Sunday, April 27, 2014

ANTIQUE or CLASSIC: The Fighting 69th

       “The Fighting 69th” was released in 1940, just in time to get us fired up about WWII.  Along with “Sgt. York”, the pair formed a potent propaganda / patriotic duo.  It must have been tough to be a Nazi leaving those theaters.  You just wait dude, we don’t want to have to kick your ass, but if we get into this fight…  “The Fighting 69th” was directed by William Keighley (this was his only war movie, thank goodness).  It was a huge box office hit so it must be a great movie, right?
                The movie opens to the strains of “Garry Owen” (oh please let this movie be as good as “They Died With Their Boots On”).  A crawl dedicates the film to the 69th Regiment and the Rainbow Division.  The Rainbow Division was famous for its multi-ethnicity and the 69th was all-Irish so mixed message much?  The opening scenes are at Camp  Mills for training.  We meet four historical characters:  the heroic Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent), the saintly Father Duffy (Pat O’Brian), the poet Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lynn), and worst soldier in regimental history Jerry Plunkett (Jimmy Cagney).  Actually, Plunkett is a fictional character.  He is from Brooklyn so I don’t have to tell you he’s an asshole.  Before even being sworn in he has already been insubordinate, arrogant, and cowardly.
                Training camp montage.  Check.  Fight with another unit.  Check.  In this case, the 69th gets into a brawl with the 4th Alabama because the Rebels kicked their butts at Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg in the Civil War (true story) over fifty years ago.  Hopefully by 1940 audiences in the South were not rooting for the Germans in the movie.  The fight gives Donovan the opening to give a speech about how we’re all Americans now.  Tactical training.  Check.  Lame soldier barrack’s banter.  Check.
                They unbelievably bring Plunkett with them to France!  He’s still an asshole, but he’s Father Duffy’s project.  Saving this guy’s soul will really get the notice of St. Peter.  They go on a long march through the mud to reach the front line.  This was based on the famous Mud March of eighty miles and the movie gets the grumbling right (not the G-Rated nature of it, of course).  In the first combat, Plunkett panics and fires off a flare which brings down an incredibly accurate artillery barrage which collapses a dugout killing a bunch of men.  (Based on the Rouge Bouquet incident featured in a Kilmer poem.)  He also throws a grenade that lands in their trench killing some more Americans.  Plunkett runs away.  Irredeemable, right?  Fragging-bait, correct?  Tell that to Father Duffy who apparently feels that saving Plunkett’s soul is more important than the numerous lives he has taken and will take.
Bet on the bag

                Donovan decides to volunteer Plunkett for a dangerous patrol.  He may be a great leader, but as a judge of character…  Surprise, Plunkett turns coward and gets more men killed including Joyce Kilmer (the “Trees” poet, for Christ’s sake).  Now even Father Duffy wants to kill that son of a bitch, right?  Wrong.  But the U.S. Army does.  It’s going to be hard for Plunkett to find redemption while under arrest and scheduled for execution.  But this is Hollywood-hard which means distinctly possible.  Guess the rest and don’t be afraid to think inside the box.
Duffy and Doofus

                If I was coming out of a 1940 theater, I would probably have been fired up and thought it was the greatest movie since “The Lost Patrol”.  I also would have wanted to convert to Catholicism (if I wasn’t already a Catholic).  However, since it is now 2013 and there is no world war looming on the horizon, I find I am less than enthralled with “The Fighting 69th”.  Plus I’ve seen an awful lot of good war movies and this ain’t one of them.
                You have to give the film credit for portraying three significant figures from WWI and being pretty true to the people.  Father Duffy was thrilled with his depiction so we can’t fault the movie for canonizing him.  The movie is very religious.  At one point, Donovan kneels before him and Duffy says a prayer for the unit.  Donovan gets his due as one of the great combat leaders of WWI.  He did lead patrols like the film shows and was inspirational.  I cannot vouch for him giving speeches similar to the film.  Joyce Kilmer became the most famous American poet/warrior as a result of the movie.  His death was not as depicted.  He was killed by a sniper on a scouting expedition.  As far as Plunkett is concerned, I guess he was a composite of five guys:  1.  a gangster wannabe who washed out in boot camp  2.  an insubordinate wiseass private  3.  a coward who ran away at the first shot  4.  a soldier executed for killing several comrades  5.  a brave warrior.  Just kidding, he was totally a Hollywood creation.  In the real world, one of his comrades would have killed him early on.
Kilmer:  "What rhymes with asshole?"
                The movie has some positives.  The trench and dugout sets are authentic looking.  The combat is above average, but certainly not anything to get excited about.  There is not a lot of it.  This is not an action film.  The artillery bombardments are noisy and explosive.  No man’s land is semi-nightmarish.  You won’t be on the edge of your seat unless you are sitting in a theater in 1940.  The climactic battle is strong and death-filled with one very cliché demise.  The acting is good except for the inevitable scene-chewing by Cagney.  The plot is a bit of a mess.  The movie does not know whether it wants to be the story of a unit (like “Glory”) or the story of Father Duffy (like “Mister Roberts”) or the redemption tale of Plunkett (like “The Red Badge of Courage”).
                In conclusion, once again we have a popular movie that is very much of its time.  It’s a curio.  It was an important movie that helped prepare America for involvement in another world war.  With that said, there is no way you can watch it in the 21st Century and think you are watching a great movie.  Put it in a time capsule, not your DVD player.

grade =  C



  1. Another great review!
    I should say that more often. Cable TV (in Australia) recently ran a month of Cagney movies. This one wasn't among them though. The more I see of Cagney the more I realise what a great actor he was. How does he stack up in The Fighting 69th?

  2. the war movie buffApril 29, 2014 at 4:57 PM

    Thank you for the compliment.

    Cagney does more scene chewing than usual. I, too, am a big Cagney fan, but the character is the problem here. He is just not believable.

  3. Agree that Cagney is more theatrical than usual. There was probably no way to make Plunkett anything other than a stereotype. The character exists for the sole purpose of being a jerk, so that the Army can straighten him out, and so that he can redeem himself in the end. It was a common theme in WWII-era movies (International Squadron, Flying Tigers, Captains of the Clouds), and continued for many years. "Private Benjamin" could even be considered a modern variation on the idea.

  4. I have no problem with the redemption cliche, but it is hard to find one that less realistic than in this movie. Private Benjamin did not kill some of her unit and deserved redemption.

  5. Cagney definitely overdid his performance, but I was impressed by his willingness to play a coward. The scenes with the saintly Duffy were painful, and like you, I could not stand the whole redemption plot, not after he was responsible for so many deaths.

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  7. I have been meaning to watch that film. Thanks for the reminder.


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