the 69th New York --, the most decorated cleric in U.S. military history -- Father Francis Duffy -- and a movie star at the height of his game. Throw those three things together and what do you get? A sometimes overdone, mostly effective and definitely a product of its time, 1940's The Fighting 69th.
As the United States enters the fighting in 1917 in World War I, units are assembled all over the country, including the 69th New York, a regiment dating back to its fighting with the Union in the Civil War. At the head of the unit is Major Wild Bill Donovan (George Brent) who intends to shape up his regiment composed almost entirely of Irishmen from all over the state, and he does so with the help of Catholic priest Father Duffy (Pat O'Brien). Among the new recruits though is a troublemaker, Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney), a spark plug of a man with no real regard for authority who only wants to get to Europe and kill his fair share of Germans.
From director William Keighley, this 1940 war picture rises above a fair share of limitations while using the concept of a 'unit picture' as a jumping off point. It takes a group of men -- in this case the very Irish 69th New York -- and takes us through their training and/or bonding, deployment in war, and then the actual battles. Even with a 1940 release, 'Fighting' does a good job portraying the horrors of WWI. Trench warfare produced some of the nastiest fighting the world has ever seen, and it's easy to see why here. Certain shots and scenes stuck with me, including close-up shots of feet walking by the crude wooden crosses marking muddy graves, the shots of terror of artillery raining down on men in trenches, and of course the suicidal charges across no man's land into German machine guns.
Very much an established star by 1940, Cagney is both good and bad here. At times, he resorts back to stereotypical Cagney; loud and aggressive, boisterous because he can be, annoying to the point you want to rip your ears off and punch him in the face. Other times? You admire the character he's created; a blowhard of a man who really isn't all that confident but puts up a false front just the same. The antics become a little too much at times to the point it feels like the movie is just piling on. Whether or not you'll be able to enjoy this movie will no doubt revolve around being able to sift through the grating at times to get through to the real performance. In the end, it's worth it.
A solid supporting cast backs Cagney up. One thing I can say as an Irishman....don't mess with the Irish. Portraying the real-life hero Father Duffy, O'Brien delivers a saintly performance, one meant to honor the famous priest. No flaws, no mistakes, just a hero. It's an okay performance if laid on a little thick. Brent is all right as Donovan, the stiff-jawed commander of the 69th. Alan Hale is very good as Sgt. Wynn, the drill sergeant trying to toughen up his men while Jeffrey Lynn is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, a poet/writer who should be an officer and leader, not just a little Indian. Also look for a grating comedic performance from Frank McHugh, Dennis Morgan as the selfless Lt. Ames, and Guinn Williams as Pvt. Dolan, the sort-of slow but well-meaning brute of a soldier.
Without any real sense of subtlety, 'Fighting' tried its best to drive me nuts, and there were parts I just couldn't stand. The brawling Irishmen, the very broad humor, the antics from Plunkett, they all tried to make this a difficult movie to enjoy. But in the end, I was very moved by the finale (and that's knowing what's coming if you've got two working brain cells). Even then, the battle scenes go too far, Cagney's Plunkett sending mortars at a German position with cries of "That's for Brooklyn!" or "Take that, you Krauts!" but it still manages to be effective. There's that part of me that wants to rip this movie, but I just can't too much. I liked it almost in spite of itself. Maybe it's the Irish in me.
The Fighting 69th <---trailer (1940): ***/****