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Unique Among WWII Films
on 3 June 2003
You needn't be an American to love 'The Fighting Sullivans'. Filmed during World War II it does contain a 'United We Stand' message, yet the story of the five Sullivan brothers - all of whom died aboard their cruiser USS Juneau, which sank after being battered by Japanese attacks near Guadalcanal - is told engagingly.
The young boys' story plays out with endearing mischief; the grown boys' story with good-natured ribbing and a demure, ingenue Anne Baxter playing the youngest son's love interest.
But the best characters in the film are the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan, played with heart-rending pathos by Thomas Mitchell and Selena Royle (Royle's performance is the glue of the story - I wish she'd acted in many more films: her eyes are wonderfully expressive; she is also seen briefly as the mother-in-law of Doolittle Raid B-25 pilot Ted Lawson in 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo'). The Sullivan brothers' sister, Jen, doesn't have much of a role, but the young girl and the woman playing Jen as a child and as a woman give memorable supporting performances. Ward Bond, one of American cinema's most ubiquitous and solid character actors, plays, with consummate delicacy, a sympathetic naval officer.
Always, since the five Sullivan boys gave their lives in the war, there's been afloat a United States Navy ship named USS The Sullivans. In this film newsreel footage of the wartime launching of the destroyer, the first of the brothers' namesakes, is intercut with close-ups of Mitchell and Royle that place them at the launching ceremony. In the newsreel footage a long shot affords a glimpse at the real-life Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan. Neither do any of the Sullivan family, nor do any of their progeny, survive today.
Yes, have your hankies ready. Men weep at this film too, and not one of them has ever felt ashamed to have wept at it.