They Were Expendable
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Set at the start of World War II, They Were Expendable (1945) follows a PT boat captain (Robert Montgomery) and his commanding officer (John Wayne) as they try to convince the Navy that PT boats are in fact useful weapons, good for more than just the military equivalent of errands. Donna Reed provides a love interest while the cast is populated with several of director John Ford's regular actors such as Ward Bond. Even though They Were Expendable was created more or less as propaganda, the title clues you in that this won't be your usual war film. Ford told Peter Bogdanovich, "I despise happy endings - with a kiss at the finish - I've never done that. Of course, they were glorious in defeat in the Philippines - they kept on fighting."
The story behind They Were Expendable goes back to 1942 when MGM bought the rights to a best-selling book about PT boat commander John Bulkeley, a Medal of Honor recipient. When the time came to bring it to the screen, John Ford was already a captain in the Navy Photographic Field Unit, having won Oscars for The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). MGM and the Navy put Ford on leave in October 1944 so he could direct the film, even though he always insisted he didn't want to do it and was under orders. It helped that the writer was his old buddy, Frank "Spig" Wead (Ford would later direct Wead's life story as The Wings of Eagles, 1957), who really convinced Ford this movie would be a good deed for the war effort. Still concerned about appearing to profit from a commercial film during wartime, Ford had his salary go to a center for veterans of his unit, the Field Photo Farm, which was active from 1946 to 1966. Oddly enough, in the summer of 1944, while Ford was resisting making the film, he spent several days actually fighting alongside the real-life Bulkeley aboard a PT boat during the Normandy invasion.
Filming started February 1, 1945, Ford's 51st birthday. The location was Key Biscayne, Florida, with a lot of design and set work giving it a passable resemblance to the Phillippines. The Navy supplied actual PT boats for the filming and Navy officers would stop by occasionally to watch the filming. Robert Montgomery was able to draw on his activity as an actual PT commander at Guadalcanal and Normandy, as could one of the second unit directors. Perhaps due to his cumulative experiences in the war, Ford poured a lot of himself into the film. John Wayne said Ford "was awfully intense on that picture and working with more concentration than I had ever seen. I think he was really out to achieve something." Even with his reputation, Ford hadn't been allowed to use men from his photographic unit in the crew. They Were Expendable turned out to be the next-to-the-last film for cinematographer Joseph H. August, a two-time Oscar nominee whose career of nearly 150 films stretched back to 1912.
Near the end of filming, Ford broke his leg when he fell 20 feet off a scaffold. During his absence Robert Montgomery directed the remaining scenes, even though Ford had publicly upbraided him earlier for trying to suggest a different way to handle a scene. Montgomery wasn't the only future director observing Ford at work. John Wayne already had ideas for a film about the Alamo and was learning film technique from Ford, and future director Blake Edwards supposedly plays a crewman aboard one of the boats. The postproduction work on They Were Expendable was performed while Ford was away in Washington and didn't sit well with him at all; in particular, he objected to some of the heavy music added (though you can still hear Ford's signature tune, "Red River Valley").
The film was released on December 7, 1945, but with the war dying down, it was not as big a hit as expected. It did receive two Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Special Effects. It also became entangled in two lawsuits. Commander Robert Kelly (the basis for John Wayne's character) sued MGM for libel and was awarded $3,000. Lieutenant Beulah Greenwalt (played by Donna Reed) said the portrayal of her in a fictitious romance was damaging and an invasion of privacy; she was awarded $290,000. Despite these setbacks, They Were Expendable is now recognized as one of the best war films and a high point in the careers of everybody involved with it.
Producer: John Ford, Cliff Reid
Director: Robert Montgomery, John Ford
Screenplay: Frank Wead
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Costume Design: Yvonne Wood
Film Editing: Douglas Biggs, Frank E. Hull
Original Music: Earl K. Brent, Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Robert Montgomery (Lt. John Brickley), John Wayne (Lt. J.G. "Rusty" Ryan), Donna Reed (Lt. Sandy Davyss), Cameron Mitchell (Ensign George Cross), Jack Holt (General Martin), Ward Bond (Boots Mulcahey), Marshall Thompson (Ens. Snake Gardner).
BW-135m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Lang Thompson