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The Fighting 69th

Gasser

The Fighting 69th (1940)

     One of the reasons I started blogging about the classic movies I am constantly watching is because I tend to forget what I have seen. Often movie titles reveal little about a movie’s actual plot and many of the scenarios blend together to the point that I found myself getting 15 minutes into Sinatra‘s Higher and Higher more than once before realizing I had already endured it. The same is true of James Cagney in The Fighting 69th. I sat through this entire movie the other day and eventually concluded that, indeed, I had seen it before yet had entirely forgotten it. And as the days passed since watching it last week I found again that it was becoming forgettable.

     I am not sure what makes a movie flee one’s memory banks. I’m sure the pedestrian nature of some stories or the unimpactful story of others makes a movie not worth remembering, but The Fighting 69th is not a story or a performance worth mentally abandoning. Cagney not only gives a great performance of an arrogant, if not obnoxious soldier, but it is one of only two movies I can think of that depict American war cowards (the other be For Me and My Gal). The ratio of war-hero to war-coward movies must be in the range of thousands to one and yet The Fighting 69th leaves only a fleeting impression on me.

     Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett who has joined up with an all-Irish New York military outfit that during the Civil War was known as the Fighting 69th. They maintain that title in World War I. During training stateside, all Jerry can do is complain about how he wants to see some action and slur sass at his superior officers, including Father Duffey, played by common Cagney costar Pat O’Brien.

     Even when the troop gets to Europe, Jerry tries to show his mettle by carrying multiple loads while the other men struggle to endure the endless walks in the mud. When the bullets finally start flying, however, Jerry becomes a royal screw up. He sends up a flare from the trenches one night that signals to the enemy their location, and the shell fire results in an underground cave in that kills many soldiers. Jerry continues to make spineless mistakes that result in the death of others to the point that he is imprisoned and set for execution. The man will thankfully redeem himself before his end.

     Cagney does a great job in this role that although it separated him from his gangster persona, still rings of a low life. The story is poignant in that it connects us with three brothers among the Fighting 69th of varying rank (Alan Hale, Dick Foran, William Lundigan). When one dies our hearts break as they do when the poet we’ve gotten to know also meets his fate. Although the reaction might vary by viewer, I did not feel remorse for Jerry’s loss as it became a necessary means to an end and solution that could pardon him from his past sins.

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