New Old Movie Review: ‘The Fighting Sullivans’ (1944)

‘The Fighting Sullivans’ is a movie that lovingly portrays the Catholic faith and the happiness of practicing that faith.

The real Sullivan brothers on Feb. 14, 1942, from left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George.
The real Sullivan brothers on Feb. 14, 1942, from left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Naval Historical Center)

In his Poetics, Aristotle contends, “Even matters of chance seem most marvelous if there is an appearance of design.” Of course, this is not merely true of fictional stories and writers, but also of real life and Providence. Often, it is only at the end of a life that we see design in what we once called chance. I kept pondering Aristotle’s observation as our family recently watched The Fighting Sullivans.

Released in 1944, and set in the period between the 1920s to the 1940s, The Fighting Sullivans is a true story about an Irish family in Waterloo, Iowa. The Sullivan parents were blessed with six children — five boys and a girl.

In their service during World War II, the Sullivan boys made military history by serving together on the same ship. That was their deal with the Navy: “If we go, we go together.” This was a band of brothers in truest and noblest sense, and the movie helps us understand how and why this loyalty came to be.

The Sullivans were a Catholic family, and the movie is not shy about illustrating that fact. This is a movie that lovingly portrays the Catholic faith and the happiness of practicing that faith.

More specifically, it illustrates the central importance of the sacramental life. The movie initiates us with the Sullivan family by way of baptism. The opening scenes show each Sullivan boy being baptized by name, with his parents and godparents standing alongside the priest.

Early in the film, the youngest boy, Albert, goes to his First Confession and then kneels at the front of the Church to say his Penance. While Albert’s four brothers patiently wait outside the church for him to complete his prayers, they manage to get into a skirmish with neighborhood kids. As Al hears the commotion from outside, he quickly runs out of church to join the melee — careful to properly genuflect with holy water before exiting.

When the boys return home and explain what happened, their mother sends them over to their parish priest. The priest — devout and compassionate, with a dose of street smarts — counsels them to have peace in their hearts. And the priest assures Al that he can receive his First Communion the next day. As he watches his sixth child receive First Communion at the altar, Mr. Sullivan turns to his wife and assures her, “We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Toward the end of the film, we see Al kneel at that same altar and receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. I don’t know another movie in history in which we see a main character receiving four sacraments.

The brothers are heroic: that fact is documented. But the screenplay is smart enough to show us the faults and failings of the family members. The fighting Sullivans fight — a lot. The brothers play tricks on each other, routinely cause trouble around the neighborhood and around the house, and in one particular scene, to the house. But the importance of virtue is central to the film.

The virtue of faith runs throughout. Mrs. Sullivan insists on truthfulness from her children, and rewards them for their honesty. The importance of forgiveness, so vital to every relationship and every family, is often presented. Justice is also portrayed beautifully. There’s a poignant scene in which Mr. Sullivan sits down with his boys to make sure that their financial obligations are met prior to leaving for war.

Of course, the movie explores the virtue of fortitude. The Sullivans are a band of brothers who ultimately love each other, and their story reminds us that love is a component of fortitude. St. Augustine says that “fortitude is love bearing all things readily for the sake of the object beloved.” It’s easy to conclude that the Sullivan boys were men of fortitude, but the movie beautifully highlights that the Sullivan women exercised that same virtue.

Coming from a family of seven brothers whose father served in the army, it should come as no surprise that I love this movie. With every viewing, I am reminded of the importance of charity between and among brothers. And as a father of nine, the movie inspires me to make the same observation that Mr. Sullivan made so many years ago: “We have a lot to be thankful for.”