Monday, May 26, 2014

Tonight's Movie: They Were Expendable (1945)

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. My review of the Blu-ray may be found here.


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I'm one who does consider this the greatest war movie ever made.

I have felt that way for a long time, and you did a good job of accounting for many of my reasons for this.

Thanks for a good choice for today.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your feedback and the kind words, Blake.

This movie really packs a wallop emotionally in a way that's quite rare. It had been a lot of years since I last saw it, and I'm still kind of reeling from its impact.

Best wishes,

4:35 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

From Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s:

To me, this movie is at the top of a lot of lists.

First, I think it's the greatest war movie ever made. And it's perfect for Memorial Day, as it lifts up the soldiers better than any other film I've ever seen.

It's also the saddest movie ever made, sending so many wonderful, gallant characters off to who-knows-what. It breaks my heart again and again each time I see it.

And last, Donna Reed is more beautiful in that jumpsuit and ball cap than in any swanky dress she ever wore. Ford and Joseph August lit her perfectly.

A masterpiece.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Toby,

I agree with everything you say. Truly, a masterpiece.

Best wishes,

9:34 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

It absolutely is a masterpiece. Not sure if I'd say it's the BEST war film ever, but it's certainly in the running. (Off the top of my head, that candidate list would include PATTON, GLORY, and THE STORY OF G.I. JOE.)

10:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your thoughts and sharing your candidates for Best War Film, Rick! :) Love hearing how much THEY WERE EXPENDABLE means to other viewers.

Best wishes,

10:26 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Yeah, a really fine war film. Agree with everyone.
Of course, the screenwriter on this , "Frank "Spig" Wead, had his own story told by Ford in 1957 as "The Wings Of Eagles", again with The Duke and a nice cameo by Ward Bond as the film director "John Dodge"!

10:30 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for adding your thoughts, Jerry!

THE WINGS OF EAGLES is the only Wayne/O'Hara film I haven't seen, probably because I've heard it's a little depressing. I did record it when it was very recently on TCM, though. That's funny about John "Dodge."


1:12 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I don't think any Ford film is "depressing." A relative few are disappointing, given that it is him. That's a very different thing though.

What they very often are is deeply emotional, and given certain subjects, can be heartbreakingly sad, as you and others have observed about THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. But that sadness is balanced by such visionary humanism that I find the sadness of some things that happen to the characters and within the stories transformed into something so spiritually rich that the sadness, though it does not disappear, is beautifully inflected by that.

It sounded in your words here that this sadness is worth it to you in a movie everyone here seems to have taken to heart. And I thought the sadness of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was also OK with you when you wrote about it--from what I remember of that piece partly because of what I say above and the way it manifests in the ending..

So, I will say THE WINGS OF EAGLES, which has a first third of mostly delightful comedy (one tragic incident) before turning into another deeply felt work filled with sadness because the subject demanded it (though like so much Ford, it is a portrait of a man who perseveres in adversity), will not make you sad in the end, and you will be glad you saw it.

My wife and I watched the three Wayne/O'Hara
Ford movies close together last year--in order, choosing RIO GRANDE for Ford's birthday, THE QUIET MAN for Valentine's Day, THE WINGS OF EAGLES soon after. If there is a better trilogy showing all possible aspects of mature male/female relationships, I don't know what it is. They are all masterpieces (and if I'm not mistaken you already love the first two) and Wayne and O'Hara are once again great and sublime together.

If I could encourage you to finally see it, I'd consider this time well spent today.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, I loved your thoughts. Yes, the sadness of THEY WERE EXPENDABLE and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was definitely worth it -- what you say about how that is balanced by being transformed into something spiritually rich is so true. In the end his films leave you feeling better about people even though they are beset with tragedy.

I'm glad to have the added input on WINGS OF EAGLES. I've perhaps also been leery of being let down, as RIO GRANDE and THE QUIET MAN are two of my all-time favorite movies. But I really do need to see it even if it's not quite on that level. (And O'Hara's THE LONG GRAY LINE, too!) If you feel I'll be glad to have seen it that's good enough for me.

Thanks for the encouragement to finally see it -- I'll bump it up higher in my stack!

Best wishes,

3:57 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Laura, I hope you give "Wings Of Eagles" a chance. In line with Blake, it is certainly not my favourite Ford but a most worthwhile picture.

On a lighter note, Wayne, as the older Wead later in the film, left his hairpiece at home, showing us his true hairline - I don't recall him doing that any other time. Certainly a long way from the sumptuous mop he had on the cover of Scott Eyman's book!
Best wishes,

3:36 AM  

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