Thursday, August 5, 2010

100 years, 100 films 31: The Fighting 69th (1940)

At the beginning of World War 2, before America had joined the fight (lousy bastards, always showing up late, taking all the credit, grumble bunch of jerks mumble mumble...), the Warner Brothers studio made a series of movies designed specifically to encourage America to get in on the action. The films were invariably set in previous wars, when American badassery had been on full display, and they were all heavily laden with monotonous and repetitive patriotic speeches of the "war is tough, but dammit it will make a man out of you" variety. And it is in this cycle of films that William Keighley's The Fighting 69th belongs.

And I guess it was a fine and admirable goal to try to get Americans to join the war against the Nazis, but there's a problem. This movie sucks. I mean, it really, really sucks. Not just in the boring and annoying way I was expecting: I was prepared for the stupid patriotic speeches, I was prepared for the grating religious bullshit, I was prepared for the hammy acting and the weak jokes. I was prepared to put up with all that, because this film had one major asset, something that I thought would cut through the tedium and irritatance. This film has Jimmy Cagney.

But what does this film do with Jimmy Cagney? What does this film do with the toughest, badassest, take-no-prisoners-est dude who ever fired a gun on the big screen? It turns him into a goddamn coward. It says that all of Cagney's bravura, all of his grit and gumption, they're all just an act, masking an underlying cowardice that makes him inherently weak. NO! No no no no no no no no no. NO! Cagney is not weak! You know what Cagney's badassery is masking? It's masking an even more potent underlying level of badassery, that he's having to keep in check, for fear of making the screen literally melt from awesome! He can be crazy, he can have issues, he can be coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs, but he CANNOT be NOT a badass!

And this film doesn't just make Cagney into a coward, oh no. It doesn't just stop there. This film goes so far to make Cagney so much of a damn coward, that his cowardice gets about thirty people killed! AND THEN, after he's gotten all those men killed, he goes and acts like a coward AGAIN, getting even MORE people killed! And yeah, okay, at the end he does get his "I have to prove myself" moment, stepping up to the plate and dying nobly for his country, but it really doesn't make up for the fact that his actions lead pretty much directly to the pointless deaths of about fifty people. And when I say that it "doesn't make up for" all those deaths, I mean both that the character isn't properly redeemed in the eyes of the audience (he is, after all, still responsible for all those deaths), and that this one scene of Cagney badassery doesn't excuse the film of all those other scenes of Cagney whimpiness.

Also, I don't understand how the hell this was supposed to encourage people to join the army. I mean, if CAGNEY is shitting his pants with fear, how the hell are us mere mortals supposed to stand the pressure? I guess the idea is to say that it doesn't really matter if you are terrified, because you'll get your moment of inevitable heroism. Except that the film ALSO says that, if you are terrified (which the film claims to be pretty much a certainty) then your fear will lead directly to the deaths of scores of men. Oh good! I think I'll join the army, so I can accidentally kill dozens of men, just like Cagney! And then I can kill myself in the line of duty, to make up for it!

I suppose the idea was that the endless speeches would make the audience swell with pride and long to die for their country, but honestly, who gives a shit? They're so standard and forgettable that I can't really imagine anyone being moved by them.

Also, if you think you'll be able to be entertained by the movie by playing the "gay subtext" game, and snickering every time anyone says "69", you won't. It's funny at first, but there's no challenge to it, and the crushing awfulness of every single aspect of the film will suck the fun right out. Just avoid it.

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