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A Film About Bravado, Cowardice, and Redemption During WWI

Posted on Tue, April 4, 2017
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The Fighting 69th | Warner Bros., 1940 | Directed by William Keighley
Starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, George Brent, Alan Hale, and Dennis Morgan

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. America “threw its hat in the ring,” as the press proclaimed. The war weary Allies were anxious to see fresh U.S. troops in their ranks to gain the final advantage over Germany, but it would take some months before large numbers of American soldiers set foot on European soil. Isolation from the war since the European conflict began in 1914 left the U.S. Army unprepared for the large-scale, technological war they were about to join. Most of the American force did not arrive in France until 1918.

The latest film in our Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen film series is the story of the American Expeditionary Force’s arrival in France in World War I. Based on the real-life exploits of New York City’s 69th Infantry Regiment, The Fighting 69th features several real-life characters: Father Francis Duffy, a heroic and selfless Army chaplain; battalion commander and future OSS leader, the legendary “Wild Bill­” Donovan; and the famous American poet, Joyce Kilmer, among others. The film revolves around James Cagney’s fictional character, Jerry Plunkett, telling a tale of one soldier’s bravado, cowardice, and redemption. Plunkett boasts of bravery before the shooting begins, but then reveals cowardice in the face of battle, causing the unnecessary death of many of his comrades. The movie follows Plunkett’s path to redemption as it effectively portrays the larger story of the American experience in the trenches and the role played by the United States in bringing the war to an end. Many of the events depicted in the film actually happened. Unusual for the time, no female characters appear in the movie. Priscilla Lane was originally cast as a soldier’s “girl back home,” but was dropped before production began.

A bit of movie trivia to watch for is James Cagney speaking Yiddish. Cagney picked up the language as a boy growing up in New York’s Lower East Side, and he showed off his Yiddish in several of his films, including Taxi! in 1932 and The Fighting 69th. Filled with strong performances and gripping battle scenes, The Fighting 69th is an entertaining, stirring, and poignant film about America’s entry into the Great War.

Request Free Tickets
The Fighting 69th will be shown at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., on April 7, 2017. Request free tickets for the screenings. Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen is a year-long film series showing Hollywood’s finest feature films on World War I, and is part of the National Air and Space Museum’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

Before the screening in Washington, DC, join me, Chief Curator Peter Jakab, for a tour of the new exhibition, Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War, which offers a very human perspective on the war through never-before-seen artwork created by soldiers in WWI.