Judge Steve Evans prefers war flicks with a little more war.
The guts and glory of the fighting Navy!
Billed as the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan, this wartime propaganda is based on the true story of five brothers who died together on a Navy battleship during World War II. The Fighting Sullivans is wholesome as apple pie and manipulative as anything Frank Capra ever directed. You'll cry anyway.
Facts of the Case
The film follows the lives of the five Sullivan brothers from cradle to grave. Born and raised in Iowa during the Depression, the inseparable siblings get into the usual juvenile mischief that aggravates mother (Selena Royle, Branded) and bemuses their stern but loving father (Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind). The brothers reach adulthood, some of them marry, and all of them enlist in the U.S. Navy when the living room radio crackles with news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Stationed on the USS Juneau in the Pacific Theater, the five Sullivans engage in a pitched battle with the Japanese before their cruiser is torpedoed and sunk, killing all of the brothers. A telegram to the Sullivan family back in Iowa concludes the picture on a sorrowful note, rendered nonsensical by a final shot of the brothers, their ghostly apparitions smiling and waving farewell as they presumably march their way toward Heaven.
Here's that rarest of war films: a World War II movie that contains less than 10 minutes of actual war. By the time we get to the naval battle in the Pacific, the movie has less than a quarter hour to go. This is no classic, but a heartfelt rendering of vanished Americana with an almost precious air of innocence. Directed by Lloyd Bacon (The Oklahoma Kid), whose 30-year career included more than 120 films dating to the silent era, The Fighting Sullivans was Oscar nominated in 1945 for best writing. It lost to the Bing Crosby picture Going My Way.
The film is based on the true story of the Sullivan family, whose five sons served on the same battleship on which they all died in 1942 off Guadalcanal. The family's loss spurred a change in U.S. military regulations that now prohibit members of the same family from serving in the same unit.
The movie's three acts divide up precisely at 40 minutes for each of the first two movements, with a fleeting glimpse of war and a tear-jerking epilogue to finish the last half hour. Act One follows the Sullivan boys from baptism into adolescence in the sleepy town of Waterloo, Iowa, focusing on all the shenanigans that growing up entails, including experimentation with smoking and a father's wise lesson. Their youthful mischief is, of course, precisely calculated to endear the Sullivan boys to our hearts, as they never get into any serious trouble. Act Two takes us through early adulthood, marriage, and small-town life. Radio reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor signal the start of Act Three, which covers enlistment, deployment, sea battles, and death in a matter of minutes—so fast that the action barely has time to register. A final scene in which the Navy dedicates another ship in honor of the Sullivan boys is a real tearjerker—almost undone by ghostly apparitions of the dead heroes who superimpose over the picture and wave farewell. This is the sort of overwrought misstep that marred the otherwise perfect Gunga Din.
Stargazers will get to see an early performance by Oscar winner Anne Baxter (All About Eve) as one of the Mrs. Sullivans who sends a husband off to war. Sturdy character actor Ward Bond (The Quiet Man) turns in his customary stout-man-with-a-good-heart performance as Lt. Commander Robinson. And Thomas Mitchell is always a joy to watch. But the real revelation here is Selena Royle as the boys' mother. Her character's sacrifice and unyielding patriotism stand in wildly ironic contrast to the treatment Royle would receive a few years later. A marvelously nuanced actress, Royle was blacklisted during the McCarthy years, a victim of character assassination by HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) who refused to testify or name names. Although she sued the American Legion for defamation—and won—by then Royle's career was ruined. She was reduced to working on grade-z garbage such as Phil Tucker's notorious Robot Monster. Royle and her second husband became expatriates and moved to Mexico, where she remained until her death in 1983.
The black-and-white image is fairly good, although scratches and blobs betray the age of the source materials. The mono audio is acceptable. Extras on this two-disc set are remarkably generous and include a tribute to the Sullivan Brothers, with several sub-features. The brothers' service records can be reviewed via scrolling text. There's also a family photo album, family letters to the Navy, and a letter from Joseph Sullivan—read aloud by the grandniece of one of the brothers—plus a scrolling letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Historian Jack Bilello delivers a 30-minute commentary about the enlisted man's experience in World War II. The dedicated can take a tour of the Grout Museum of Naval History. Another feature covers the Sullivan's ill-fated ship, the USS Juneau, including a scrolling Muster List and an eyewitness account of the battle and sinking as recounted by Ensign Victor Gibson. "The Survivors" is yet another special section of additional features. This includes an interview with Frank Holmgren, the last living survivor, and a list of survivors from the 1942 sinking.
VCI Home Entertainment has pulled together a quality package, though this two-disc set is pricey at a suggested retail price of $30.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Again, this is feel-good propaganda at its most obvious. Just remember the time and context. The Fighting Sullivans was released before the Allied invasion at Normandy, seared into memory as D-Day. At that time, the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Films like this one were seen as a vital component of upholding morale back home, while underscoring family values, American ideals, and basic human goodness that were ostensibly key reasons for fighting the war.
Historians will be fascinated by the supplemental material. Fans of chest-thumping red-blooded war movies will be disappointed.
This picture offers an interesting counterpoint to the John Wayne war films of the period. By focusing on home and hearth more than battles and bullets, The Fighting Sullivans presents a portrait of long-gone Americana and underscores the impact on so many families whose sons and daughters lost their lives in an effort to rid the world of an unspeakable evil.
Guilty of emotional manipulation for the sake of an ultimately noble goal.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• A Tribute to the Sullivan Brothers
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