Cast & Crew
In the small town of Waterloo, Iowa, Thomas and Alleta Sullivan spend the early years of their married life happily attending the christenings of the latest additions to their Irish-American, Catholic family: George Thomas in 1914, Francis "Frank" Henry in 1916, Joseph Eugene in 1918, Madison "Matt" Abel in 1919 and Albert Leo in 1922. As the boys grow, they are doted upon by their mother and sister Genevieve and given stern but loving guidance by their father, who is a railroad freight conductor. The day before Al's first communion, the youngster persuades Alleta to let him wear his new suit to attend confession. The suit is ruined, however, when the boys, who do everything together, brawl with some neighborhood kids over their new dog, Chiefie. Alleta is dismayed by their conduct, but Father Francis allows Al to take communion after the boys assure him that they bear no grudge against their rivals. Later, the boys get into more mischief when they find a broken-down boat and caulk its holes with mud. The vessel stays afloat until it reaches the middle of a lake, then begins to sink. Chiefie aids in rescuing Al, thereby assuring his place in the family. Upset by Al's near-drowning, Alleta makes her sons promise that they will not set foot in a boat again until they are adults. Later, the youngsters are complaining about fetching wood for Alleta's stove when Tom makes an offhand remark about building a wood box in the kitchen wall. Wanting to help Alleta and save themselves some work, the boys obtain lumber on credit and begin building the wood box. George becomes irritated by Frank's imperious manner, however, and leaves the project. The boys then break a water pipe and the kitchen is flooded. George rushes to help, and when Tom arrives and surveys the damage, he assumes that George, as the eldest, is responsible. Before George can explain their good intentions, Tom slaps him, and the boy runs off. Frank confesses all to Tom, and as the evening wears on, each family member invents an excuse to search for the runaway. George reappears the next morning, and after reconciling with his son, Tom declares that this should teach the Sullivans to stick together. Years later, in 1939, the boys are grown and only Al is still in high school. On the day that George wins a motorcycle race, Al meets Katherine Mary, an only child who lives with her father. Despite their youth, Al and Katherine Mary fall in love, and soon Al shows Gen the engagement ring that he has purchased. Believing that Al is too young for marriage, his brothers tease Katherine Mary when she comes for dinner and convince her that Al has many girl friends. After Katherine Mary leaves in tears and Al sinks into despair, the brothers realize the damage they have done, and with Gen, Tom and Alleta in tow, they apologize to Katherine Mary. Soon after, Katherine Mary and Al are married, and ten months later, are expecting a baby. Al is fired for taking the afternoon off to escort his wife to the doctor, but his brothers vow to help them out. Later, months after little Jimmy has been welcomed into the family, the family is lolling about on Sunday, 7 December 1941, when they hear a radio report about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The boys realize that one of their friends was on the Arizona and resolve to join the Navy to avenge him. Al decides that he cannot go with his brothers, due to his family responsibilities, but when Katherine Mary sees his despondent face, she tells him to accompany the others to the recruiting station. The brothers tell Commander Robinson that they want to serve on the same ship, but Robinson states that the Navy can make no such guarantees. The brothers leave, but later, after George receives his draft notice, he writes to the Navy Department and obtains official permission for the boys to serve together. Later, Tom, Alleta and Katherine Mary eagerly await letters from their loved ones, who are serving aboard the Juneau in the Pacific. The fighting in the Pacific grows more intense as a battle rages off the Solomon Islands, and one day, the Juneau is hit. Four of the brothers find each other, then realize that George is below in sick bay. They rush down to get him, and when George insists they leave him behind, Al replies, "We can't go swimming without you." Soon after, Robinson visits the Sullivan home and tells Katherine Mary, Tom, Alleta and Gen that all five of the brothers were killed in action. Stunned, Tom goes to work and salutes the water tower on which his sons used to stand and wave to him. Sometime later, Tom, Katherine Mary and Gen, who has joined the WAVES, watch with pride while Alleta christens a new destroyer, the U.S.S. The Sullivans . As Tom and Alleta watch the ship sail away, Alleta declares, "Tom, our boys are afloat again."
George Offerman Jr.
Nancy June Robinson
George L. Giefer
R. L. Hough
Robert T. Kane
Harry M. Leonard
Mary Mccall Jr.
Cyril J. Mockridge
Chaplain William Muenster
Fred J. Rode
Katherine Mary Sullivan
Thomas F. Sullivan
Lt. Charles N. Wang
Dr. J. A. Wickstrom
Charles A. Zimmerman
Best Original Story
Best Original Story
The Fighting Sullivans
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
The Fighting Sullivans
The Fighting Sullivans - The Film That Inspired "Saving Private Ryan"
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." Even though the story is 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.
Synopsis: 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 the Sullivans made the enormous national war sacrifice seem 'real' to America, and the country wanted the story put in perspective. The Fighting Sullivans offers an idealized view of an ordinary American working-class family. They're a big Catholic family yet not first-generation immigrants; dad has a solid railroad job so they own 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 known as neighborhood terrors but they're really good kids inside, and Father's discipline doesn't deter them from getting into trouble. Future events are telegraphed in an episode where they unsuccessfully launch a homemade boat. 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.
