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Based on a true story about five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, The Fighting Sullivans (1944) resonated with a war-weary nation, a reminder of the homespun values for which American troops were fighting. In November of 1942, the Sullivan brothers were all serving aboard the cruiser U.S.S. Juneau in the Pacific when the ship was torpedoed by the Japanese during the battle of Guadalcanal. The brothers, who had received special permission to serve aboard the same ship, were all killed.
After the deaths of the Sullivan brothers, the Navy declared that family members could not serve on the same ship during wartime. The Sullivan parents traveled extensively across the country, selling war bonds. On April 4, 1943, Mrs. Sullivan christened a destroyer named after her sons. (Twenty-three years later Al's granddaughter christened another ship named after them.) The family's tragedy captured the public imagination, and by March of 1943, Twentieth Century Fox announced that they would make a film about the Sullivans. Released in early 1944 and originally titled The Sullivans (the name was later changed to boost the box office results), the film was a sweet slice of Americana. It chronicled the brothers' childhoods, their close-knit family, their mischief, loyalty to each other, romances, and their decision after Pearl Harbor to join up together. In spite of its finale, The Fighting Sullivans is not a war film. The brothers' military service occupies just a few minutes near the end of the film. Instead, as Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "It is a story of typical Americans, with love of home and love of family at its core....This is a story of why the Sullivans fought, not how."
There were few major marquee names in the cast of The Fighting Sullivans. Top-billed Anne Baxter, who played Al's wife Katherine Mary, was just 20 years old and already had an impressive list of credits, including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Thomas Mitchell, who played the family patriarch, was an Oscar® winner (as Supporting Actor for Stagecoach, 1939) and a respected character actor. Because so many actors were serving in the military, there was a shortage of available talent, so producers took advantage of the public relations opportunity to conduct a search for actors to play the brothers both as adults and as children. Due to wartime restrictions, screen tests were limited to 50 feet of film for each test. Of the ten actors cast as the brothers as adults and children, only the unbilled Bobby Driscoll (Al as a child) became relatively well known.
Edward Ryan, who played youngest brother Al as an adult, had a handful of mostly uncredited parts, including a bit in Citizen Kane (1941). After The Fighting Sullivans, he appeared in a few b-pictures, and had some minor credits in film and television through the mid-1950s. John Alvin (Matt) and George Offerman, Jr. (Joe) both had long careers, usually playing small roles credited as "Doctor," "Reporter" or "Soldier" in films and television. The Fighting Sullivans is one of only four films listed in the filmography of John Campbell, who played Frank. James Cardwell (George) was one of those found through the talent search, and he was signed to a 7-year contract with Fox, but his career failed to ignite in spite of roles in several important films. Despondent over his failed career, Cardwell committed suicide in 1954.
The Fighting Sullivans was made with the cooperation of both the Navy and the Sullivan family. The parents, sister Genevieve, and Al's widow Katherine Mary all watched parts of the filming, and served as technical advisors. So did the chaplain who had married Al and Katherine Mary. While their cooperation assured that the film was mostly true to the facts, apparently one incident was not. In the film, the officer who signed up the boys personally delivers the bad news to the family. In reality, rumors that all the Sullivans had been killed in action had been circulating for three months before Mrs. Sullivan wrote the Navy to ask if they were true, and had her fears confirmed. The climactic scene of the Juneau's sinking was shot on the first anniversary of the actual event.
The Iowa family scenes were shot on location in Santa Rosa, California, which had stood in for a typical American small town in two other recent films, Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and The Happy Land (1943). Many other films have since been shot there, including Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). According to an article in the New York Times, locals could only get jobs as extras on the film if they volunteered for at least three days of helping harvest crops in the area's farmlands.
Reviews for The Fighting Sullivans were respectful, befitting its tragic and patriotic subject matter. Crowther's was typical, calling it "a deeply touching story because of the personal sacrifice it represents." The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Motion Picture Story. It is said to have been the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).
In November of 2008, The Sullivan Brothers Veterans Museum opened in their hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. It honors not just the Sullivans, but all Iowans who have served in wars from the Civil War to the present.
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Producer: Sam Jaffe
Screenplay: Mary C. McCall, Jr., Story by Edward Doherty, Jules Schermer
Cinematography: Lucien N. Andriot
Editor: Louis R. Loeffler
Costume Design: Rene Hubert
Art Direction: James Basevi, Leland Fuller
Music: Alfred Newman, Cyril J. Mockridge
Principal Cast: Anne Baxter (Katherine Mary), Thomas Mitchell (Thomas F. Sullivan), Selena Royle (Aleta Sullivan), Edward Ryan (Albert Leo Sullivan), Trudy Marshall (Genevieve Sullivan), John Campbell (Francis Henry Sullivan), James Cardwell (George Thomas Sullivan), John Alvin (Madison "Matt" Abel Sullivan), George Offerman, Jr. (Joseph Eugene Sullivan), Roy Roberts (Father Francis), Ward Bond (Commander Robinson), Mary McCarty (Gladys), Bobby Driscoll (Al as a child).
by Margarita Landazuri