Thursday, July 7, 2022

#2,780. They Were Expendable (1945) - The Films of John Ford


By 1945, the war in the Pacific had ended. John Ford’s They Were Expendable, released that same year, takes us back to the beginning, with an opening scene set on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was the event that kicked off the Pacific campaign, and while the United States would eventually emerge victorious, this movie serves as a reminder of those early days, when victory was anything but certain.

Based on a book of the same name that chronicled the exploits of Lt. John D. Bulkeley, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service during World War II, They Were Expendable stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. Brickley, commander of a ragtag group of PT boats stationed in the Philippines. When war breaks out between the U.S. and Japan, Brickley and his second-in-command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), expect to see some action. Unfortunately, Navy Brass isn’t convinced that PT Boats will be effective against the Japanese Armada, so Brickley, Ryan, and their crew are given menial tasks to perform, like running messages and shuttling officers between posts.

Even when they prove their worth in battle (at one point single-handedly taking on a squadron of Japanese planes), Brickley’s PT crew, which also includes BMC Mulcahey (Ward Bond), Ensign Garnder (Marshall Thompson), and Ensign Andrews (Paul Langdon), find themselves on the sidelines. As the war in the Pacific rages on, Japan wins victory after victory, even going so far as to force the Commanding General of the Pacific Theater, Douglas MacArthur (played here by Bruce Kellogg), to flee to Australia.

And while Brickley and Ryan fight effectively (when permitted to), the Japanese continue to gain ground, making it anyone’s guess as to how long U.S. forces will be able to hold out.

John Ford, who served in the Navy’s photographic unit during World War II, hadn’t directed a feature-length movie since 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, yet you wouldn’t know it watching this film. From start to finish, They Were Expendable features all the bravura, humor, and drama we’ve come to expect from the legendary director. Also good is star Robert Montgomery, who was himself a PT commander during World War II; his turn in what is essentially the lead role is one of the strongest of his career. Wayne is also believable as Lt. Ryan, who is more than ready to face the enemy, while the rest of the cast is solid in support. And while they are few and far between, the battle scenes featured in They Were Expendable are well-executed, especially the squad’s first encounter with Japanese aircraft.

But make no mistake; They Were Expendable is no flag-waving propaganda film. It is a raw, sometimes harsh account of the early days of the Pacific campaign, when the U.S. was outnumbered and outmatched by the Japanese. Yes, the United States would eventually win the war, but as They Were Expendable reminds us, we lost our share of battles along the way.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great Movie well made with great story and performances