If I had to name one event that had the biggest negative influence on the quality of Great War Films it would be the 2nd World War. Either through the direct influence of Governments or indirectly by the drive to produce patriotic content, the films of the late 30’s and early 40’s almost universally suck. There are some exceptions, as always, but in the most part it would be in your best interest to steer well clear and let me do the hard work for you. Tonight’s film is not, I repeat NOT one of the exceptions. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you ‘The Fighting 69th’ (1940).
Top billing goes to Jimmy Cagney, an actor who was at the peak of his abilities around about this time. Orson Welles rated Cagney as the best character actor he knew but I think he would’ve struggled to enjoy this one. Cagney, quite frankly, deserved something better to work with and I’m not blaming him or his performance for making this film bad but I do wonder why he’d take on this role with a director who offered him little chance to add anything of his own to the role.
Nothing seems to happen for the first 40 odd minutes as the Cagney character first enters as an annoying, Napoleon Complex idiot and becomes slowly less likeable as time passes. We get all the usual Hollywood Army film bullshit. A montage of training moments, a fight between divisions, a ballbusting Officer. Note to Studio…MUST TRY HARDER. It all seems very strictly scripted and there is a distinct lack of acting happening even from Cagney. Everyone reads their lines pretty much verbatim from a granite slab script that was chiselled by some of Hollywoods’ massed legions of $1 a day hacks.I do have some positive things to talk about. The battle scenes are a slight reprieve. There are short tracking shots that work very well, although I’d say they have copied ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ without adding anything new. The cinematography lacked some of the sizzle of earlier films such as ‘All Quiet…’ ‘J’accuse’ and especially ‘Wings’. All produced at least 10 years prior. The shots we have here are mostly rear shots of the troops moving forward or shots from high, stationary, gantry mounted cameras with small wiz bangs for explosions throwing obvious dummies into the air. There is even a pre-sawn tree that, upon taking a direct hit from a shell ‘splinters’ into 2 neat halves.
It’s also chock-a-block with religious motifs and is obviously a calls to arms for pre Pearl Harbour 2nd World War America. It was apparently well received at the time due to the patriotic fervour that was being whipped up in the States as the rest of the World was already at war. The Cagney character is thoroughly unlikeable for at least 90% of the film. He single-handedly gets more Americans killed through his cowardly actions that all the Germans in the vicinity combined before he pulls himself together and finds God. He realises the error of his ways shortly before jumping on a minenwerther to save a comrade at the end. It’s a shame he didn’t do it earlier on so the story could’ve focussed on the real life, true story characters included as support for Cagney’s high jinx.This could’ve been a good film. If they had focussed on the real life characters who were in the Fighting 69th during the Great War such as Father Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan and Poet Joyce Kilmer. Any one of these guys stories are worthy of telling but no, we get 90 odd minutes of Cagney being an annoying dick, getting his mates killed and not letting anyone help him.The end sequence is particularly sugary with elements stolen wholesale from All Quiet of the Western Front. As Padre Duffy recites some sentimental patriotica, the dead soldiers (mostly killed by that asshole Cagney!) are revived and march across the screen saluting. It’s the ending of All Quiet… but not as good. They stole the idea and then muffed it up. If it wasn’t the end I would’ve turned it off.
That’s it. All I have to say. There went 90 minutes of my life that will never return. Clicky Clicky right here if you want to own this disaster.