- Directed by John Ford
- December 19, 1945
A Naval commander and his men fight to prove the worthiness of PT boats while in the Philippines during WWII.
They Were Expendable stars Robert Montgomery and John Wayne as PT boat commanders forced to stay behind. At first their usefulness is doubted by their superiors, and at points they are even treated a bit derisively but as the film goes on their skills are valued after they prove themselves.
There is a little tension between Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and LTJG. “Rusty” Ryan (Wayne). Rusty (at least they did not use ‘Sparky’) is a headstrong individual while Brickley is a little bit more by the book. Both though have a begrudging respect for each other.
Donna Reed features as 2nd Lieutenant Sandy Davyss, a nurse that Rusty encounters after an injury. She is captivating in her part but comes and goes all too quickly. Her presence is to give the story some heart but ultimately her talents are wasted. I expected her and Rusty to reunite-even briefly-at the end but nope. Davyss was not even a significant token love interest. Once she stops coming on screen Rusty does ask about her but they never connect again. Davyss was superfluous and her whole bit could have been removed.
In a surprise move Ward Bond makes an appearance in They Were Expendable as BMC “Boats” Mulcahey. He never showed up with John Wayne in anything. Very rare. And he showed up in a John Ford film as well. Shocking. Please note my sarcasm. This was actually a favor by Ford to his friend. Bond was recovering and needed money. Note that Bond’s character is never shown walking until he receives a leg injury after which he is moving around on crutches. Ford was known as a bit of a dick, but he did look out for his friends when possible.
In They Were Expendable the treatment of the characters certain lives up to the title. The story focuses on a PT boat squad who must remain in the Philippines and buy time for the military to effectively strike back against the advancing Japanese forces. ‘Buying time’ does not necessarily mean you are going to come out okay and get to go home. You genuinely could die for the greater cause and the deaths come pretty steady here.
Ford himself won an Academy Award for the semi-documentary The Battle of Midway which he filmed from the power plant of Sand Island and was wounded in the left arm by a machine gun slug during. His experiences from then seem to help give a bit of realism and authenticity to the combat scenes. The technical work to accomplish the action in the film still largely holds up.
Reportedly Ford did not like this particular film and I can see why at points though the issues would appear to stem from what the director did. In other words it was Ford’s fault. The man had a reputation of changing things on the fly with the script being more of a rough outline than a finished product. The story presented is okay but there are a few too many slow parts. I understand this is a drama about what the characters had to go through, but I think some of the stuff could’ve been trimmed a little bit or just exercised.
Ford was a director with a great deal of influence by this point in his career. He got what he wanted. Sometimes though you need people there to tell you ‘No’ or just to simply negotiate to negotiate with to get things on the screen. When there’s no one around they can say ‘Hold up!’ the narrative can suffer, and I think that’s what happened here.
A snip here. A line removed there. Perhaps a part or two that looked like it was going to have more impact on the narrative expanded to have such. Maybe Ford’s heart just was not into it and that was the big problem with the end product.
Overall They Were Expendable is not a bad film. Despite its flaws, at many points it manages to be a fine drama with an interesting story. I do not highly recommend this but I recommend it nonetheless. It is worth a watch by Wayne fans and fans of war dramas.