They Were Expendable Film Details
Overview: A Navy commander fights to prove the battle-worthiness of the PT boat at the start of World War II.
Tagline: A Tribute to Those Who Did So Much… With So Little!
Review: This is one of John Ford’s best. There is a factoid circulating that this film, released in 1945 when we were about to end the war, was a flop because no one wanted to hear about a defeat in the Philippines, but Tad Gallagher’s research shows this not to be true. It was a success, and for good reason. It’s got about everything you’d expect in a war movie released during that year, and it’s finely done. Beginning with the photography and location shooting, in which Florida provides a first-rate substitute for the Philippines. No bravura acting is apparent, and none is called for. Montgomery is stolid as the squadron commander. Wayne, as his exec, follows orders competently and even is rather moving when he recites Robert Louis Stevenson’s epitaph during a funeral scene, foreshadowing his famous scene when he’s given the gold watch in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” Marshall Thompson plays an inexperienced new man, not for the last time. Ward Bond is a hearty boatswain’s mate. Donna Reed, looking enchanting, is Wayne’s aborted love interest. She doesn’t have much screen time, but good use is made of what she has, and after all, it’s hard to bang a full-blown romance into this kind of film. It’s pretty downbeat for Ford, when you come right down to it. One after another the “cardboard boxes” that, along with a handful of submarines, constituted MacArthur’s navy are lost. Blown-up, wrecked, requisitioned by the Army, or just disappeared. The editing is fine too. Wayne’s 34 boat is strafed and damaged by Japanese airplanes and he manages to beach it in a deserted area. He and his men struggle ashore through the surf. The planes return and they bomb it and strafe it until it erupts in flame, sending a geyser of seawater into the air. As Wayne emerges from cover there is a shot of him staring bleakly at his burning boat, then the seawater cascades over his figure forming a black-and-white rainbow as it does so. The eruption of water and its finally falling on Wayne’s figure couldn’t have been better times if a stopwatch had been used, a fine example of technical expertise. Made as it was during the war years, it couldn’t be more realistic than it is. Sometimes this is a weakness, due not to Ford and his crew but to the strictures of the time. The MTBs were glamorous duty. They were developed during WWI, when ships were mainly designed to be big enough to outshoot other big ships, and torpedoes hadn’t proved themselves. Well, they did during the first war, delivered by torpedo boats that were small and fast and could duck under the big guns to deliver their weapons. (The destroyer was originally meant to be a “torpedo boat destroyer.”) In WWII they served in every theater and were valuable assets. But they weren’t suitable for blue-water work and were mostly used in sheltered waters. “They Were Expendable” shows them attacking under fire at high speed, in some very exciting shots. In real life, as Richard Tregaskis has reported, the engines delivered about 40 knots when new — fast, but not that fast. A bit faster than a new destroyer, about the same speed as a torpedo. But under conditions in which maintenance was difficult or impossible, as they were here, the efficiency of the engines dropped and so did the boat’s speed. The usual technique was not to attack at full speed with flags flying, but to sneak up as quietly as possible on an enemy ship, launch the torpedoes, then get out quickly. Also the torpedoes malfunctioned frequently, and the launching mechanism used gunpowder which flashed when ignited and revealed the boat’s position. By the end of the war the boats had reverted to a more primitive system in which the weapons were simply dumped overboard. But that has nothing to do with the movie except that these observations reveal the major action scenes to be what Gallagher calls a boy’s matinee program. It didn’t happen that way. Nevertheless, this is an honest movie. We lose, although we’ve done the best we can. And one of our boys can’t kill a dozen of their boys. And you can tell Ford is behind the camera. Lots of booze. A reverence for authority. (MacArthur, whom his biographer, William Manchester, called “a remarkable man”, is seen only from a distance, kind of like a spiritual vision seen in the clouds. MacArthur’s complexity couldn’t be dealt with, and shouldn’t have been.) It’s a well-done film, thoughtful and exciting. The enemy aren’t referred to as Nips, nobody calls them names or tries to explain their motives. Hemingway may have enjoyed it if he ever saw it because it is a very nice illustration of “grace under pressure.” See it if you can.
Country: United States
Duration: 135 min
Genre: Drama, War
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