They have one sister, Genevieve (Trudy Marshall) who 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. She's cruelly taunted by his brothers, who 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.
When war comes and the Sullivans march off to battle, we're given 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 film shows the boys using a letter from their congressman to get the US Navy to assign them all to the same ship. The Fighting Sullivans is explicit 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 presents an idealized version of the end of the U.S.S. Juneau, showing the brothers active in a sea battle. George is wounded so 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. When everyone else has been told 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. There are no overblown histrionics - only Genevieve and Katherine run from the room in tears. Mother and father are still staring in shock a year later when they help christen the U.S.S. The Sullivans in a Navy ceremony. 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. Curiously, although Fox distributed the movie, 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; perhaps the original The Sullivans was re-titled The Fighting Sullivans for reissue after the war.
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. As with most VCI discs, menu design and programming 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 granddaughter 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's office and an explanatory piece about the 'freedom flags' that would be placed in 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 testimony given at ceremonial dinners for 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.
For more information about The Fighting Sullivans, visit VCI Entertainment. To order The Fighting Sullivans, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Fighting Sullivans - The Film That Inspired "Saving Private Ryan"
This film was retitled The Fighting Sullivans two months after its initial release. According to a April 4, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, after the picture failed to attract large audiences, Twentieth Century-Fox executives changed its title, emulating "a successful New Jersey showman with a genius for redundancy." The film is based on the lives of the Sullivan brothers-George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert-who were killed in action during the battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942 while serving aboard the cruiser Juneau. George and Francis, who had served a previous tour in the Navy, enlisted with their younger brothers after the attack on Pearl Harbor in order to avenge a lost friend. The brothers obtained special permission to serve together, but after their deaths, for which the entire nation mourned, the Navy officially declared that family members could not serve on the same vessel during wartime. Only ten seamen survived the attack on the Juneau. The brothers' parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Sullivan, traveled extensively after their sons' deaths, visiting defense plants and selling war bonds. On April 4, 1943, Mrs. Sullivan christened a destroyer named in honor of her sons, and in August 1995, Al's granddaughter christened another destroyer named after the Sullivans.
A March 15, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item announcing producer Sam Jaffe and director Lloyd Bacon's intention to make the film indicated that writer Jules Schermer would also be the picture's producer. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, the film was made with the cooperation of the Navy and the Sullivan family. A July 12, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the Sullivans would "share in the proceeds of the picture." Later news items and press releases indicate that Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan, their daughter Genevieve and daughter-in-law Katherine Mary, who was Al's widow, were all present during parts of the filming and acted as technical advisors. According to a October 28, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, Jaffe also secured the services of Chaplain William Muenster to supervise the wedding sequence. The news item further stated that in real life, Muenster had officiated at the marriage of Al and Katherine Mary. A studio press release noted that Lt. Charles N. Wang, who was George's superior officer when the Juneau was sunk, would be acting as a technical advisor, along with Guadalcanal veteran Dr. J. A. Wickstrom, of the Marine Corps.
Due to the shortage of available actors during the war, producers Jaffe and Robert T. Kane conducted an extensive search for the film's leads, and actors considered for parts included Dane Clark, Richard Crane, Hank Patterson and Jimmie Martin. According to a August 5, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, the producers limited the initial tests to fifty feet in order to conserve film, and grouped the actors in fives. Jaffe also announced that he was "combing the ranks of discharged servicemen to play the adult characters, feeling that their military experience [would] give reality to the yarn." Actresses considered for the role of Mrs. Sullivan included Phyllis Povah and Dale Winter. A September 27, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Roger Clark, Sally Yarnell and Gerrie Noonan had been added to the cast, but their participation in the released film has not been confirmed. John Alvin was borrowed from Warner Bros. for the production, which was largely filmed on location in Santa Rosa, CA. A October 24, 1943 New York Times article reported that by agreement with the Chamber of Commerce, the studio would not employ Santa Rosa residents as extras on the film unless they "carried cards from the Chamber testifying that they had volunteered to help in the harvesting of Santa Rosa's seasonal crops." The production company also had to agree to give at least three days notice for large purchases of food. According to a November 9, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, the producers canceled a location shooting trip to the San Diego naval base when they decided to limit the war scene footage to the sinking of the Juneau, and not include any other scenes of the brothers in uniform. Another November 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the filming of the ship's sinking was shot on the first anniversary of the actual event. The picture marked the screen debuts of John Campbell, James Cardwell, Nancy June Robinson, Marvin Davis and Billy Cummings.
According to the New York Times review, Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan attended the film's opening in New York and sold war bonds in the lobby. The Hollywood premiere, which benefitted the Naval Aid Auxiliary, was attended by Juneau officer Lt. Cmdr. Roger O'Neill, according to a Los Angeles Times article. O'Neill offered a "splendid tribute" to his lost shipmates. The picture received an Academy Award nomination in the Writing (Original Motion Picture Story) category.