John Ford once famously said "I make westerns." I love a lot of those westerns -- and tolerate some others -- but Ford's career was more than solely westerns. Some of his most respected movies like The Quiet Man, The Grapes of Wrath, and Drums Along the Mohawk are far from westerns. Ford even served during World War II, but the popular director isn't known for making war movies. His last war film? An underrated classic, 1945's They Were Expendable.
It's December 1941 in the Philippines and Lt. John 'Brick' Brickley (Robert Montgomery) is at the head of a small squadron of torpedo boats, a new form of attack boat that hasn't earned a reputation yet as a fighting unit. That ability to fight is about to be tested. When the Japanese unleash their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire U.S. military in the Pacific is forced to improvise in a desperate attempt to hold off attacking Japanese forces and somehow survive in the process thousands of miles from help. Brick and his second-in-command, Lt. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne), join the fighting too, the PT boats figuring out on the fly how they can help the war effort as Japanese forces surge forward on Bataan and Corregidor. With supplies limited and reinforcements a remote possibility, the PT boats must band together in a last-ditch effort.
The early parts of World War II in the Pacific feature some of the worst defeats the U.S. military has had in its 200-plus year history, including the battle for Bataan, originally leading to the horrific Bataan Death March. It reflected how poorly the U.S. was planned for an attack on such a grand scale. Ford's film -- which he supposedly hated, saying he was forced to make it -- delves right into that. The U.S. government had to make extremely difficult decisions in December 1941 and into 1942. If there was any hope of taking the attack back to the Japanese, the Philippines had to be abandoned, meaning thousands of American and Filipino troops were simply left to fight it out on their own with little in the way of supplies, food, ammunition and most importantly, no help on the way. A horrific American defeat, it makes for an incredibly moving story.
What a somber, unsettling and yes, moving film from Ford. I believe it deserves far more of a reputation, an incredible story that covers a lot of ground in its 135-minute running time. 'Expendable' follows the battle for the Philippines -- about four-plus months -- in a forthright, honest fashion. This isn't a rah-rah! war movie. It tells a story that needs to be told, and I'd imagine, many Americans don't know much about. 'Expendable' is interested in telling the story of the heroic sacrifices made by the thousands of people left to fend for themselves as Japanese forces inched ever closer. Ford's film was shot in black and white, a beautiful, shadowy visual that a crime-ridden 1940s/1950s film noir would have been jealous of. There will be no miracle surprise in the end for these men. Some will be flown out of the Philippines but for most, they will be left behind, forced to choose whether to fight the Japanese or maybe surrender. A downbeat story for sure, but an honest look at war too. Heroes? Yes. A story interested in glory? No, just doing what's difficult because that's what they've been trained to do.
So many moments here stick with me after viewing this 1945 WWII movie. Wayne's Rusty meets Sandy (a scene-stealing Donna Reed), a young nurse trying to help the wounded that keep pouring in. It is a love story that feels real and natural, not forced. Ryan delivers a soft-spoken, emotional eulogy over a fallen comrade with his surviving crew standing around him. A quiet, candlelit dinner has Ryan, Sandy, Brick and their officers quietly enjoying a peaceful turn, the Japanese guns banging miles away. An old man known as Dad (Russell Simpson) who's lived in the Philippines for years waits on his doorstep with a rifle across his lap. Take his land? He'll have something to say about that. Brick and Rusty visit a wounded comrade (Paul Langton), trying to give him a boost even though the prognosis is a mortal wound. There's too many to mention here, but it helps boost the movie up a notch. Ford at times could get overly sappy, too cute with his stories, but 'Expendable' rings true from beginning to end.
There isn't a weakness in the cast. A Navy veteran himself, Montgomery is excellent as Lt. Brick, a tough, capable officer who doesn't let the daunting task at hand slow him down. When Ford had some on-set health problems, Montgomery stepped into the director's chair. Ford was especially tough on Wayne because the Duke had not served during WWII, but Wayne comes through, delivering an excellent performance. The chemistry between Montgomery and Wayne is subtle and perfect, two friends who have almost a brotherly relationship. Along with Reed, also look for Jack Holt and Charles Trowbridge as high-ranking Army and Navy officers, tasked with the impossible, holding together an army that has no backing. As for the PT boat crews, look for Ford regular Ward Bond along with Marshall Thompson, Cameron Mitchell, and Ford favorite Jack Pennick. I also liked Louis Jean Heydt's quick appearance as Ohio, a fellow officer Ryan meets trying to survive one place to another.
This is a war movie, but the action isn't front and center. What's there is impressive though, the footage of the PT boats zipping across the Pacific doing an excellent job of getting your adrenaline pumping. Mixing in some archival WWII footage, the action is spectacular as the Japanese guns blaze away at these small but extremely fast attacking boats armed with two torpedo tubes and a couple of .50 caliber machine guns. The action sequences are highlighted by an escape from a lagoon base under attack, a nighttime attack on a well-guarded Japanese convoy and a desperate run up a river as Japanese planes descend for their own attack runs. The focus is far more on the men, but these battle sequences are excellent whenever they pop up. 'Expendable' was filmed in Key Biscayne, Florida and the Florida Keys, a more than worthy fill-in for the South Pacific.
Just an excellent war movie, one that deserves more attention for what it accomplishes. It deserves its place among John Ford's classics.
They Were Expendable (1945): ****/****