THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), directed by John Ford, is certainly one of the greatest war films ever made...possibly the greatest. It's a stunningly made film which is a powerful testament to valor under grim conditions.
This saga of a PT boat squadron in the Philippines in the darkest days of World War II was inspired by real people and events. Robert Montgomery and John Wayne star as Lt. John Brickley and Lt. Rusty Ryan, who were based on John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly. Wayne's role as the more hotheaded of the two men was originally slated for Robert Taylor.
Brickley, Ryan, and their squadron attack Japanese boats as the situation in the South Pacific grows ever more grim. The squadron is decimated by losses but is able to help evacuate General Douglas MacArthur and his family from Bataan. Ultimately Brickley and Ryan are ordered to evacuate as well, so that they can train future PT boat crews; they must leave behind their remaining crew members to what might be a terrible fate as the Japanese advance.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is completely absorbing for all of its 135 minutes, the kind of film which draws the viewer in so deeply that one almost forgets it's a movie. It's a tremendously moving film yet in no way manipulative; it earns its audience's tears due to gritty yet poetic filmmaking and the genuine heroism the film depicts.
The entire cast is outstanding, with Montgomery particularly notable as a man who must balance the emotional distance needed for commanding with sympathy for his men, while at the same time he must accept and follow orders without regard for his personal wishes and frustrations.
There's a scene where Rusty and his fellow officers host a dinner for Sandy (Donna Reed), a young nurse Rusty likes. I think I watched most of it with tears in my eyes, even though on the surface all that was happening was dinner. The men's gallantry and pleasure at having a young woman to dinner -- who perhaps reminded them of loved ones back home -- was very moving. Sandy's fate will ultimately be unknown to the men and the viewer, the uncertainty adding to the film's emotional power.
That scene, in fact, is one of a cascade of moving sequences, whether it's the squadron paying a visit to a wounded comrade (Paul Langton), "Dad" (Russell Simpson) refusing to evacuate, Brickley and Rusty saying farewell to Boats (Ward Bond) and their men, or two officers (Leon Ames and Louis Jean Heydt) being bumped off the final flight to make room for two young PT boat officers (Cameron Mitchell and Marshall Thompson). The graciousness of the two older men, who in losing their seats on the plane have very likely been consigned to imprisonment or death, is devastating.
When I reviewed THE LONGEST DAY (1962) earlier in the weekend, a conversation ensued about the value -- or not -- of bloody realism in war pictures. Perhaps even more than THE LONGEST DAY, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE conveys the losses of war in a deeply affecting way without the need for subjecting its audience to graphic scenes. Simply pondering the possible fates of various characters is quite disturbing in and ot itself.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE was shot by Joseph August. The screenplay by Frank "Spig" Wead was based on the book by William L. White. The cast also includes Jack Holt, Donald Curtis, Jack Pennick, and Jeff York.
Robert Montgomery, whose wartime service included commanding a PT boat and serving on the USS Barton on D-Day, had at one point served as the real Bulkeley's executive officer. Bulkeley later said of the film's quasi-documentary style that it was "a documentary, yes -- but with good actors."
It's also interesting to note that, according to Joseph McBride's SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD, Robert Montgomery refused to be an enabler for Ford's sometimes atrocious behavior toward his cast members. When Ford launched into his usual insults of Wayne, which Wayne customarily endured, Montgomery put both his hands on Ford's chair and told him "Don't you ever speak to anyone like that again." Ford backed down. Despite that momentary friction, Montgomery said that Ford was the best director he'd ever worked with, "a genius."
Ford likewise respected Montgomery and put him to work as a second-unit director on the film, then asked Montgomery to fill in as director for several days when Ford was incapacitated. Ford later paid Montgomery the ultimate compliment, saying, "I couldn't tell where I left off and you began."
Montgomery would go on to direct all but one of the remaining feature films in which he starred, and after winding down his film career, he won a Tony for directing THE DESPERATE HOURS on Broadway. The last film Montgomery directed was a superb portrait of Admiral Halsey in the early days of the war, THE GALLANT HOURS (1960), with his close friend James Cagney in the title role.
While Ford could be a pain, he was also loyal. Ward Bond was seriously injured in a car accident, so Ford arranged for Bond's character to be wounded and walking on a crutch for most of the film.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE has had multiple DVD releases, including as a single title and as part of a 4-film Wayne set. It was released on VHS in 1998, and it can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is here.
Most highly recommended.
2015 Update: Please visit this related book review, BEHIND THE SCENES OF THEY WERE EXPENDABLE: A PICTORIAL HISTORY.
2016 Update: THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.