In 1944, anyone who went to the theatre to see The Sullivans, the original title of The Fighting Sullivans, already knew how the movie ended. The five Sullivan boys died when their ship, the Juneau, sank in the South Pacific off Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942. This foreknowledge added a lot of pathos to this comedic biographical war movie.
The story of the Sullivan brothers inspired the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks hit Saving Private Ryan but The Fighting Sullivans and Saving Private Ryan have absolutely nothing in common except for being very good and memorable movies.
The Fighting Sullivans is not your typical war movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is a lot more like the original Cheaper By The Dozen or Our Gang shorts. The movie concentrates most of its story on the formative years of the Sullivan brothers (and their almost invisible sister) in Iowa. There is a definite charm to this story about five Irish Catholic boys growing up during the depression and getting into the kind of trouble rambunctious boys will usually get into. One of the funniest scenes is when the boys decide to build a wood chute into the kitchen to save their overworked parents some labor.
Thomas Mitchell, a great character actor of the thirties, forties, and fifties, and better known for being Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life, shines as Mr. Sullivan, the father of the brood. He is adept at playing both a caring father and a temperamental man. He is also the butt of one of the movie's many running gag involving his hat and the Sullivan clothesline.
The title The Fighting Sullivans applies to the boys growing up. They are always in a scrape with the neighborhood boys or fighting between themselves. This movie has a lot of very neat director's tricks. For example, shots of the Sullivan clothesline with 5 pairs of jeans on them are used throughout the movie to flash forward a few years and indicate the boys have grown up a bit since the last scene. It is a little more heavy-handed a trick about a third into the movie when a calendar shot is added to indicate it is 1939 and the boys are now young men.
The Fighting Sullivans then cuts to the boys as teenagers, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and their decision to go to war, including that of Al, the youngest and only married Sullivan brother. There is a very funny moment at the enlistment office when the boys tell the Navy they will only volunteer if they can be assigned to the same ship and then return with a letter from the Admiralty giving them permission to.
The only war scene in this war movie is at the end when the Sullivan boys are on the Juneau. We learn the order to abandon ship was given but they went below deck to rescue George who had been wounded. The movie ends with the parents and Al's widow christening the USS The Sullivans.
VCI did a fine job restoring this very different war movie. An added touch is the red-colored subtitles (optional) which makes them easier to read in a black and white movie.
The Fighting Sullivans comes with a second DVD loaded with extras. These include the service records of the Sullivans, a family photo album, letters from various people including Franklin D. Roosevelt, the story of the Freedom Flag, information about the USS Juneau and from the few survivors of the Juneau.
It is interesting to learn in these extras that The Fighting Sullivans did play a bit with the truth. In the movie, the commander who enlisted the boys comes to deliver the news to the Sullivan family. In reality, Mrs. Sullivan had to write the navy to ask about rumors that had been going around town for some three months that her boys had been killed in action.