Friday, November 18, 2016

World War I Movie Churches: The Fighting 69th

I've watched a number of films that deal with the complicated philosophical, theological, and moral questions that a Christian faces with the issue of war. How does one reconcile Christ's call to be peacemakers with the blood thirsty business of killing people and breaking things?

Great minds of history like Augustine and Aquinas, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, have struggled with these issues. Father Duffy of The Fighting 69th (1940) is not one of those great minds struggling with these issues. He never doubts the rightness of America's cause in World War I. As he says, "I'm a soldier as well as a priest."

Father Duffy is based on a real person, Francis Patrick Duffy, who served as the Catholic chaplain for the Army's 69th Division. In the movie, he’s played by Pat O'Brien, who portrayed priests for much of his movie career.

There are other real characters in the film, such as the regiment commander William "Wild Bill" Donovan and the poet, Joyce “Trees” Kilmer. The real Father Duffy was a bit of a scholar and an editor of The New York Review, but in the film he's just a regular guy.

In the film, Father Duffy is beloved because the men of the 69th are his and he is theirs. As a chaplain, he can't carry a weapon, but he goes against regulations to join his men at the front. He wants to be where ever he is needed.

Just as the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 9 talks about being a slave to the slaves, a Jew to the Jews, etc...Duffy is an soldier and an Irishman to the soldiers and Irishmen of the division.

Father Francis P. Duffy
We even see him be a Jew to a Jew. In the film a Jewish soldier tells Father Duffy he'd be willing to go to Mass because Duffy's there. The soldier says he'd be willing to go "to the Devil" if Father Duffy told him to. When the man is mortally wounded with no rabbi near, Father Duffy prays a Psalm with the soldier.

The star of the film is James Cagney as Jerry Plunkett, a smart aleck New Yorker who’s nothing but trouble. But Father Duffy thinks of Plunkett as the lost sheep of Jesus' parable. Although Plunkett gets into fights with other men in his division, disobeys orders, and even deserts, Father Duffy always stays by his side.

Plunkett tells the priest he came to be a soldier, not to pray. Duffy tells him he needs to recognize the fact of an Almighty God. When Plunkett is afraid, Duffy tells him, "There's only one way you can lick cowardice, with faith and prayer. I'm offering you peace and courage. You need to ask for the Lord to help you." I was glad to hear Duffy affirm the need for prayer before going into war, because earlier he said, "What does an Irishman need with prayer in a fight?"

The film ends with an image of the real statue made in honor of the real Father Duffy (he passed away in 1932), with a voice over of Pat O'Brien praying for "America's lost generation" and for "America, the citadel of peace, peace forevermore."

There are plenty of historians who say that America's involvement in World War I was a mistake. There are many Christians who believe that Christians should never go to war at all. But I'm glad that the soldiers of the 69th had Father Duffy with them, and so I'm giving the ministry of Father Duffy three steeples.

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