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The Fighting 69th

The Fighting 69th (click on the link to view it on YouTube) features James Cagney and Pat O’Brien performing an interesting repetition of the tough-guy priest and charismatic misfit roles they played two years earlier in Angels with Dirty Faces. In my review of Angels, I took issue with the failure of the priest to move beyond the ethical sphere. In The Fighting 69th, O’Brien’s Fr. Duffy–based on an actual WWI army chaplain–is much more satisfyingly depicted in a religious mode proper to his priestly office. Fr. Duffy utters heart-felt prayers, invokes Christ, blesses an officer who unabashedly kneels before him, hears confessions, celebrates Mass, sensitively interacts with and ministers to Protestant and Jewish soldiers as well as their Catholic counterparts, and simultaneously exudes both a lightness and a gravity towards the soldiers under his care. The battlefield setting, fraught with danger and death, highlights the priest’s sacrificial role, his standing in the place of Christ, side-by-side with young men who are also offering themselves up to be sacrificed. Then we have Cagney’s mouthy Jerry Plunkett. Although Cagney’s charisma is still in play, he convincingly portrays Plunkett as a much more repellant and alienated character than his gangster counterpart in Angels. At every turn, Plunkett responds to military discipline with a sneering grin and a smart mouth–towards superiors and fellow soldiers alike. Fr. Duffy alone reaches out to Plunkett and defends him when Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (played by George Brent) decides to transfer him to a different battalion. Fr. Duffy convinces the major to let him stay, but Plunkett continues to be an obnoxious cad out of battle and a coward who endangers the lives of his fellow soldiers in battle. You can guess how it ends. Twice Fr. Duffy references Christ’s words about there being more rejoicing in heaven over the one lost soul who is saved than the ninety-nine that didn’t stray from the fold. Overall the movie is dramatically less successful than Angels with Dirty Faces, but more successful in plumbing the depths of life and death and sin and redemption.

Overall grade: C+
Priest factor: A-

[Return to 52 Movies for the Year of the Priest]


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    Tremendous review. You should bump Lickona at the San Diego Reader.

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