They Were Expendable (1945)

Director: John Ford

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Memorial Day tends to bring out the tennis elbow in everyone. Flags are waved especially hard as though to fan away the stench of death the day represents. Once you’ve seen, as I have, a graveyard as endless as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach, Memorial Day loses its heroic luster.

Nonetheless, war does make a certain kind of hero out of ordinary men and women—the kind who recognize their common humanity with people they don’t know and do what they can to act with compassion in the face of insanity. They Were Expendable is a war movie that takes viewers into the experience of war, but not to satisfy a need for vicarious thrills or glory. If anything, They Were Expendable shows us just how little we understand of the experience of those living and working in combat zones, how ideals and ambition often get lost in just trying to see the next day, and how confusing and uncertain the outcomes of battles and entire wars themselves really are. John Ford, an eminently humanist filmmaker, handles an enormous cast and confusing story that takes place over a large geographic area just about as well as any director who ever lived. That he resented doing this picture because it pulled him off active military service during World War II never upstages the emotional truth in the film.

Naval Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a small fleet of patrol torpedo (PT) boats—swift craft that launch torpedoes off their decks—at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Brick believes strongly in the value of the boats because they can intercept large destroyers and aircraft carriers with greater speed and lower risk that larger naval vessels. He parades his boats in front of Navy brass, who commend him on their maneuverability but think they are too slight for warfare. After this disappointment, his second in command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), decides that PT boats are not the ticket to furthering his naval career, and sits at the bar of the officers club writing to request a transfer while the rest of the Clark Field personnel enjoy dinner and dancing. An announcement comes in that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and that all military personnel are to report to their posts immediately. Rusty crumples up his letter and heads to the harbor to await instructions.

Reflecting the prevailing attitude about the boats, one is assigned to patrol the harbor on a fixed schedule and one is made available to carry messages among the various island command posts. However, when enemy aircraft that are spotted in three deadly perfect V formations, the PT boats move into action. The gunners bring down three planes, lose one boat, and return to a base that has been completely pulverized. Little about the rest of the film proceeds in an orderly fashion. The boats and their crews move from base to base, engage enemy ships and airplanes, get bombed, lost, and beached, break down, get fixed up, and lose crew members to death and reassignment to army battalions badly outmanned by the Japanese.

War films rely heavily on action sequences, and They Were Expendable has its share, though far fewer than might have been expected. Footage of real PT boats firing their torpedoes and the missiles moving underwater is edited in with accurate continuity with the action Ford films with a sure hand. Unfortunately, heavy reliance on process shots, staged explosions that look staged, and stunt planes that don’t quite crash before a burst of flames issues from behind some palm trees mar the realism. However, the model ships the PT boats take out are seen far in the distance, which helps reestablish the illusion of reality.

It is in the less demonstrative scenes that reveal character where They Were Expendable excels brilliantly. For example, when the grumbling PT crews find out the alert they thought was a drill is the real thing, they scramble out the door, including “Squarehead” Larson (Harry Tenbrook), the cook, who hurriedly takes his pot of soup off the stove and throws a towel over the biscuit dough he was mixing. When the PT boats are assigned to take Gen. Douglas MacArthur to a protected airfield to be transported to Australia, one of the crewmen asks for his autograph, much to Rusty’s disgust. Ford also cast several teenagers as the kids who decided to make the Navy a career. I can’t remember ever seeing a war film in which combatants this young are part of the action, and where they are allowed to be scared.

Then there is nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), the only woman with a speaking part in the film. She is shown working on assembly-line surgery to care for 200 casualties from Bataan. Her face is subdued with concentration and repressed horror at what she is seeing; indeed, her entire performance is filled with the cares of the world, even her flirtatious scenes with Wayne, who meets her when he enters her infirmary suffering from blood poisoning. When she and Rusty say good-bye when he calls her to tell her he is shipping out, the conversation they know might be their last is plain-spoken: they had a “swell time,” and “it was nice,” and then two generals commandeer their phone line abruptly, and that’s that. There is no reunion at the end of the film; Sandy, stationed on Bataan when it fell to the Japanese, could be in hiding, dead, captured—nobody knows or will know. And when Rusty and his small band of surviving crew members go into a bar after burying two of their men and hear about the fall of Bataan from a San Francisco-based radio announcer, the looks on their faces say, “What am I doing here? How did I get from my sane, normal life to this hot, dirty place halfway around a world in flames?” And they are enlisted men, not draftees!

