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.