Based on the adventures of New York’s crack Irish regiment during the First World War, The Fighting 69th is a vigorously melodramatic war picture.
Story is a factual presentation of the 69th’s war record, from training at Camp Mills through its major engagements at the front, with fictional interpolations for dramatic purposes. It’s a vivid display of soldiering under fire – back of the lines, in the front line trenches and up in No Man’s Land.
With an all-male cast, picture carries no semblance of romantic interest. Not only are wives and sweethearts missing from farewells at Camp Mills, but scripters side-stepped the inclusion of French maids to provide diversion for the American doughboys.
Cagney has a definitely unsympathetic role as the smart-alec recruit from Brooklyn whose mental and physical fibre disintegrates under fire. His eventual regeneration through the efforts of Father Duffy (Pat O’Brien) comes too late to evince much audience sympathy for the character.
Despite the handicaps provided by a despicable role, Cagney scores with a highlight performance. O’Brien is effective as the famous Father Duffy, although the script confines his efforts mainly to straightening out the troublesome Cagney. George Brent essays the role of ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, head of the outfit; Jeffrey Lynn is excellent in too-brief appearances as the poet, Joyce Kilmer, and Alan Hale is a typical tough top sergeant in the regiment.