Fighting 69th, The (1940): James Cagney at WWII

Produced by Hal Wallis as Warners’ contribution to the recruitment campaign, The Fighting 69th is probably James Cagney’s most characteristic and most popular war movie, one that enables him to display his specialty: explosive energy. Based on an original screenplay, it is a fictionalized account of New York’s famed “the Fighting Irish” regiment, which started during the Civil War and in 1917 was incorporated into the Army.

Cagney’s Private Jerry Plunkette, a despicable tough Irishman from Brooklyn, sneers at the regiment’s traditions and jeers at his chaplain, played by the reliable pro Pat O’Brien. When Jerry’s unit is sent to the European front, he gets hysterical at the very first sight of a dead body. Later, his cowardice and irresponsibility, revealing to the enemy his unit’s position, bring death to many of his fellowmen.

At the end, however, Jerry dies heroically, proving himself to be a worthy soldier, though not before he is taught basic values by the priest. The transformation of Cagney’s screen characters is always from a cocky, obnoxious recruit to a disciplined soldier.

If Cagney were not older (and bigger) star than John Wayne at the time, one could imagine Wayne’s commanders making a “real man” out of him. Cagney’s and Wayne’s screen persona in their war films complemented each other.