On yesterday’s date one hundred years ago April 6, 1917 the United States entered WW I.
In The Fighting 69th this 1940 Warner Brothers film remembers three real life heroes during the U.S. involvement on the front lines in France: Journalist and Poet Joyce Kilmer, Catholic Priest, Army Chaplain Father Francis Duffy and Major William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan.
Jeffrey Lynn played Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) who died on the battlefield in France but before he died wrote some of the more inspirational and poignant poems of the time: Prayer of a Soldier in France; Rouge Bouquet and Trees written in 1914. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was dedicated in Kilmer’s memory in 1935. It is an old growth forest of centuries old trees near Asheville, North Carolina.
George Brent played Major Willliam ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (1883-1959) the only American to receive this nations four top awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and National Security Medal. Wild Bill Donovan was wounded in action three times in WWI. Donovan also refused the offer of the Croix de Guerre when a Jewish soldier in his unit that had participated with him in a rescue mission was denied the medal. When the French had realized their Faux Pas slight, Donovan gladly received the medal along with all of the men in his unit that had participated. Donovan was also put in charge of intelligence gathering during WWII as Director of the OSS, he is known as ‘The Father of American Intelligence. Because of Wild Bill’s persistence about intelligence gathering President Truman signed the ‘National Security Act of 1947’ establishing the Central Intelligence Agency.
Pat O’Brian played Father Francis Duffy. This movie: The Fighting 69th is dedicated to his memory. The real Father Duffy also received many awards for bravery during WWI: the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S., the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur decorations from France. Father Duffy received these medals not for his fighting but for his comforting of soldiers at their most vulnerable time in the thick of battle; when they were wounded or dying. In his regiment 640 men died 2,000 were wounded.
James Cagney played Jerry Plunkett a fictional character (or was he?). I must say Cagney played the overbearing, obnoxious, and detestable Jerry Plunkett to the hilt even I wanted to slap him (sorry T). Father Duffy however saw something in Jerry that no one else did and spent the movie trying to get the character to redeem himself using the analogy of, ‘What man of you having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the desert, and go after what which is lost until he finds it?’ Luke 15:4
Character Actors are being honored on TCM this month and this movie,The Fighting 69th has a plethora of Warner Brother’s character actors: Alan Hale, Dick Foran, Frank McHugh, Guinn Williams, Harvey Stephens, Henry O’Neill, John Litel, Sammy Cohen, Tom Dugan and though not a character actor George Reeves has uncredited screen time.