The Fighting 69th was a real infantry regiment in the United States Army, part of the New York National Guard, an Irish Heritage unit that fought throughout WWI, and part of the Rainbow Division, one, as its commanding officer, Major Wild Bill Donovan (George Brent) explains in the film, has no room "for sectional feuds. Because we're all one nation now, one team, an All-American team, pulling together." (That veers fairly close to the sports-military complex that's all the rage these days, suggesting things are the same as they ever were.) The 69th numerous battles throughout that war, any one of which, or all of them together, would have been enough to sustain a full motion picture narrative. Ah, but this is Hollywood, one where the forests of 20th century France look suspiciously like the forests of California. And because this was 1940's Hollywood and the height of the Star Machine, "The Fighting 69th" concocts Pvt. Jerry Plunkett, a tough-talking, no-crap taking, my way or the highway New Yorker who runs up against just about every single person in the regiment at one time or another.
Plunkett is played by James Cagney. And from the first moment we lay eyes on him, ordered to take off his cap as he and the rest of the new recruits pledge allegiance to the United States Army, you can tell he'll be one of those guys, the manner in which he checks out everyone and everything around him, disinterested with the army's authoritarian nature, poking fun and talking trash, and ceaselessly waiting for when they get to battle since, hey, ain't that what the army's all about? Kicking ass and taking names?
He's got a little Robert E. Lee Prewitt him, for sure, though Pvt. Prewitt also had friends, and would stand by those friends come hell or Biblical floods, and was one hell of a soldier and a top notch fighter to boot. He did it his way, but he could, as he'd tell you, soldier with any man. Plunkett, on the other hand, merely thinks he can soldier with any man, and Cagney sells that cocky self-centered nature with all he's got. No one likes him and he doesn't much care, and he expresses that lack of care with that classic Cagney hotheaded grin.
The film seems to be setting itself up as a kind of contrast because the all in nationalistic nature of the army that made America so great in the time of World Wars and the individualist streak that made so many Americans great too. How can two such disparate attitudes co-exist, a question we are still, in one way or another, asking today. Ah, but if this is Hollywood it is also still America, and as the slogan says, for God and Country. God first; Country second.
The most critical supporting character in "The Fighting 69th" turns out not to be Major Wild Bill Donovan, but Francis P. Duffy. That is, Father Francis P. Duffy, the 69th's chaplain, a man of great faith played by Pat O'Brien in a moving performance, one where he uses his own grin, less hotheaded and much more amiable, to grand effect, letting us know that he knows these men and what they're up against better than they know it themselves. And with Plunkett drifting, Duffy tries to break through to him.
There is a wonderful sequence set on Christmas Eve when Father Duffy holds mass and Keighley cuts from a filled up chaplain where soldiers sing hymns to a shot outside the chapel where Plunkett kicks around all on his own. He enters to see what it's all about, sticking to the back, though Father Duffy sees him. Plunkett pretty quick chooses not to stick around, but Duffy offers up a prayer, one cutting through the carol-singing in the background,
Christian cinema is all the rage these days. Why just the other day at the big AMC theater downtown I walked past two Christian movie standees right in a row before seeing a couple trailers for two different Christian movies a few minutes later. And watching "The Fighting 69th" I couldn't help but think of how so many modern day followers of Christian cinema might really dig this one. Yes, it develops into a wartime story, one where Plunkett fails to live up to all that cockiness he has projected, getting scared on the front lines and really turning everyone against him. But after that it becomes less about Plunkett manning up and blowing some bad dudes away and more about finding the fortitude to forgive himself, and for his fellow soldiers finding the fortitude to forgive him too.
That they do, and that he does, probably goes without saying. Still, "The Fighting 69th" never becomes schmaltzy, like a cinematic Jesus fish thrust in your face, telling you to believe, goddammit, or else. The film's most indelible shot finds a sorta reformed Plunkett looking up, as if not quite sure God is actually up there, but wanting to believe He really is nonetheless. I could relate.