Sunday, October 31, 2010

FORGOTTEN GEM? 'The Fighting Sullivans"

    "The Fighting Sullivans" is the "true" story of the five Sullivan brothers who enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and went down with their ship during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  The movie was released in 1944 and is a classic example of a propaganda film meant to boost home front morale.  The first 83 minutes deal with the raising of the boys.  It's typically unsubtle.  In one scene, they find an old boat and go sailing in it.  It springs leaks and they abandon ship.  Their mother makes them swear not to set foot in another boat until they grow up.  This is Hollywood's notion of irony.
     The mother is doting, the father is gruff, the boys are rambunctious - all requirements of a 1940s movie.  There, of course, has to be a sentimental romance thrown in.  The youngest sibling meets a girl who is "swell", but his brothers sabotage their date.  The whole family apologizes and everything is fine.  They get married and baby makes three.  When word of Pearl Harbor comes, the four bachelors run off to enlist and Al's wife insists he go, too!  Never mind me and the baby, dear.  Your country comes first.  They insist on being put on the same ship.
     In the only action scene in the entire movie, their ship is hit and George is wounded and sent to sick bay.  The special effects are decidedly fake. The four others insist on going to George's side.  There is a loud blast and the screen goes black.  At least they died together and quickly.
     Back at home, their recruiter arrives all cheerful (?).  Oh, by the way, all five of your sons are dead.  Can I have some more coffee?  The movie closes with the launch of the U.S.S. The Sullivans as the five march away in the clouds.  That is the only thing about this movie that reminded me of "All Quiet on the Western Front".
    This is not really a war movie.  Only about ten minutes qualify.  It is kind of schmaltzy.  The acting by the child and adult actors portraying the brothers is uniformly bad.  There is some propaganda, but it is not overblown.  It was actually nominated for the Best Story Oscar!
     The movie is not very accurate.  They did enlist together and insisted on the same ship.  The USS Juneau was sunk by one torpedo, not gunfire.  Three of the brothers were killed instantly, but Al drowned the next day and George lasted for four days before succumbing to grief and the conditions (or possibly sharks).  The parents were informed by two officers and a doctor.  Like the movie, the father did ask "which one" and received the response "all five".  George was survived by a wife and son.  The navy did name a destroyer after them.
     The story, not the movie, inspired "Saving Private Ryan".  That is the only similarity between the two movies.
     The five Sullivans should not be forgotten, but this movie should be.


  1. How can it be propaganda when they all die? I don't get the propaganda of those times. Interesting to hear of the source for SPR. You actually deserve a medal for being altruistic. All those movies you save me and others from watching. Thanks.

  2. By 1944, the government was finding that the home front effort was slacking off a bit and encouraged the movie industry to show the sacrifice that the boys were making. "This is what you are working on the assembly line for". This explains how a tragic plot could be inspirational and could be labeled propaganda. It was around this time the government approved documentaries showing dead American soldiers (the first was on the Battle of Tarawa).


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