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The Fighting Sullivans

If you were enthralled by Saving Private Ryan (or just found the premise hokey), take a look at a very different war movie whose echo lurks in Steven Spielberg’s epic. Lloyd Bacon’s The Fighting Sullivans (Ivy, unrated, $29.95), originally titled simply The Sullivans when it was released by Twentieth Century Fox in February 1944, tells a fact-based story of five Irish-American brothers imperiled by World War II combat. Sullivans, however, does not hold out the consolation that one soldier might be spared. This is a somber rendering of an overwhelming tragedy: All of the Sullivan family’s sons die together on a torpedoed ship during the battle of Guadalcanal.

Devoting most of its screen time to their life before the war, the movie acquaints us with the boys’ working-class upbringing in Waterloo, Iowa. The scuffles and misadventures make for a Norman Rockwell portrait, but the movie succeeds in being good-natured rather than saccharine as it shows how the brothers cultivated their all-for-one-and-one-for-all bond. The child actors have none of the usual preciousness of 1940s juveniles; Thomas Mitchell (who’d play Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life two years later) conveys his usual earthy charm as their hot-tempered, warmhearted father; the little-known actors portraying the young GIs are natural and likable, even if they’re not polished performers. Of course, for anyone who knew, as home-front audiences did, what awaited the Sullivan brothers in the South Pacific, there is a sorrowful aura hovering over the drama from the very first scene. Saving Private Ryan has something more complicated to say about war and its heroes. The Fighting Sullivans offers its own genuine commemoration of World War II sacrifice, surprisingly restrained and still affecting. B+

The Fighting Sullivans
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