Movie Review: The Fighting 69th (1940)
I think that I shall never see/ An odder role for James Cagney.
The movie is certainly unsatisfying if you like your Cagney courageous. It’s 90 minutes long and for 80 of it he’s both loudmouth and coward. This last takes us by surprise. He talks big before the war, and he’s certainly good with his fists, but once he’s in the trenches he panics, lights a flair, and causes the death of comrades. The death of them. “Damn,” I thought, “How does he show his face around the regiment after that?” How? With a smirk, that’s how. He still doesn’t care. And Father Duffy (Pat O’Brien, of course) still thinks there’s good in him and goes above and beyond to prevent him being transferred. He tells the 69th’s commanding officer, Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent)—yes, the founder of the OSS—that Jerry Plunkett (Cagney) might be that one in a thousand soldier that becomes a better man because of war.
Nope. During a sneak attack, Plunkett panics again. He starts shouting, which alerts the enemy to their position, and even more men are killed—including Donovan’s adjunct Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lynn). Yes, the “A poem as lovely as a tree” guy. That’s all true, by the way. Kilmer died, July 1918, fighting the Second Battle of the Marne under the command of “Wild Bill” Donovan, with Father Francis P. Duffy—whose statue to this day towers over Times Square—attached to the regiment.
You’d think that would be enough for a movie. These three guys. But they had to make a fictional, cowardly Cagney responsible for the death of Joyce Kilmer.
The rainbow connection
So what finally turns Plunkett? Because at some point he’s going to turn brave, right? This is a Hollywood movie, after all.
Well, after the second panic, he’s court-martialed and awaiting execution when the Germans shell the church where he’s being held, which is also a makeshift hospital. Father Duffy sets him free with two options: flee to safety or help his regiment. He’s about to flee to safety when another shell hits and Duffy is trapped beneath a large beam. Plunkett still considers fleeing but goes back to help the Father. Then he watches as Duffy enters the makeshift hospital and bucks up the lads with the Lord’s Prayer. On “Forgive us our trespasses...” Plunkett joins in, while on “But deliver us from evil...” Duffy pauses and looks meaningfully at Plunkett. So that’s Plunkett does. He delivers them from evil. He finally turns brave.
At the front lines, Plunkett slides into a foxhole with his nemesis, Sgt. “Big Mike” Wynn (Alan Hale), and starts loading mortar after mortar into the Stokes tube and really giving it to Jerry. “Here’s one for the Yonkers and the Bronx!” he shouts. Etc. He makes it look so easy we wonder why it’s supposed to be hard. Then when a grenade is tossed into their foxhole, he smothers it to save Sgt. Wynn. He dies later in a hospital from the wounds. Father Duffy performs last rites. Donovan says, “I once thought this man a coward,” to which Wynn, who lost a kid brother during one of Plunkett’s panic attacks, declares, “A coward, sir? From now on every time I hear the name of Plunkett, I’ll snap to attention and salute.”
It's that kinda crap.
Except the movie keeps going, because it isn’t really about the fictional Plunkett but the real-life Father Duffy. That’s the thing: Cagney isn’t the story; he actually gets in the way of the story. So why have him at all? It’s not like O’Brien couldn’t carry a movie. That same year, he carried “Knute Rockne All American.” It’s just that Cagney carried a movie better. Warners wanted the box office.
At least they come up with a rationale for why the focus on Plunkett: Matthew 18:12-13. Duffy says it once or twice in the film:
If a man have 100 sheep, and one of them goeth astray, doth he not leave the 99, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
And if it so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more for that than of the 99 that did not go astray.
Is then when Warners movies began to turn? They’re still about the Irish, but the grit and chicanery, and celebration of same, have been replaced by God, patriotism and sacrifice. The brogues are thick, the blarney full, and the men can’t march without simultaneously breaking into “Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” I watch and miss the winking Warners of “Picture Snatcher.”
At least Cagney gets to use his Yiddish again. There’s a very Jewish-looking recruit improbably named Mike Murphy, who finally fesses up that he changed it to join the Irish 69th. He dies, of course. Father Duffy is there, and Murphy asks for a prayer. “Wouldn’t ye be wanting one in your own faith?” Duffy asks. “No time,” Murphy whispers. So the Father starts blessing him in the Catholic faith. At the end of it, after a reference to Israel, and about the Lord God being one, Murphy starts praying in Hebrew but can’t go on. So Duffy finishes for him. In Hebrew. Nice scene.
The 69th was part of the 42nd Infantry Division, which was—and is—known as the Rainbow Division. “Every color in the spectrum,” Donovan says, even though he basically means white people. Diversity back then meant different white Christians from different states. Plus a Jew. At one point, Donovan ralllies the troops thus:
Every day more and more are joining us, outfits from all over the country. But they’re not coming here as Easterners or Southerners, or Alaskans or New Englanders. Those men are coming here as Americans—to form an organization that represents every part and section of our country: the Rainbow Division. But there’s no room in this rainbow for sectional feuds. Because we’re all one nation now, one team.
It is nice to know that this was always the American argument: diverse elements uniting. The disagreement is always over which diverse elements to include. Father Duffy actually prefigures one such argument:
Duffy: What if you give Captain Mangan an OK to provide buses to take the Jewish boys to Napier.
Donovan: Sure. I’ll take care of that.
Duffy: You know, it’s a good thing there’s no Mohammedans in the regiment. I’d have no time for the war.
Consider Father Duffy in 1918 more inclusive than the GOP today.
One good inning
“The Fighting 69th” has some not-bad battles, a nice Christmastime scene at a church, and a few good lines, usually spoken by Alan Hale:
Soldier: [referring to Plunkett] Gee, that guy hates himself.
Sgt. Wynn: Well, that makes it unanimous.
But it doesn’t let Cagney be Cagney, Brent as “Wild Bill” is dull, and there's a lot of cornball crap that makes war seem noble or a game. “Don’t worry, boys,” an officer says. “We’ll all get a crack at ’em. I wish I wasn’t CO, I’d like one good inning myself.” The movie is about a soldier realizing how horrible war is; but the movie is like that soldier before the realization.
Father Duffy's statue, erected in the 1930s, when sequels to World Wars weren't anticipated.