenplay. The Fighting 69th was, and still is, a division of the US military, and some of the battles they took part in during the first World War were also depicted in the film. In addition, four characters were directly based on their namesakes: Father Duffy, Major Bill Donovan (played by George Brent), soldier and poet Joyce Kilmer, and Lieutenant Oliver Ames (played by Dennis Morgan). I liked this touch of realism, and though beyond the uniforms and trenches I was never able to fully grasp what era I was in, I still thought it was a convincing look at the trials and tribulations of war no matter what the time frame.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the wrap-up that it finally dawned on me: the story wasn’t centered on leading-man Cagney after all, but on O’Brien instead, and for good reason, since it was his character you cared about most. The film bore this out with a tribute to the real-life chaplain at the end, and as I discovered later, the original working title was, fittingly enough, Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th. And though the point of the story was about one man’s cowardice and eventual redemption (a redemption that came far too late, in my opinion), I think I would’ve preferred watching the exploits of Father Duffy and the Fighting 69th without the distraction of a hopelessly unlikable Plunkett. Still, a worthwhile and entertaining experience, and another entry in my short list of WWI films watched. (7/10)