Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fighting 69th, The (1940)

Warner Bros.
Director: William Keighley

In 1940 the United States watched as war broke out in Europe, frightfully reminiscent of the “War to End All Wars” that took place just a little more than two decades prior. At this time Warner Bros. produced the war picture The Fighting 69th which played as a mix of a patriotic film, an anti-war film, and a redemption story all rolled into one. A feature that celebrates the proud, brave men that helped to win World War I reminds audiences the horrors of war at a time when America was trying to stay away from the battles that were spreading overseas. Playing into how American saw it at the time, the picture was an anti-war film as citizens did not want to relive the tragedy of losing so many American men in the act of war.

The Fighting 69th is a war picture reenacting events of the of the New York 69th Infantry during World War I, centering on one fictional private’s selfishness getting in the way to be a soldier for the proud unit. The story centers on the cocky Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney) and is inability to fit into the very proud 69th Infantry of New York as they proceed through boot camp and ship off to war in France. His selfish demeanor turns to cowardice on the front lines, resulting in the deaths of a number of his fellow soldiers. While his strict commanding officer, Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent), has Plunkett set for punishment, it is the unit’s Chaplin, Father Duffy (Pat O’Brien), who attempts to reform the lost soul that is Plunkett. As the hell of war appears to take a disastrous turn for the unit, Plunkett redeems himself in the sacrifice of throwing himself on a grenade to save the lives of his fellows soldiers. For the film’s celebratory finale the audience watches archival footage of the real 69th as that march in a grand parade through Paris as victors of war.

In this film about selfishness and cowardice followed by ultimate redemption we acquire the story of the real life New York Infantry and their experiences during World War I. The feature is a rather forced war picture that follows the usual plot points of a redemption tale based of the very real emotion of cowardice of men being sent to fight on the front lines. Even more so, the film is a bit of a history lesson as it recreates fictional representations of the actual events, which play out more as a straight forward glorified historical account rather than a full story arch.

Many characters in the picture depict actual soldiers who fought for the regiment during World War I, but it is the fictional Plunkett, played by James Cagney, is the focus of the film’s drama. Cagney, tired of the usual mobster roles of his successful past, was beginning to look for more serious roles under Warner Bros. Here, however, he is given yet another tough guy role, but with the twist of being a complete coward underneath. It is not a very different character from what Warner Bros. usual had Cagney perform as his Plunkett disrespects authority and looks out primarily for himself, but the morality tale that comes full circle as the soldier come around and perform the ultimate unselfish act in sacrificing himself for the greater good of the regiment. It was not much of a change for Cagney from his usual roles, as it is similar to what he was like in Angels With Dirty Faces, but it was a first step for him in expanding his work beyond the crime dramas that he felt Warner’s as cornering him in in career.

To aide Cagney in this production Warner Bros. would have William Keighley direct. Keighley had directed Cagney in a couple of pictures in the past and was experienced in period pictures, helping to bring to live the era of war time in the 1910s.

Real life friends O'Brien and Cagney.
Angels With Dirty Faces co-star and good friend of Cagney’s Pat O’Brien appears in the film as Father Francis Duffy, depicting the real life military chaplin to whom the film is partially dedicated to, along with the rest of the 69th infantry. O’Brien and Cangey had worked together many times making their chemistry rather strong. O’Brien, like in Angels…, plays the pious voice of reason teaching the lessons that are ultimately absorbed by Chaney’s character. O’Brien usually played voices of authority and reason as he relays a religious overtone to the struggles of a soldier that fears dying to a point that he is willing to put his fellow soldier in harm’s way. O’Brien’s performance is understated and can be forgettable, but he was a well-liked actor of his day and a true professional.

George Brent’s performance as “Wild Bill” Donovan can be called anything else rather than “wild.” Depicting the real life Army Major, Brent’s performance too is rather flat, serving more as the vehicle of punishment for Plunkett that would not take place before the soldier’ sacrificial death.  Brent, usually known for his romantic movie roles, here plays commanding officer that in the picture does very little. As an actor it feels as if Brent is a bit out of place trying to be a hard-nosed officer as he comes off as a softer individual.

Hale character has the largest problem with Cagney.
However Alan Hale’s performance as the supporting character “Big Mike” Wynn is more inspired, carrying more emotion behind him. Hale too depicts a real soldier form the war, and his character contains the most loss as Plunkett’s actions leads to the deaths of Wynn’s brothers. These plot points allow Wynn’s performance to carry extra sensitivity to Plunkett’s cowardice. Hale’s large, tough, albeit out of round, frame makes him believable as a rough soldier who would have a run in with Cangey’s character.

With many locations including the training camp and battlefields recreated on a large Southern California ranch owned by Warner Bros. there is great detail to showing the lives these soldiers went through from training to fighting on the front lines. However, the picture does cut some corners with utilizing stock war footage and even archival film of the actual parade of soldiers in Paris, of which the actual 69th infantry did take part in. As a result the picture does have its well-produced quality with jarring moments of film footage which looks strangely different in style and quality.

The feature contains very little drama outside the internal struggles of Plunkett as he comes to grips with his cowardice while overseas. The important part of the picture’s history is that it was produced and released to audiences over a year before America was drawn into the conflicts of the Second World War. While Europe was battling Nazi Germany Americans remained bystanders, but still had a vesting interest in the war as many had cultural heritage going back to Europe. Even in this film the 69th was known for being a heavily Irish refinement, but the story reminds audiences that they are all American’s fighting for a common goal.

The picture celebrates America, but reminds people of the horrors of how war affects others as they lose loved ones in battle. For this it can be seen as an anti-war picture shrouded in an up-with-America historical drama about brave soldiers in battle. In a way the film would help to prepare Americans as in the near future men of the nation would once again volunteer to protect their country as Americans would fight in a yet another world war.

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