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The exploits of Lt. John F. Kennedy in the South Pacific during World War II are turned into big screen entertainment in PT 109 (1963). There had been many films about the lives of American Presidents but this was the first Hollywood drama ever made about a currently-serving President, begun barely a year after his inauguration and released in June 1963; this was two years into his term as the thirty-fifth President of the United States and five months before he was assassinated.
Based on the book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII by Robert J. Donovan, a war correspondent and political reporter who covered the 1960 campaign, and adapted to the screen by Navy veteran turned screenwriter Richard L. Breen, the film is a profile in courage in miniature. Cliff Robertson plays Jack Kennedy, a young officer who pulled strings to get a command in the South Pacific theater at a time when the Japanese were still dominant. He's offered a run-down wreck by his crusty new commander (James Gregory) and given a week to make it seaworthy. Much of the film hits the familiar notes of the classic platoon film with a stiff reverence (young leader pulls together a makeshift crew into a tight and loyal unit, proves his mettle under fire and makes rousing speeches to rally their flagging spirits). It also delivers a personable portrait of an inspiring leader. He successfully leads his crew through what could have been a suicide rescue mission and risks his own life to save his men from the burning wreckage when the ship is destroyed and then swims through open water to await search and rescue craft without attracting the enemy's attention. While dramatic license is taken with some details (the real PT 109 wasn't a wreck, merely a ship that had seen hard action) and the timeline is rearranged for dramatic effect, the exploits portrayed on screen are more or less accurate to the historical record. Even the coconut, on which the marooned Kennedy carved a message to be carried to the American forces, was true. (The real coconut shell was preserved and is now on display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.)
The glowing big screen portrait of the then-current President was in part initiated by his father, Joseph Kennedy, who had been a Hollywood producer and studio chief in the 1920s and 30s and used his connections to negotiate the movie rights to Donovan's book. He surely saw the film as a great political tool, a feature-length advertisement for his son released in advance of the 1964 election. Jack Warner, the head of production at Warner Bros., "personally supervised" the film, which was budgeted at a generous $4 million. Shooting began in 1962 in the Florida Keys, which doubled for the Solomon Islands. Preparations for the production, which included building military shacks and docks and bringing World War II-era sea crafts to Munson Island, led to rumors about another invasion of Cuba. The biggest challenge was securing a small fleet of actual PT Boats. The small boats, used to "harass the enemy and buy time for a navy that was still on the drawing boards" (in the words of the film's opening narration), were built for speed and maneuverability, not durability, and very few of the boats were still around by 1962. Air Sea Rescue Boats were modified to fill out of the screen fleet and American AT-6 training planes substituted for Japanese Zeroes.
While Kennedy's exploits commanding a PT Boat in the South Pacific in 1943 were minor compared to more famous figures, PT 109 shows the future commander-in-chief as both a war hero and a strong yet personable leader whose resolve and bravery saves the lives of his men. Cliff Robertson, who had served in the Merchant Marines in World War II, was President Kennedy's choice to portray him in the film, picked out from screen tests sent from Hollywood to the White House (Jackie Kennedy, apparently, wanted to see Warren Beatty in the role). Robertson plays him as a plainspoken, easy-going, all-American guy who works side-by-side with the enlisted crewman, a charismatic leader of modest authority and unflagging commitment, and the role gave his career a major boost. Robert Culp stands out in the supporting cast for his genial turn as Ensign George 'Barney' Ross, a wisecracking buddy who becomes part of Kennedy's crew, Ty Hardin plays Kennedy's second in command and Robert Blake and Norman Fell are among the members of his crew.
Lewis Milestone, veteran director of such war movie classics as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Walk in the Sun (1945) and Pork Chop Hill (1959), was brought in to direct the prestige project but parted ways with the production. While the studio claimed it was due to cost overruns under Milestone's direction, the latter maintained that it was over disagreements with the script, which the director felt was inadequate. Leslie H. Martinson, a TV director with limited feature film experience, was brought in to replace Milestone. He apparently had no problems with the often corny and arch dialogue or the roll call of clichs through much of the first half, elements that would seem to substantiate Milestone's version of events. Not surprisingly, PT 109 was released to lukewarm reviews. Robertson, however received good notices for his performance. He carries the meandering film with his understated strength, giving a genial nobility to the heroism of the PT Boat commander that his friends simply called Jack.
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Leslie H. Martinson
Screenplay: Richard L. Breen; Vincent Flaherty (adaptation), Howard Sheehan (adaptation); Robert J. Donovan (book "PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII")
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: David Buttolph, Howard Jackson, William Lava
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: Cliff Robertson (Lt. John F. Kennedy), Ty Hardin (Ens. Leonard J. Thom), James Gregory (Cmdr. C.R. Ritchie), Robert Culp (Ens. George 'Barney' Ross), Grant Williams (Lt., Alvin Cluster), Lew Gallo (Yeoman Rogers), Errol John (Benjamin Kevu), Michael Pate (Lt. Reginald Evans), Robert Blake (Charles 'Bucky' Harris), William Douglas (Gerald Zinser), Biff Elliot (Edgar E. Mauer), Norman Fell (Edmund Drewitch), Sam Gilman (Raymond Starkey), Clyde Howdy (Leon Drawdy), Buzz Martin (Maurice Kowal).
by Sean Axmaker