Back during Memorial Day, I taped a bunch of war movies that I haven’t yet seen. Now, I can strike one from The Summer 2009 List.
“They Were Expendable” (1945) is a terrific film by John Ford and starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne. It tells the story of a PT boat squad in the Philippines starting December 1941 and moving through the next year. Montgomery is the captain and Wayne the executive officer. The squad starts the picture with five boats (IIRC) and is trying to convince US Navy brass that the PT boat is a good fit for wartime activities, not merely ferrying messages back and forth.
As any student of history knows, the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese also attacked the Philippines. You get a sense of dread during the opening minutes of the film because you know (as well as the audiences in 1945 knew) what was about to happen. As the attack happened, Montgomery ordered his boats out of the docks in Manila Bay, away from Japanese dive bombers. His instincts proved true as his squad was the only boats still operating after the attack. I’m not sure if there were any conspiracy theories about FDR and Pearl Harbor by 1945 (that is, he intentionally kept our ships in port to provoke an attack and, thus, get the US into the war) but you could certainly see Montgomery’s actions as such.
A good historical point made in the film was with Donna Reed. Not here, per se, but in the scenes, later in the film, with the officers of Montgomery’s crew. When she came to dine with them–she a nurse still dressed in a one-piece khaki suit–the men stared at her googly eyed. You see, once our boys shipped over seas, most of our boys rarely saw an American woman. As one of the veterans said in Ken Burns’ excellent “The War” series, the men sometimes had to be reminded of what they were fighting for. When a woman, especially an American, found her way into camp for whatever reason, the men remembered all that they needed to know.
That the movie takes place in the Philippines during 1941-42, I kept thinking “How can this picture end on a good note?” Most of the war pictures made during the war served the dual role of propaganda and moral booster. I was hard pressed how they were going to pull this one off, especially as the film wore on and the PT boat squad was ground down, boat by boat and man by man. Montgomery’s crew got to see some action, none more perilous than taking none other than General Douglas MacArthur to an island with an air strip and, then onto Australia.
The closing shot of the film, the words flashed on screen, and the stirring music are worth the price of the film. According to IMDB, the film was released in December 1945, less than four months after the war ended.
Another historical aspect I appreciated with the film is how the characters operated under the giant machinery of war. Each man knew he was but a mere cog. Some cogs are more important than others and all the characters seemed resigned to their fate. there’s a great, yet somber, scene with Montgomery and a superior officer. The officer explains what’s what and the meaning of sacrifice (in the baseball sense). The true meaning of his words is not lost on Montgomery, the superior officer, or the viewing audience. Indeed, as the film ends, you don’t know the fates of all the characters, something I found perfect for a film like this.
On the back of the DVD case, Leonard Maltin comments that this movie is one of the best all-time war movies ever made. I’m inclined to agree with him.