Warning: this review contains spoilers.
The Fighting Sullivans opens with the legend "This is a true story," which must have seemed redundant to the audience who first saw it in 1944. The tragedy of the Sullivans, five close-knit brothers who all enlisted in the Navy during World War II and perished while serving on the same ship, was a well-known, galvanizing event in its day. When 20th Century Fox opted to turn their tale into a film, it must have been a challenge. Playing to an audience of families still grieving from the loss of their own loved ones (or anxiously awaiting their return from service), the filmmakers ultimately chose to make it in a tastefully understated way. The final film plays out not so much as a contemporary Home Front drama than a nostalgic family comedy that emphasizes patriotism and togetherness.
Even those who might be vaguely familiar with the Sullivans' story (the military policy put in place after the tragedy became the basis for Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) might be surprised to find that a large bulk of The Fighting Sullivans is devoted to the brothers' adventures as kids. The opening - a rapid montage of the brothers' baptisms, overseen by the boys' beaming father Thomas (Thomas Mitchell) and mother Alleta (Selena Royle) - accurately sets the tone for what is ultimately a celebration of Small Town Family Values. After that, the film becomes a series of vignettes that contrast the rambunctious behavior of the boys - George, Matt, Joe, Frank and Al - against the common sensible parents and Genevieve, the only sister in the brood. A lot of these scenes (including one where the boys patch up a discarded rowboat which ultimately capsizes - foreshadowing alert!) have a cloying, historically suspect feel that calls to mind MGM's Young Tom Edison (1940). It could have made for some enjoyable fluff, but director Lloyd Bacon apparently steered his young cast into using the most shrieky, shrill voices possible - and there isn't much room to give the individual boys their own personality. Only the capable playing of Mitchell and Royle makes this part palatable, but I did have fun spotting future Disney live action star Bobby Driscoll as the youngest Sullivan, Al.
The Fighting Sullivans improves measurably in the second half, which deals with the Sullivan family from 1939 through the present day, although it's still dogged by a vague b-movie quality that it can't fully shake. Now in their late teens and '20s, we follow the Sullivans as eldest brother George (James Cardwell) enters a motorcycle race and younger brother Al (Edward Ryan) romances a neighborhood girl from a wealthy family, Katherine Mary (a young and surprisingly capable Anne Baxter). Pearl Harbor and the arrival of WWII galvanizes the boys into enlisting in the Navy - and insisting upon staying together, no matter what. Strangely enough, the film only becomes a full-tilt War Movie in the final few reels. It all climaxes in the devastating, touching segment when Robinson, the commanding Navy officer who enlisted the boys (played by the ever-reliable Ward Bond), informs the family of their tragic loss. Like the films that trickled out following the September 11th attacks, there's something of a raw, "too soon" element that gives these scenes the emotional kick that the rest of the film lacks.
The strange mishmash of nostalgia and forboding in The Fighting Sullivans makes it something of a curio, although given the sensitivity of the material I don't see how they could have pulled off doing it in a more grimly realistic way. In actuality, two of the brothers survived the Japanese attack on the USS Juneau, with one survivor dying in a lifeboat and the other throwing himself into the ocean in a fit of delirium - can you imagine seeing that on screen? As it is, the film emphasizes the family's Irish perseverance in unsubtle ways (the melody of "Greensleeves" frequently popping up on the soundtrack, for example), and the script never attempts to be as observant or sophisticated as other Home Front dramas of the period like Since You Went Away or The Best Years of Our Lives. It's all the more a shame, since contemporary domestic dramas about WWII life are a relatively rare genre - audiences in 1944 were craving escapist fare like musicals and comedies, and most wartime films chose to deal with far-off battles or foreign intrigue.
VCI's current DVD edition of The Fighting Sullivans arrives as a bare-bones affair with only the film and a trailer. The disc supplants a more comprehensive 2-disc version of the film also issued by VCI in 2005. Casting aside the "more stuff = better" argument, I would handily recommend the earlier edition over this one simply because this is a film that demands some added context to fully understand. On its own, it's a corny and manipulative effort, somewhat fascinating as history but a decidedly second-tier wartime melodrama. It would be better to watch this alongside the History Channel's documentary on the Sullivans (issued on DVD in 2009), just to get some insight as to how much of the film's trumped-up nostagia was actually based on fact.
VCI's reissue of The Fighting Sullivans sports a nice enough design, although the main menu includes a glaring typo (SCEENS instead of SCENES).
VCI's packaging states that the film has been digitally restored for this special edition, but the adequately balanced picture doesn't have the pop and professional sheen seen in recent DVDs of vintage '40s films reissued by Olive Films. Frame movement, dust and artifacts commonly occur, especially in a scene set in a hospital which is riddled with vertical lines. A decent image, overall, but not as good as it should have been.
The packaging states that this edition was remixed in 2.0 Stereo, but I couldn't detect any indication that the film's cleanly mixed soundtrack was any different from standard mono tracks from that period. It's an okay track with somewhat raggedy but listenable sound quality.
Just the 2-minute Original Trailer, which is an edited highlights reel with no text annotations (not even the film's title). Promos for VCI's reissues of other WWII dramas automatically play when the disc is inserted.
1944's The Fighting Sullivans recasts one of the great tragedies of WWII as heartwarming, patriotic melodrama. While this partially ripped-from-the-headlines story does boast some solid, emotionally effective work from Thomas Mitchell, Selena Royle and Anne Baxter, the film's reliance on hokey kiddie shenanigans and nostalgic Americana makes it less essential than the relatively few other '40s dramas that addressed the same topic. Those final scenes still pack a whollop, but the final product is too scattershot to truly get behind. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.