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They Were Expendable

They Were Expendable(1945)

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A World War II naval tale centering on sailors' nobility in the face of defeat in the Philippines, director John Ford's visually sublime They Were Expendable (1945) remains one of the best war movies ever made. It was released just months after V-J Day, but in its mournfulness and elegiac tone, it was years ahead of its time.

Its screenplay was based on a real officer, Lt. John Bulkeley, who was a close friend of Ford's. For the film he was renamed John Brickley and played by Robert Montgomery. As the leader of the Navy's new PT Boat squadron in 1941, he along with his executive officer, Lt. (J.G.) "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne), are desperate to prove to their superiors that the boats are valid, worthy equipment. But the top Navy brass are only mildly impressed, and after Pearl Harbor the squadron is relegated to messenger duty in the Philippines. Eventually they get a few shots at real combat, picking off Japanese shipping, but the reality of the oncoming Japanese force is quickly overwhelming the entire American presence on the islands, and the PT boats' importance fades in the eyes of the Navy. A lovely respite from the business of war comes in the form of a touching, believable romance between Wayne and Donna Reed, who plays an Army nurse.

But, as its bleak title implies, They Were Expendable is largely about loss and death. Though it contains some exciting combat scenes, the tone is not falsely glamorous or jingoistic. The characters' heroism comes across through their sense of duty and dignity, by the way they improvise, and by the way, as the New York Times review put it, "they face the inevitable without flinching." The film also powerfully illustrates the daunting pressures and loneliness of wartime leadership, especially in its depiction of the Robert Montgomery character.

Montgomery, who gives one of his finest performances, served with distinction in the Navy during WWII - including a stint in the Pacific as an actual PT boat commander. Ford used Montgomery's experience to the extent of letting the actor direct a few sequences when Ford fell ill. The industrious Montgomery then parlayed that work into a directorial career of his own, going on to direct five features over the next 15 years, starting with Lady in the Lake (1947).

Director John Ford, of course, is best known for his westerns, but he directed films in many genres. What unites his best films is not a setting but rather a deeply-felt tenderness between characters and camaraderie among men, as well as a poetic sense of composition. The images tell everything in Ford's movies. Look, for instance, at the masterful sequence in which several officers are informed, one by one, of the Pearl Harbor attack while they dine in a Manila restaurant. No dialogue is needed for us to know what is happening, an effect which adds tremendously to the scene's poignance. (Of course, Ford also collaborated with some of Hollywood's finest cinematographers, including Joseph August on They Were Expendable.)

Ford served in the Field Photographic Branch of the OSS during WWII and directed the famous war documentaries December 7th and The Battle of Midway, both Oscar winners. In They Were Expendable, his credit appears as "Directed by John Ford, Captain U.S.N.R." Several other names in the credits also appear with their military ranks, and the entire production has a feel of great authenticity.

Warner Home Video's new DVD boasts a crisp transfer but little in the way of extras; just the theatrical trailer. Still, the movie is so thoughtful, intelligent and beautiful that the disc is a must-have for any serious film buff.

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by Jeremy Arnold