Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fighting, Faith and Cowardice during World War I

"The Fighting 69th" is a flag-waving war film from 1940, and it throws nearly everything but the kitchen sink into its 90-minute running time.

But that's not necessarily a good thing. The movie is easy to watch, but it's not focused. It covers faith, cowardice, biography and war in a standard hit movie package, complete with comic relief, flag-waving monologues and star turns by its leading men.

It's a crazy concoction, but it doesn't quite work. As the title denotes, this should be the story of the Fighting 69th, a real-life regiment from New York City. In the film, the regiment is at Camp Mills, NY, being prepared to go overseas and fight during World War I. Private Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney) is a cocky, mouthy recruit who is immediately disliked by most of the men around him. But Fr. Duffy (Pat O'Brien) takes a liking to Plunkett, much to the chagrin and puzzlement of the others, particularly Sgt. Wynn (Alan Hale, below with Cagney).

When the men finally make it to France and the front, Plunkett's over-eagerness to start fighting leads to a battle that kills a number of his fellow soldiers, making his estrangement from the others even more pronounced.

I'm not one to discuss the ending of films, because I hate to spoil anything for future viewers. However, be forewarned that I will be doing so below.

To begin with, "The Fighting 69th" isn't sure what to focus on. You would think this would be a biography of the famed fighting division. However, it really isn't, focusing more on Plunkett and Fr. Duffy while filling out the ranks with the usual parade of stock supporting characters that could be transplanted from one war film to another. Outside of cursory facts, I learned very little about this division.

The film is also bookended by both a prologue and epilogue about Fr. Duffy. Yet the film really isn't about him, either. Sure, it goes into the idea of faith and relying on it during the ravages of war. But this isn't a biography about Fr. Duffy. It's as if the film simply says, "He's a man of God. Therefore, he is good. And therefore, we will show him doing good things." Bing Crosby's Fr. O'Malley had more to do in "Going My Way" than O'Brien does here.

Then there's Plunkett. Cagney is a force of nature on screen, and he clearly has the most magnetism of anyone in this film. But his character is so unlikable. And, since the movie is all over the place in terms of its focus, the treatment of Plunkett is cursory, and ultimately he's not about the 69th, which detracts from the overall cohesiveness.

I wish the film hadn't been so set on being a typical action movie. For one thing, a film that was about Plunkett might have been fascinating, particularly when it's revealed that he's a coward. But this is 1940, and such a story might have been too deep or dark to pursue at that time. Instead, I grew to dislike Plunkett so much -- he continues to be responsible for getting most of the supporting cast killed in battle -- that I didn't care what happened to him. When George Brent's Major Donovan calls him a "rotten soldier," I wanted to cheer, even as it became clear what the finale of the film would be. But Plunkett's redemption comes too late. It simply became a plot element.

For all of Cagney's on-screen presence, I thought he had wandered out of a gangster film and onto the wrong set by mistake. However, O'Brien and Cagney (above) -- who apparently worked together on nine films -- were a popular duo, and this film was a hit for Warners.

And while the U.S. wasn't involved in World War II yet, the film certainly did its part to prepare people for what may come. Donovan's rainbow division soliloquy, in which he breaks up a fight between the Fighting 69th and the regiment from Alabama, delivers such lines as "We're all one nation now" and "If you must fight, wait until you get overseas."

Warner Brothers would hit a home run the next year with its World War I biography "Sergeant York." "The Fighting 69th" should have been this good.


  1. Hi, good review! I had the same reaction to the film. Cagney is probably my favourite actor of that era, but I find it really difficult to watch him in this film. Cagney could play guys of questionable character, but still reveal something in them that we could connect to. This was a rare case where the character/actor couldn't make that connection. It's a real disappointment.

  2. Thanks! I agree completely. Hopefully my next Cagney review will be of a better film.

  3. Must say I liked this movie more than you did, and thought it was an amazing performance by Cagney, though I have read he didn't like the film himself. This is the one where someone came up to him when he was filming and said "What happens next?" and he replied "Do you really care?" I think it is interesting and moving to see a coward at the centre of a war film - and I also like the relationship between him and O'Brien in this one. However must agree there are big flaws and I think one problem is that most of the other characters, apart from Plunkett, were real people, so they all tend to be portrayed as saints while he is the only one with feet of clay.

  4. I think we feel the same way about Cagney's character, that the cowardice was interesting. I just wish the film had been more focused. If the story is to be about a coward, make the whole thing about a coward. Give Cagney's character more dimension, and make the film less conventional. Still, I'm glad you liked it. I'll take this film over most modern films. :)