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Cagney: “The Fighting 69th”

 

Over the past few months, I have become painfully aware that my writing skills have begun to atrophy. Other priorities have taken precedence, but truth be told, I just haven’t been in the mood. In those fleeting moments when I considered possible topics that might serve to regenerate that interest, I found nothing sufficiently inspiring or motivating. Still, I was reminded of a quote the other day, purportedly coined by author Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” So, here I am, reaching for a club that feels comfortable in my hand, familiar and weighted just right.

Allow me to preface this by first saying that I am no expert on the golden era of American cinema. What I am, however, is a fan of James Cagney. In my collection, of the roughly 67 films that credit Cagney in any significant way, I own or otherwise have copies of all but about three of them. I have been collecting these movies for almost 25 years now, and I count them among the most cherished of my movie library. Be it his portrayal of the classic anti-hero (Tom Powers, Cody Jarrett) or his role as the essential George M. Cohan, Cagney’s on-screen presence has never failed to hold my attention. Indeed, for the sharp of eye, you’ll notice that my Ricochet avatar is none other than James Cagney as Captain Morton, taken on the set of Mr. Roberts. But of all his roles throughout his career, my favorite to this day is his big-talking Jerry Plunkett in The Fighting 69th.

Cagney’s Plunkett is a punk with a tough-guy act and cowardly soul who ultimately redeems himself through a final act of valor on a WWI battlefield. Among the cast are such stalwarts as Pat O’Brien (as Father Francis Patrick Duffy), Alan Hale (the father of the actor many of us watched on Gilligan’s Island), Frank McHugh (the eternal sidekick and comic relief), and Dennis Morgan (Christmas in Connecticut) as Lt. Ames. The movie as a whole pays tribute to the 69th Infantry Regiment, and in particular to Father Duffy. (Duffy Square, the northern tip of Times Square, is named after him). The poet Joyce Kilmer, a sergeant in the 69th, died on the battlefield in 1918. The movie includes a spoken excerpt of his poem “Rouge Bouquet,” written to commemorate the loss of 21 soldiers of the 69th. So while the film is a fictionalized account that centers around Cagney’s character, many of the periphery events are factual and worthy of research.

I was first introduced to this movie in a high school history class. I’m not sure why it captured me and birthed a fascination with Cagney. In any case, I even went so far to buy a piece of movie memorabilia from this film, an authenticated still photo of the scene where Cagney and Hale first face off as Cagney receives his uniform.

Perhaps what I appreciate most is represented by the redemptive storyline played out by Cagney and O’Brien. Cagney’s Plunkett is a malcontent who has major problems with authority, and who despite his bravado makes a disastrous error, resulting in the deaths of several of his comrades. Later, while on a recon mission, Plunkett panics and tries to run away, crying out and giving away their position to the enemy. After a court martial and a subsequent order of execution, a major battle ensues that gives him a final chance for faith, courage and redemption, all of which he takes. Predictable? Of course it is, but it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story in the least. O’Brien’s Father Duffy shines like a beacon in the dark, and clearly is (or should be) the central figure in the story. Indeed, I wish modern cinema had more such characters, accentuating virtue rather than vice. The scripture he quotes and the prayers he utters all throughout the movie, although delivered in typical 1940s stiffness, nevertheless ring authentic and true. Duffy goes after Plunkett as he would the lost sheep, leaving the other 99 for the sake of the one gone so far astray. And while I confess I am a sucker for a good redemption story, I own it. As cynical as I often feel about our current socio-political climate, I continue to believe that nobody is beyond hope, despite all appearance, circumstance, and evidence to the contrary.

The film ends with O’Brien reciting a prayer, as faces of the fallen march by. The words are powerful and speak to an ideal that may be worn, but yet I pray is not entirely lost. They are a fitting end to both the movie and this post:

Oh Heavenly Father,
Here I beseech you the prayer of this America’s lost generation.
They loved life too, O Lord,
It was as sweet to them as to the living of today.
They accepted privation, wounds, and death,
That an ideal might live.
Don’t let it be forgotten, Father.
Amid turmoil and angry passions,
When all worthwhile things seem swept away,
Let the tired eyes of a troubled world rise up,
And see the shining citadel of which these young lives
Form the imperishable stones, America.
A citadel of peace. Peace forevermore.
This I beg of you,
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Published in Entertainment
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Members have made 9 comments.

  1. Member

    Well, the writing skills have not totally withered away. I’m a sucker for a story of redemption, too.

    • #1
    • July 14, 2017 at 12:03 pm
    • 8 likes
  2. Member

    Jim Chase:They accepted privation, wounds, and death,

    That an ideal might live.

    Don’t let it be forgotten, Father.

    Amid turmoil and angry passions,

    How apt for what we as a society face today. Thanks for the reminder.

    • #2
    • July 14, 2017 at 12:08 pm
    • 4 likes
  3. Inactive

    Great post!

    Which three of Cagney’s films do you not have?

    • #3
    • July 15, 2017 at 3:32 pm
    • 1 like
  4. Member
    Jim Chase Post author

    profdlp (View Comment):
    Great post!

    Which three of Cagney’s films do you not have?

    Thanks! Let’s see …

    Ceiling Zero (1936)

    Frisco Kid (1935) – Most certainly not to be confused with the Gene Wilder movie of the same name

    Come Fill the Cup (1951)

    I’m patient. I’ll find them eventually. :-)

    • #4
    • July 15, 2017 at 5:16 pm
    • 4 likes
  5. Member

    Just finished watching “The Fighting 69th” on your recommendation. I guess it’s not the worst war movie ever, but it’s only so so.

    • #5
    • July 15, 2017 at 8:46 pm
    • 1 like
  6. Member

    Good piece on an interesting film. I wrote about it in my blog about church and clergy in film.

    • #6
    • July 15, 2017 at 10:31 pm
    • 1 like
  7. Member
    Jim Chase Post author

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):
    Good piece on an interesting film. I wrote about it in my blog about church and clergy in film.

    I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing that.

    • #7
    • July 16, 2017 at 7:11 am
    • 1 like
  8. Member
    Jim Chase Post author

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Just finished watching “The Fighting 69th” on your recommendation. I guess it’s not the worst war movie ever, but it’s only so so.

    As a war movie, I don’t disagree. Doesn’t lessen my enjoyment though. Studios even then were more concerned about making a buck than anything else. It was 1940, and Warner Brothers quite intentionally put out product that tapped into (and sometimes fed) the patriotic sensibilities of movie-goers. The real life Cagney had a profound love of country, so he was a natural draw. Still, your point rings true. A lot of Cagney movies are so-so. But in my estimation, he rarely was.

    • #8
    • July 16, 2017 at 7:29 am
    • 2 likes
  9. Member

    I just finished watching “The Fighting 69th” too. Thank you, I was entertained.

    My favorite war movie is “In Harm’s Way”. While the effects might be considered “quaint” by today’s standards, I always felt the interplay between the characters was realistic. For instance, the relationship between Patricia Neal and John Wayne’s characters as they struggle with trying to remain human in a time of inhumanity. I’ll always remember the lines between them when they realize that they’re both shipping out to parts unknown, probably never seeing each other again and neither of them are youngsters. Two adults, negotiating an adult liaison in a time of war. Classic, classy and humorous, in a “practical” sort of way.

    • #9
    • July 16, 2017 at 5:04 pm
    • 3 likes