The film is helped enormously by Ford’s experiences making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. His familiarity with the rhythms and details of daily life for combatants and support personnel helps make a bit of sense out of the chaos; yet, he doesn’t hesitate to leave viewers in the dark about all the details. I watched this film twice in two days, thinking I’d get a better handle on the movements of the PT crews around the Philippine islands. I didn’t. When one missing crew show up after a long period, I had no idea where they had been, what island any of them were on, or how the lucky black cat that adopted the crew survived the loss of the boat. A comment Brick makes during horse trading for torpedoes about who played Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1932, and “Does your crew know?” went over my head until I caught the crucial words “at the naval academy” during my second viewing. This scene hints at the secrets known between servicemen and women and how supplies and equipment moved outside of official channels through just such forms of blackmail.

Robert Montgomery brings a matter-of-factness to his role, again aided by his having served on a PT boat. He grits his teeth and follows orders, even when they mean leaving what’s left of his crew behind when he and Rusty are ordered to fly to Australia to strategize ways to find a larger role for PT boats in the war. And what of those men? We’ve been treated to highly inappropriate patriotic music throughout the film—the studio and the Navy intended the film to be a morale booster—including the playing of “Shenandoah” (?) as a civilian nicknamed Dad (Russell Simpson) who repairs boats prepares to stand his ground against the Japanese. We get more uplifting heroics from the crummy score, but Ford knows better. The men limp down a beach as the sun sets. Where are they going? What will they do? They’ve been abandoned like everyone else on the island, and while they fought their fear heroically and tried to do their job, they’ll probably die far from the home they seem to be fighting for.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    31st/05/2011 to 5:59 pm

    From what I’ve read, Ford took his resentment out on Wayne, viciously denigrating both his acting and his patriotism until Montgomery put his foot down. But it doesn’t show on film unless it was Ford’s evil way of getting the performance he wanted out of his actor. In any event, Expendable is probably the best military film to be made in the US during the war, though it was released just after V-J Day. How the government felt it’d boost morale escapes me, though — maybe compared to The Fighting Sullivans, but otherwise, as you note, this is pretty grim business for wartime, but better for it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/05/2011 to 6:17 pm

    Samuel – It would surprise me if that anecdote about Wayne and Ford were true, since Wayne was a part of Ford’s “stock company,” along with Ward Bond, who also appears in this film. I think the music was the studio’s attempt to inject patriotic uplift – but it failed miserably. This really is a downer of a movie, but as you say, the better for it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/06/2011 to 8:17 am

    “The film is helped enormously by Ford’s experiences making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. His familiarity with the rhythms and details of daily life for combatants and support personnel helps make a bit of sense out of the chaos; yet, he doesn’t hesitate to leave viewers in the dark about all the details.”

    Marilyn, there are two highly regarded films connected with “war” that have never resonated with me: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. It the latter instance, it’s unusual, since I consider Ford one of the greatest of American directors. I found the story arc narrativelt static and relatively pedestrian. Yet, you provide a stellar defense here in offering up a worthy Memorial Day choice, and teh vast majority of critics and audiences consider this one of the best of it’s kind. I do know that your famed appreciation for documentary cinema (well reflected here in this superlative review) gives you an accentuated perspective, and you obviously understand the machinations of character complicity in the film. You subsequently admit it’s a downer of a movie, which might work against it, though what could be more depressing than THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and that’s a supreme masterpiece.

