In direct contrast to the flag-waving, jingoistic propaganda films typical of Hollywood during WWII, John Ford's THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is a somber and moving account of America's defeat in the Philippines early in the war. Filming this grim failure, Ford beautifully and poetically captures
the heroism and bravery of the men and women who fought there--and does so without impassioned speechifying or gushing patriotism. Instead, Ford commemorates the quiet and uncomplaining devotion to duty, the will to serve, and the nobility of sacrifice of those left in an untenable situation.
Based on the exploits of Lt. John Bulkeley, commander of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron No. 3 (the predecessor of the Navy PT boat force), the film follows the coolly professional lieutenant (Robert Montgomery, in one of his best performances), renamed "Brickley" for the film, and his hot-headed
executive officer, Lt. J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne), as they struggle to get the Navy to accept the PT boats as a valuable new tool in the war effort. The top commanders, however, see no use for the unit and relegate Brickley and crew to running messages and ferrying supplies. As Bataan and
Corregidor fall to the Japanese, however, the PT unit proves itself valuable by sinking many enemy ships, although the effort proves too little too late. Japan emerges triumphant and the American brass is forced to leave their troops stranded before the enemy and to flee to Australia, where they
will regroup and plan their return.
From the time Ford shot THEY WERE EXPENDABLE to the day he died, the director was ambivalent about the film, his opinion of the work alternating between disapproval and satisfaction. This may have been largely due to the fact that he was pressured into making THEY WERE EXPENDABLE soon after having
seen action himself in the South Pacific as a documentary filmmaker for the Navy. Capt. Ford had lost 13 men in his unit and the making of this film no doubt stirred painful memories for the director, memories he may have preferred to ignore when asked to discuss his films later in life. Despite
Ford's ambivalence, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is one of the greatest films to come out of WWII, a lasting and poignant tribute to those who go in harm's way.
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- Review: In direct contrast to the flag-waving, jingoistic propaganda films typical of Hollywood during WWII, John Ford's THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is a somber and moving account of America's defeat in the Philippines early in the war. Filming this grim failure, Ford be… (more)