Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A serious piece of sentimental wartime propaganda, The Fighting Sullivans came in answer to one of the biggest media events of the home front: On November 12, 1942 five brothers of the Sullivan family, all serving on the U.S.S. Juneau, were killed in action when the ship was sunk by the Japanese. The news of the Sullivans hit hard. Hundreds of thousands of households dreaded the possibility that death messengers might come to tell them that their sons, fathers or husbands had perished. One mother losing five boys in one day made for alarming headlines. Deployment policy was changed to insure that brothers would no longer be assigned to the same fighting units.
The sentimental film functioned less as a defense of war policy than as a collective memorial to lost war veterans. The Sullivans were an instant symbol of patriotism and American values, and a supremely positive spin was put on their loss. The film is infinitely interesting as a proto- "docudrama." Although highly fictionalized, the movie has the good sense not to end with speeches reading greater meaning into the Sullivans' sacrifice: That part of the story the audience already knew too well.
The wild but true-blue Sullivan boys grow up in a lower middle-class neighborhood, sons of a railroad employee (Thomas Mitchell) and his hard-working wife (Selena Royle). Other kids avoid them because they like to fight, and they're constantly getting into trouble with hare-brained but innocent activities, like sawing a hole in the side of the house for a new woodbin. Father is driven to exasperation and the oldest son almost runs away, but the family remains intact and loving. When war breaks out, the youngest brother Al (Edward Ryan) is already married to his sweetheart Katherine Mary (Anne Baxter) and has a new baby. But Katherine sees what's right and sends her husband off to enlist in the Navy along with his other four brothers. They allow a Navy recruiter (Ward Bond) to enlist them on one condition: That they be allowed to serve together on the same ship. They're the Sullivan boys, you see, and they've always done their fighting together.
We don't expect The Fighting Sullivans to be the unvarnished truth but it is undeniably sincere. The cruel irony of their story made the enormous national war sacrifice seem 'real' to America, and the filmmakers present them as pure patriots, offering an idealized view of an ordinary American working-class family. They're Irish Catholics. Dad's solid railroad job gives them a modest house, but none of the brothers assume they're going to college. The various childhood vignettes establish that the family is loving and close. The boys are good kids but they have a reputation as scrappers, and Father's discipline doesn't deter them from getting into trouble. An episode where they unsuccessfully launch a homemade boat is used to telegraph future events. The tone is somewhere between the Our Gang kids, Frank Capra cutups and Tom Sawyer, with an extra dose of Gentleman Jim - the "ready to fight anytime" part. Surely these bright-eyed, true-blue boys are the nation's greatest resource. The 'childhood' section of the story ends with a pan across a dinner table lined with the kind of earnest faces that make mothers cry for joy.
Their one sister, Genevieve (Trudy Marshall) might as well be a hat rack in the hallway, the way the film ignores her. The focus is on the brothers, and not a moment goes by without them doing something 'meaningful' in relation to the fate we know they will share.
Beautiful neighborhood girl Katherine appears and Al wants to marry her. The brothers taunt her cruelly but then realize their error and help to reunite the sweet hearts. No other ambitious plans are made for the future. When Al is laid off, the brothers steer him to a job in the meat packing plant.
War comes and the Sullivans literally march off to battle in a signature shot of the four rounding a neighborhood street corner, arm in arm. Al runs to catch up; Katherine sends him off to fight with her baby in her arms. It's the right thing to do, plain and simple.
The boys use a letter from their congressman to get the US Navy to assign them all to the same ship. The Fighting Sullivans is careful to make clear that they all stay together at their own insistence; recruiter Ward Bond grudgingly gives in to their wishes. It's well established that Navy policy was changed because of this very public tragedy.
The Fighting Sullivans then leaps almost directly to an idealized version of the end of the U.S.S. Juneau. When George is wounded, another brother mans an ack-ack gun and shoots down a plane, which ironically crashes into the ship. Interestingly, the film also shows a sequence of events (a fabrication?) that makes the brothers seem responsible for their own demise. After the call to abandon ship, they defy orders to rush down to sickbay to get George. Strictly speaking, it looks as though five die instead of one because the emotional Sullivans put family interests ahead of their duty.
The movie makes the last scenes quick and somber, as Ward Bond comes with the bad news. Genevieve and Katherine run from the room in tears but there are no overblown histrionics. Mother and father are still staring in shock a year later when they help the Navy christen the U.S.S. The Sullivans. As the ship slides down the ways, Mother says, "Our boys are afloat again." A brief coda shows the five brothers walking into the clouds of legend.
Although Fox distributed The Sullivans, the film is copyrighted as a "U.S.S. The Sullivans, Inc. Production." I believe that Anne Baxer was definitely a Fox contractee at the time. The film print as shown has no "buy war bonds" seal on its "The End" card, another curious detail. I can't imagine this film being exhibited without somebody taking up a collection. It opened to only mild boxoffice and was re-titled The Fighting Sullivans and given a more battle-oriented ad campaign.
VCI's The Fighting Sullivans Commemorative Edition packs a lot of material onto two discs. It opens with two cards acknowledging sources and research personnel. The menu design is ambitious but technically primitive. Disc one has a textless trailer (no narration, no titles) and a couple of scrolling text bios. The film itself is a clean source, reasonably well transferred and encoded.
Disc two is crammed with information gleaned from a permanent Sullivans exhibit, much of which plays out in scrolling text pages superimposed over a patriotic image of an Eagle and a flag. The Sullivans enlisted on January 3, 1942 and were serving at sea only a few weeks later. However, the two oldest had already become sailors in 1937 and had just finished three years of service (some on 'medical assignment') before re-enlisting with their brothers. The youngest were all put on a sea-duty fast track, presumably to keep them with their more experienced older siblings. One wonders if this was a common practice, or whether the Congressman twisted the rules. A Sullivan photo album includes images of George Sullivan's Blackhawk Motorcycle Club activities. It looks as if newspapers clipped and snipped a couple of existing group snapshots dozens of times to satisfy the need for images of all five brothers together.
A grand-niece tells the story of the Sullivans, who did indeed enlist to avenge a friend killed on the Arizona. There are also text-and-still representations of a letter from President Roosevelt and an explanatory piece about the 'freedom flags' that were placed in the windows of families with sons in the service. I checked with my mother, who doesn't remember the flags having a name. She doesn't recall them being called flags, either.
More extras are provided by small videos produced for the Grout Veterans' Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, home to the Sullivans. Also included are videotaped testimonials given at ceremonial dinners honoring the veterans. One ex-sailor eyewitness says that the Juneau sunk only twenty seconds after being struck by a torpedo.
The disc mentions twice that the film inspired Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a movie with a puzzling concept. The whole point of the Sullivans is that the brothers represented ALL of the boys lost and families broken by wartime sacrifice. The Spielberg movie makes a grotesque case out of the need to save one particular soldier (a last remaining brother) as if the entire war effort were less important than removing him from harm's way. As a nation, we just can't seem to identify with tragedy any more unless it's narrowed to one person, and then we forget the context that his example is supposed to represent. That lost context is felt in every frame of The Fighting Sullivans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fighting Sullivans Commemorative Edition rates:
Supplements: Mostly museum-related exhibits and testimony, see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 17, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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