    I don’t know, perhaps it’s a lack of emotional involvement, or disinterest in the happenings here. I know I have ben behind the eight ball, and have long felt guilty about it. I’ve put off seeing it again for a while.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/06/2011 to 8:16 am

    Sam – The film feels like Ford’s love letter to servicemen. He’s not interested in whether a civilian population understands much of what went on, and that can, naturally, make a person like you or me feel distanced from the action. That’s, I think, why all the iconic music was thrown in, but it’s a huge distraction to me. No need to feel guilty – when a film has more than one point of view (see A Child Is Waiting for more) it shows.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    4th/06/2011 to 5:19 pm

    Nice insight into how a war movie makes you see things differently, even from viewing to viewing. I’m not the biggest Wayne fan, most of his films do not appeal to me, especially the later ones in the ’60s and on, but this one is really a film where JW is in fine form. And this may be Donna Reed’s finest role, she was very much a real-seeming character, with a kind of gritty pathos in it, especially when you get to the end and realize Sandy knew the breaks all along. I watch it for her and Montgomery, actually,who was perfect for this role, and the host of fine supporting actors.

    The part where they don’t say where they were when they were hiking back is a nice touch-stone to the vastness and unknowable of the Pacific War, where the islands had a disturbing sameness, I understand. This one I’ve seen more times than I can remember as a kid, it was on a lot, and it’s one of the better American war films made during the war, along with “Objective, Burma!”. I do agree about the music, it’s intrusive to a well-told story of men who have to make distressing decisions at almost every turn. I live a Navy town, and the general feel is spot-on.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/06/2011 to 8:00 am

    Van – Wayne indulges a few of his ticks in this film, particularly his drawling verbal tick, which mar his performance a bit. But overall, he brought a kind of depth to many of his scenes that worked well. His romance with Sandy seemed quite genuine. As for Reed, I nearly didn’t recognize her – her entire demeanor was so different from her other roles, and they seemed to have made her up to look like she had a tan. She was just great, as was Montgomery, who is rising in my esteem every time I see him.

  • Fredrik Gustafsson spoke:
    18th/06/2011 to 5:37 pm

    I love They Were Expendable, it is one of the most beautiful films Ford ever made. It was also perhaps Lindsay Anderson’s favourite Ford film. It and Objective, Burma!, made the same year, go well together as two films about the pain of war. (Also an interesting case study of Ford vs. Walsh.)

  • Judy spoke:
    11th/11/2011 to 4:23 pm

    Marilyn, I’m months late to comment, but I’ve just seen this film today (Armistice Day) and appreciated reading your review of it. I thought it was Ford at his greatest – it jumps around at times and it can be hard for a civilian like me to follow what is going on, yet it all builds up to something very powerful. It’s a downer, as you say, and a magnificent one. I do think the fact that he had just been making documentaries helped to give the feeling of realism. I was interested to see that it often seems as if something overblown and unrealistic is about to happen, but then it doesn’t – John Wayne thinks about heading out to sea with his poisoned arm, but goes to hospital instead, and again at the end he doesn’t jump out of the plane but does what Robert Montgomery says. For me the music fed into this feeling of thwarted expectations – you keep getting the gung-ho soundtrack you might have expected for a more upbeat film, yet the events taking place on the screen go on being grimly realistic. I’d assumed this ironic distance between sound and vision was intentional by Ford, so was interested to hear that it was due to interference by the studio.

    It seems to be true that Ford bullied Wayne during filming – the TCM website quotes Wayne saying that he couldn’t do anything right and Ford kept shouting at him, calling him clumsy and a big oaf. But as Samuel says this may have been to get a particular performance out of him – he certainly seems more unsure of himself and more vulnerable in this than he usually does.

  • Ed McDowell spoke:
    8th/09/2014 to 4:49 pm

    It would have served the author of this article to have read the book.
    For most of my 72 years TWE has been my favorite movie. Joined the Naval reserve out of college. first book I read that didn’t have pictures at age nine.
    From the book I have always had a sense of nostalgia for the pre WWII days in those far off Pacific posts and the sacrifices of those Americans that cut off from aid from the states made that fight against overwhelming odds against a savage enemy for the first eight months of the war. BTW “Dad” Simpson was real and had a boat yard on the Isle of CEBU and did repairs for the surviving Squadron 3 boats after they delivered MacArthur to Mindinao. As the movie portrays he stayed to meet the Japs when they took the Island.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/09/2014 to 7:07 pm

    Reviewing a movie through the book upon which it is based is a straight line to madness.

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