This is the second part of a four-part series looking at World War II films released in 1945 and early 1946. These realistic films were different from most as they attempted a realism not found in similar-themed films that focused on American heroics as a way to boost morale.
The excellent “They Were Expendable” looks at the motorboat torpedo squadron 3 from before Pearl Harbor to mid-way through the war, when the decommissioned squadron gives way to a new fleet of PT boats that the Navy requested made.
The film was released by MGM, not always known for such realistic war-themed fare. Although the studio had released “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Bataan,” it was mainly interested in lighter material, such as musicals, homespun series such as the popular Andy Hardy films starring Mickey Rooney, and the likes of “Lassie” and “Maisie.”
The director is John Ford, who spent several years with the war department filming such Oscar-winning documentary shorts as “December 7th” and “The Battle of Midway.” “December 7th” combined newsreel footage with recreated scenes. “Midway” was the first document of an actual U.S. military engagement and the first to use 16mm Technicolor photography. This battle was also the first one made by an established Hollywood director.
So he brings first-hand knowledge to “They Were Expendable,” and it clearly shows. He’s also paired with his favorite muse, John Wayne. But don’t mistake this film as a John Wayne-saves-the-day flag-waving piece of propaganda. Wayne plays Lt. Rusty Ryan, a hot-headed boat pilot who is described by one character as “tall, dark and obnoxious.”
The film’s other star is Robert Montgomery, playing Lt. John “Brink” Brinkley. Based upon W.L. White’s book, the story centers on the squadron commanded by Brink. Stationed in Manila Bay, Brink believes his squadron can be highly useful in combat, especially after Pearl Harbor is attacked. Unfortunately, the powers that be feel the squadron is too easy a target, too inexperienced and lightweight to do any real good during battle.
Even after fighting one good battle, the squadron is assigned to ferrying messages back and forth between ports. “I don’t want to be bored to death running messages,” Rusty complains, but there’s not much that can be done. Brink and Rusty realize it’s not just about fighting, it’s about respect.
Much like “The Story of G.I. Joe,” “They Were Expendable” does a strong job of detailing the conditions of war, this time in the Pacific. The sights and sounds of operating under fire is one excellent way that the screenplay and Ford demonstrate what tens of thousands of men were experiencing during the war.
Another is when Rusty must report to the hospital for blood poisoning that could potentially lead to his arm being amputated. While there he meets Nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). Theirs is a romantic friendship but all too brief. When she visits the officers for a meal, the scene may seem quaint today as the officers are on their best behavior, trying to suppress their giddiness that a woman is amongst them. But the rare presence of a woman had a positive effect on the fighting men, no matter what branch, as detailed by Ernie Pyle in his writings. Nurses worked hard during the war, but they boosted morale in a way the medicine could not. The lovely Reed is exactly what this role needed.
The film also deals with such places as Bataan, Corregidor and the U.S.S. Arizona. Audiences in 1945 needed no further explanation, but today it’s worth noting that the first two were horrific battle locations in the Pacific resulting in heavy losses while the U.S.S. Arizona was sunk during the raid on Pearl Harbor. Audiences knew that characters being sent to Bataan or Corregidor would most likely not return.
Ford is a master at capturing the faces and reactions of his characters, whether it’s the Asian woman singing an American patriotic song or young sailors, barely out of high school, trying to look brave while clearly scared. There’s such poignancy to his work, especially at the film’s end. Instead of building to a big climax, he goes for something more subtle, a weariness among the men that never gives way to dejection. They may be tired, but they still fight on, firmly believing they must give everything they have to win. There is nothing expendable about these men.
As for the actors, Montgomery is stoic and fine as Brink. He’s mostly unflappable, but it’s a look here or quick glance there that registers his emotions, and I like Montgomery’s ability to convey these emotions within Brink’s official demeanor. Wayne is terrific. While he wants to fight, it’s not the usual gung-ho personality we think of with him. In fact, his best moment comes toward the end, when he gives a lovely eulogy played with a bitter tenderness.
“They Were Expendable” was released in December of 1945. Although “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” had been a huge commercial hit for MGM in 1944, “Expendable” was a bigger hit with critics. However, with the end of the war, it was clear to studios that war-themed films were no longer moneymakers. I’ll talk about that more in two weeks. However, next week, I’ll look at a documentary from John Huston, “San Pietro.”