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"The Fighting 69th" is a First World War regiment of mostly New York-Irish soldiers. Amongst a cocky crew, perhaps the cockiest is Jerry Plunkett, a scrappy fellow who looks out only for himself. The officers and non-coms of the regiment do their best to instill discipline in Plunkett, and the chaplain, Father Duffy, tries to make Plunkett see the greater good, all to no avail. Behind the lines or in the trenches, Plunkett acts selfishly and cowardly, eventually costing the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. A final act of cowardice leads to terrible consequences, but Plunkett sees in them a chance to redeem himself...if only he can. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Recent American moviegoers who saw Martin Scorsese's great film, The Gangs of New York would probably think that the Civil War Draft Riots represented the unanimous Irish opinion on the American Civil War. Far from it and the regiment known as the 69th New York won honor and glory for itself in the Civil War.
The Spanish American War was over before it saw any action, but that was certainly made up for in World War I. The Fighting 69th as this film was called did the stuff legends are made of and a few personal legends came out of that conflict.
In the years 1938-1941 Hollywood turned out a whole load of patriotic type films. Either about past American wars or about military preparedness for the war to come, these flicks weren't deep or subtle. But they were great entertainment.
The Fighting 69th is based on two real American heroes, William J. Donovan and Father Francis P. Duffy, played by George Brent and Pat O'Brien and a fictional one named Jerry Plunkett played by James Cagney.
William J. Donovan (Will Bill as he was known)among other awards won the Congressional Medal of Honor. He had a distinguished career in the Harding-Coolidge Justice Department and also ran for Governor of New York in 1932, a bad year for Republicans which Donovan was. After this film was made, FDR appointed Donovan to head the Office of Strategic Services, our American intelligence service in World War II and the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. His biography would be a great film, maybe someone will do it one day.
When Father Francis P. Duffy died in 1932, he was one of New York's beloved figures by all faiths. He was the chaplain of the regiment, having been so since the Spanish American War. During World War II, he never stayed behind the lines, he traveled with a combat medical unit and went where the fighting was the thickest. The closest person we've had to him recently was Father Mychal Judge of the NYC Fire Department who accompanied the firemen into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11/01. A couple of Catholic priests who walked the walk were Duffy and Judge.
After the war Duffy became pastor of the "Actor's church" on West 42nd Street in Hell's Kitchen, but near the theater district. When he passed on, a statue of him still there today was put in the triangle opposite Times Square. And that triangle was renamed Duffy Square.
Both Donovan and Duffy figure prominently in Cagney's story in The Fighting 69th. For the first half Cagney is his usual streetwise, cocky urban self. The second half of the film as he's brought to the realities of war reveal a different Plunkett. It's also a great test of what a fabulous player James Cagney was, to show the change in Plunkett's character. The main story line is what happens to Cagney in the film and he's brilliant.
If anyone is looking for a film about the causes of and how America got into World War I, this ain't the film. Some in current audiences will find it flag waving and super-patriotic and it sure is. But it's well acted flag waving.
One of these days someone may do a film that concentrates solely on the careers of either Donovan or Duffy. Hopefully soon.
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