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FIGHTING 69TH, THE (director: William Keighley; screenwriters: Norman Reilly Raine/Fred Niblo Jr./Dean Franklin; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Owen Marks; music: Adolph Deutsch; cast: James Cagney (Jerry Plunkett), Pat O’Brien (Father Francis J. Duffy), George Brent (Major ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan), Jeffrey Lynn (Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, poet), Alan Hale (Sergeant ‘Big Mike’ Wynn), Frank McHugh (Terence ‘Crepe-Hanger’ Burke), Dennis Morgan (Lieutenant Oliver Ames), Dick Foran (John Wynnt), Sam Cohan (Mike Murphy; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hal B. Wallis/Jack L. Warner; Warner Brothers; 1940)
“A sentimental recruiting poster account of the famed First World War New York National Guard division of mostly Irish-Americans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sentimental recruiting poster account of the famed First World War New York National Guard regiment of mostly Irish-Americans who bravely fought during the war with the Rainbow Division in the years 1917-1918 and were affectionately nicknamed “The Fighting 69th.” It’s a sugary old-fashioned patriotic melodrama that follows the war effort through the story of pious army priest Father Duffy (Pat O’Brien) and how he never gave up on his charge, a mixed up kid, offering him his spiritual guidance to help him learn the meaning of patriotism. It’s set during World War I and follows smart-aleck streetwise punky recruit Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney) from Brooklyn. It trails the boastful Jerry, who talks as if he can lick the Germans single-handedly: He gets his initial physical exam, trains at Camp Mills and gets into his first combat. Jerry fails that task with flying colors, as he turns coward and inadvertently reveals the 69th’s position. He’s arrested for causing the death of many of his fellow soldiers and sentenced to death. But the stockade where he’s being held, conveniently gets bombed and he’s given a second chance by Father Duffy’s words of approval to the commanders. Jerry redeems himself by his heroic action in the battlefield, and receives a hero’s death on the battlefield instead of a coward’s death by a firing squad.

Real-life personages are depicted: such as the leader of the The Fighting 69th and future OSS leader Major ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (George Brent); Father Duffy, whose statue stands in Times Square; and soldier poet Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lynn).

William Keighley (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) does a workmanlike job directing, while screenwriters Norman Reilly Raine, Fred Niblo Jr., and Dean Franklin turn in a serviceable script. In its favor the battle scenes are exciting and Cagney acquits himself with distinction in his gripping ‘screaming with agony’ scene. The film serves as a reminder from Warner Brothers to be ready for the next war, which is just a short time away with the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”