Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

The Fighting 69th

The Fighting 69thCinema Monolith: 7/10
IMDb: 6.8/10
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: **½ out of 4

Released on January 27, 1940
Not rated
90 minutes

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)

The Fighting 69th

17 comments on “The Fighting 69th

  1. Great review! Another one that motivates you to see the film! A good thing. 🙂

    • Todd Benefiel
      9/6/14

      Thanks Julie! And thanks for taking the time to slog your way through eight long paragraphs!

  2. Andrew
    9/7/14

    Like you, I found Cagney’s Plunkett increasingly hard to take, but I was really impressed by Cagney’s willingness to play a boastful coward with no redeeming features. However, I have to admit that I found Father Duffy hard to take, especially his preference to save Plunkett’s soul regardless of the number of deaths caused by Plunkett.

    • Todd Benefiel
      9/7/14

      Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. Yes, I do agree…Plunkett was given way too many chances to wisen up, by everyone, including Father Duffy. But I accepted it from Duffy, for the most part, since he was the regiment’s chaplain, and perhaps it was part of his job or calling, to do everything he could to save him (though his repeated attempts to do so, even after the damage Plunkett had done again and again, finally had me scratching my head). My feelings were more along the lines of Plunkett’s commander, Wild Bill Donovan: first try to transfer Plunkett out of the regiment, and when that doesn’t work, court martial him!

  3. Thanks so much for joining up! I haven’t seen this one yet but it sounds intriguing. The way you describe Plunkett sounds a bit like those “hurray for youth” movies of the sixties, in which our “heroes” are trying to be sassy and stick it to the Man but end up just sounding spoiled and entitled. Cagney had considerably more range than he was usually allowed to explore and this sounds like a very interesting stretch for him.

    • Todd Benefiel
      9/7/14

      Cagney is very good in this, and he handles both of his personas well. It’s a neat moment when he suddenly stops being tough and becomes weak…not unlike the ending of Angels with Dirty Faces. This is definitely a film worth seeing, but what’s funny is, I’d say watch it for Cagney’s performance, yet in a way, I wish his character wasn’t in the movie! Thanks again for letting me take part, Fritzi! (and Lea, too!)

  4. Judy
    9/9/14

    Going on memory, I thought Cagney is wonderful in this, with the range he gets to show – but I get the feeling that, because his character is the only one who isn’t based on a real person, he’s the only one allowed to show any human weaknesses. Everyone else is a bit too perfect! However I do need to revisit it, and your review will spur me on to do just that.

    • Todd Benefiel
      9/9/14

      Glad I could ‘spur’ you, Judy, and thanks for the comment! Cagney is very good in this one…I just wish those efforts weren’t wasted entirely on a character who was so reprehensible. I seriously assumed his ‘wise guy’ character was going to reform and turn it all around mid-film, but boy was I off on that assumption! If anything, I appreciated the ‘character study’ aspect of it…seeing someone’s selfish actions bring so much harm to a good collection of people. And I never considered it, but you’re right…I can’t think of anyone else who had any weaknesses!

  5. Lindsey
    9/10/14

    I feel ashamed, I consider myself a Cagney fan but I’ve never heard of this film! I’ll have to seek it out and give it a watch.

    • Todd Benefiel
      9/10/14

      Don’t be, I’d never heard of it either, and Cagney’s in my index of favorite actors. Some interesting things going on in this film…I’d say definitely give it a look. I streamed it off Amazon for a couple bucks…not sure if Netflix has it, though.

      • Lindsey
        9/11/14

        I would have noticed it if Netflix had it, I’m always stalking the old movie sections on there haha. May have to rent it on Amazon soon.

      • Todd Benefiel
        9/19/14

        When you do, I’d be interested to hear what you think. (Not as interested as I’d be in your review of The Creeping Terror, however).

      • Lindsey
        9/19/14

        The Creeping Terror is at the top of my watch list! I should be able to get to it before the end of the month. Haven’t had a ton of movie time or I would have watched it already.

      • Todd Benefiel
        9/19/14

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Creeping Terror and ‘top of my watch list’ used in the same sentence! I just hope you realize, once you’ve seen it, you’ll never be the same person again.

      • Lindsey
        9/19/14

        That’s why I didn’t watch it earlier this month, I’m trying to prepare myself for such a life-altering event!

  6. Joe Thompson
    9/10/14

    Good choice. More attention to the many real people in the film — Father Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan, Joyce Kilmer — would have been interesting. There are wonderful stories about Father Duffy helping Al Smith deal with anti-Catholic hatred when he ran for president. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

    • Todd Benefiel
      9/10/14

      I did a little checking up on Duffy and Donovan after watching the movie, and they both had quite the list of impressive accomplishments. Especially Duffy, who did a lot of good for a lot of people, like you mentioned. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t have found something true-to-life from either of their pasts and fashioned a story around that instead. As always, thanks for stopping by, Joe!

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