They Were Expendable (1945): John Ford’s WWII Epic Drama, Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed

In 1945, John Ford directed impressively the WWII epic film They Were Expendable, starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed.

They Were Expendable
They Were Expendable poster.jpg

theatrical poster

The film is based on the 1942 book by William Lindsay White, relating the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, a PT boat unit defending the Philippines against Japanese invasion during the Battle of the Philippines in WWII.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The film and the book, which was a best-seller and excerpted in Reader’s Digest and Life, depict events that did not occur, but were believed to be real during the war; the film’s visual style is noted for its verisimilitude.


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John Wayne’s Lieutenant Rusty Ryan insists that the P-T boats, equipped with guns and torpedo tubes, could slip into the Japanese harbors. Ryan’s temperament stands in sharp opposition to Lieutenant John Brickley (Robet Montgomery), a calm and rational commander. Ryan gets increasingly frustrated–the disbelief in the boats’ potential and the lack of action bore him to death.

Challenged by Brickley, “What are you aiming at, building a reputation, or playing for the team” Ryan says, “For years, I’ve been taking your fatherly advice and it’s never been very good. From now on, I’m a one-man band.” Ryan becomes all more frustrated upon learning that the boats are assigned to messenger duty. He claims again, “I’m bored to death running messages.”

Later, when the boats are assigned to destroy a Japanese cruiser, Ryan is eager to go out but instead he is rushed to the hospital for treatment of an infected arm. He arrives at the hospital kicking and screaming. When the nurse suggests, to calm him down, that they go dancing, Ryan yells, “Listen, sister, I don’t dance, and I can’t take the time out now to learn. All I want is to get out of here.”

After his boat had been sunk, Ryan is ordered to fly back to Washington to organize new P-T Boat squadrons, but he loathes leaving. He tries to get off the plane offering his place to another officer. When the officer asks him to call his wife, Ryan explodes, “Phone her. I got business here and you got business back in the States.” All Ryan wants is to be at the battle zone. But once again, it is Brickley needs to brings him into line, “Ryan, who’re you working for Yourself”

The most unfortunate thing about Ford’s excellent war picture was the date of its release: December l945. By that time, American audiences were saturated with the war movie genre. As the critic Andrew Sarris observed, once the War was over, the public did not want to see a film dealing with “the very early misadventures of the war four years ago. “What could have seemed more perverse,” Sarris comments in reference to the evacuation of General MacArthur, “than Ford’s celebration of gallant defeat in the aftermath of glorious victory.”

It was somehow anachronistic to see in late l945 a war picture that stresses the values of self-service and devotion to duty. They Were Expendable and other war films that followed demonstrated that “once the war was over, the war film tended to slide in social significance from a cause to a genre, from a statement of principle to a set of platitudes.”

Since Wayne’s war films were not made in a social or political void, they suffer from all the genre’s weaknesses. Complicated issues were naively simplified in poor screenplays that lacked realism or credibility. And while the heroics of American fighters were glorified and exaggerated, the portrayal of the enemy, German as well as Japanese, was stereotypical and one-dimensional.

There was little concern with cinematic aesthetic as such. Most war pictures were social documents, emphasizing the contents of their messages at the expense of visual aspects. This is the reason why They Were Expendable still stands out. It’s beautifully directed and photographed, by Joseph H. August.

The critic James Agee first criticized the film, then in a second review, changed his mind and singled out its artistic qualities. “Visually, and in detail, and in nearly everything he does with people,” Agee wrote, “I think it is John Ford’s finest movie.” However, Agee also conceded that the film is showing “nothing much newer, with no particular depth of feeling, much less idea.”

While a work of fiction, the book was based on actual events and people. The characters John Brickley (Montgomery) and Rusty Ryan (Wayne) are fictionalizations of the actual subjects, John D. Bulkeley (Medal of Honor recipient) and Robert Kelly, respectively.

Narrative Structure
In December 1941, Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Montgomery) leads a squadron of U.S. Navy PT boats, based at Cavite in the Philippines, in a demonstration of its capabilities, but the admiral in command is unimpressed. One of Brick’s men, Lt. J.G. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne) becomes disgusted and is writing his request for a transfer when news arrives of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Brickley and Ryan are frustrated for a time as they are assigned to mostly messenger duty. Eventually, their superiors send them to attack Japanese vessels. As they are about to leave on a mission to take on a large Japanese cruiser, Brick orders Rusty to the hospital due to blood poisoning. At the hospital, Rusty begins a romance with Army nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed).

Brick’s boats sink the cruiser, after which the squadron meets with more and more success, though at the cost of both boats and men. But the American forces are fighting a losing battle, and it is only a matter of time before the Philippines fall.

With the mounting Japanese onslaught against the doomed American garrisons at Bataan and Corregidor, the squadron is sent to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and others. This done, they resume their attacks against the Japanese, who gradually whittle down the squadron. Crews without boats are sent to fight as infantry.

Finally, the last boat is turned over to the Army for messenger duty. Brickley, Ryan and two ensigns are airlifted out on the last plane because the PT boats are needed stateside as trainers. The remaining enlisted men, led by Chief Mulcahey, are left to continue the fight with remnants of the U.S. Army and Filipino guerrillas.

Ford, a notoriously hard taskmaster, was especially hard on Wayne, who did not serve in the armed forces.

During production, Ford fell from a scaffolding and broke his leg. He turned to Montgomery, who had commanded a PT boat, to temporarily take over directing chores; Montgomery began directing films himself a few years later.

The film, which received extensive support from the Navy Department, was shot in Key Biscayne, Florida and the Florida Keys.

Actual U.S. Navy 80-foot Elco PT boats were used throughout filming, albeit re-marked with false hull numbers in use in late 1941 and early 1942.

Additional U.S. naval aircraft from nearby naval air stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West were temporarily remarked and used to simulate Japanese aircraft in the film.


Oscar Context

Douglas Shearer was nominated for the Best Sound Recording Oscar, while A. Arnold Gillespie, Donald Jahraus, R. A. MacDonald and Michael Steinore were nominated for Best Effects.

It was also named one of the “10 Best Films of 1945” by the New York Times.

Robert Montgomery as Lieutenant John Brickley (as Robert Montgomery Comdr. U.S.N.R.)
John Wayne as Lieutenant (junior grade) “Rusty” Ryan
Donna Reed as 2nd Lieutenant Sandy Davyss
Jack Holt as General Martin
Ward Bond as BMC “Boats” Mulcahey
Marshall Thompson as Ensign “Snake” Gardner
Paul Langton as Ensign “Andy” Andrews
Leon Ames as Major James Morton
Arthur Walsh as Seaman Jones
Donald Curtis as Lieutenant (J.G.) “Shorty” Long/Radio Announcer
Cameron Mitchell as Ensign George Cross
Jeff York as Ensign Tony Aiken
Murray Alper as TM1c “Slug” Mahan
Harry Tenbrook as SC2c “Squarehead” Larsen
Jack Pennick as “Doc”
Alex Havier as ST3c “Benny” Lecoco
Charles Trowbridge as Admiral Blackwell
Robert Barrat as The General
Bruce Kellogg as Elder Tompkins MoMM2c
Tim Murdock as Ensign Brant
Louis Jean Heydt as “Ohio”
Russell Simpson as “Dad” Knowland
Vernon Steele as Army Doctor


Produced an directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Frank Wead, Jan Lustig [de] (uncredited), based on the 1942 “They Were Expendable” book by William Lindsay White
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by Douglass Biggs, Frank E. Hull

Production company: MGM

Distributed by Loew’s Inc

Release date: December 19, 1945
Running time: 135 minutes

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