The Fighting 69th (1940)
Director: William Keighley
Cast: James Cagney (Jerry Plunkett), Pat O'Brien (Father Francis J. Duffy), George Brent (Major 'Wild Bill' Donovan), Jeffrey Lynn (Sergeant Joyce Kilmer), Alan Hale (Sergeant 'Big Mike' Wynn), Frank McHugh (Terence 'Crepe-Hanger' Burke), Dennis Morgan (Lieutenant Oliver Ames), Dick Foran (Lieutenant 'Long John' Wynn), William Lundigan (Private Timothy 'Timmy' Wynn), Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (Paddy Dolan), Henry O'Neill (The Colonel), John Litel (Captain Mangan), Sammy Cohen (Mike Murphy, an alias of Mischa Moskowitz), Harvey Stephens (Major Alex Anderson), William Hopper (Private Turner).
Irish-American unit sent to fight in WWI
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of much of the film.
The 69th New York was a regiment that won fame and renown as part of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. And now they are to be sent to France to fight in World War I. No surprise that Cagney plays the cocky wise-ass. But he's not so cocky when the bullets start flying.
The action opens at Camp Mills with Major Donovan swearing in the new recruits, among who is Jerry Plunkett, a real wise-ass. He immediately starts to get under the skin of the sergeant and the officers.
There are three brothers in the unit: Lt. Wynn, Sgt. Wynn, and Private Timothy Wynn. Also in the unit is the famous poet Joyce Kilmer. And then there is the famous Father Duffy, who won the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal and Conspicuous Service Cross, among others. (Duffy Square in New York City is where people can get discount tickets for the day's performances on Broadway. He has a statue nearby.)
The 69th New York gets into a fist fight with the 4th Alabama over the claim that the latter kicked the former's butt at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War. The Major and Father Duffy break up the fight. The Major first explains that the claim is true, but that the Alabamians cheered their heads off because the 69th were a game enemy. Having that said, the Major gives a great speech that they are all American troops, all a part of the United States Army. The 69th will be known as the 165th US Infantry, while the 4th Alabama will be the 167th US Infantry.
Father Duffy really extends himself to help Jerry Plunkett turn his life around, but with little apparent effect. When the unit reaches France and the soldiers see action, Father Duffy often risked his life by staying with his troops in the trenches.
A specific order was given to Plunkett not to fire off a flare gun he had gotten his hands on. But Plunkett fires the gun off anyway, because he wants to get even with the enemy gunner who shot at him. This allows the German artillery to zero in on the positions of the old 69th and they kill a number of the unit. Plunkett receives the blame and he does develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, being haunted by the faces of the dead soldiers, but his behavior does not get any better. In some ways, his behavior becomes worse as now he is petrified with the fear of being killed.
Is Father Duffy ever going to be able to get Plunkett straightened out? Or are more men to be lost through the bad behavior of Plunkett?
Joyce Kilmer died during World War I, but not the way portrayed in the movie.
It was great to see the old team of Cagney and O-Brien again after a long absence. Cagney played some real plucky parts, while O'Brien was usually the serious and sensitive one.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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