They Were Expendable is the greatest American film of the Second World War, made by America's greatest director, John Ford, who himself saw action from the Battle of Midway through D-day. Yet it's been oddly neglected. Or ... more »perhaps not so oddly: for as the matter-of-fact title implies, the film commemorates a period, from the eve of Pearl Harbor up to the impending fall of Bataan, when the Japanese conquest of the Pacific was in full cry and U.S. forces were fighting a desperate holding action. Although stirring movies had been made about these early days (Wake Island, Bataan, Air Force), they were gung ho in their resolve to see the tables turned. They Were Expendable, however, which was made when Allied victory was all but assured, is profoundly elegiac, with the patient grandeur of a tragic poem. "They" are the officers and men of the Navy's PT boat service, an experimental motor-torpedo force relegated to courier duty on Manila Bay but eventually proven effective in combat. Their commander is played by Robert Montgomery, who actually served on a PT and later commanded a destroyer at Normandy; James Agee called his "the one unimprovable performance" of 1945. In addition to giving it, Montgomery codirected the breathtaking second-unit action sequences (and took over the first unit for a week when Ford broke his leg). John Wayne's costarring role as Montgomery's volatile second-in-command initially looks stereotypically blustery, but as the drama unfolds--the death of comrades, a friendship-that-never-gets-to-be-a-romance with an Army nurse (Donna Reed)--Wayne sounds notes of tenderness and vulnerability that will take Duke-bashers by surprise. They Were Expendable is a heartbreakingly beautiful film, full of astonishing images of warfare, grief, courage, and dignity: the artificial "rainfall" that lashes the beached Wayne as his PT boat explodes in the surf; the glow around a communally improvised dinner for nurse Reed; an old ship-repairer (Russell Simpson, The Grapes of Wrath's Pa Joad) settling in grimly to wait for the Japanese, with "Red River Valley" as benediction; the propeller spray that hangs over a jungle inlet, like the dust from one of Ford's cavalry pictures, as the PTs round a bend and disappear into history. This is a masterpiece. --Richard T. Jameson« less
"More than 60 years ago, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. During the months which followed, the United States struggled to recover as Japanese military victories continued throughout the Pacific. This film is based on William Lindsay White's interviews of four members of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, published as They Were Expendable in 1942. John Ford and Robert Montgomery co-directed and Montgomery also stars as Lieutenant John Brickley. Throughout much of this film, Brickley's squadron only provides courier service between Bataan and Corregidor. When given the opportunity, however, Squadron Three does manage to sink several of the enemy's ships as the Japanese complete their conquest of the Philippines, eventually forcing the American forces to surrender. With regard to the film's title, not all of those involved with resisting the Japanese were expendable. General Douglas Mac Arthur is ordered by President Roosevelt to relocate with his family and staff to Australia. Brickley's squadron makes their escape possible. As the film ends, he and Lieutenant J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne) return to the United States on the last plane out. Their men will now be fighting on foot...at least for a while. In the final scene, as they trudge proudly down the beach and the plane carrying Brickley and Ryan rises above them, the soundtrack offers a muted choral rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." A distinctive Ford touch.The greatness of this film is best explained in terms of (a) the generally non-verbal but nonetheless close relationships between Brickley and Ryan, and, between them and their crews; (b) the romantic feelings shared by Ryan and Lieutenant Sandy Davys (Donna Reed) which Ford never permits to deteriorate into sentimentality; (c) Montgomery's highly-effective portrayal of a soft-spoken leader; and (d) Wayne's (for me) surprisingly subtle and sensitive performance, perhaps equaled (in terms of nuance) only by his performances in The Searchers and The Shootist. It is worth noting, also, that Ford as well as his cast and crew obviously had great respect for the men and women in the American military services. They avoid all of the pitfalls which ruin so many other war films. For example, character stereotyping (e.g. including a philosophical Jewish cab driver from Brooklyn) and using melodramatic music to manipulate a viewer's emotions during especially dramatic moments. This film has integrity in all respects, suggesting that although many of those whom it portrays may have been expendable, they are nonetheless admirable."
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
Steven Hellerstedt | 01/20/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"John Ford's THEY WERE EXPENDABLE tells the story of the fledgling PT (patrol torpedo) boat branch of the US Navy and its valiant, and futile, defense of Manila immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Few directors possess the passionate affection Ford has for his subjects. Ford idolizes and idealizes his soldiers and sailors. As a consequence, his movies usually aren't very plot driven. Rather, they are tone poems, love letters to the warriors he so deeply admires. Not that TWE doesn't hit a major note or two - the PT boat role as a fighting arm is established, battles are fought and boats are sunk. Yet Ford never seems all that interested in serving plot points. He wants to paint Heroes. In any other director this romantic treatment would seem trite and contrived, but Ford practically built the cliché, so I suppose if anyone has the right to use it, it's Ford. Ford's heroes die talking. Rare is the mortally wound Ford warrior who is not borne from the noisy cauldron of battle to a quiet corner and allowed a passing speech. I don't mean to mock this, but I've never experienced the well of grief such scenes are meant to evoke. It happens a brief time or two in TWE, but the moments are over quickly enough. If Ford's choice and treatment of material is romantic and sentimental, it's fortunate that his actors usually aren't. Robert Montgomery and John Wayne star and both give restrained performances as PT boat commanders. Ford surrounds them with his usual cast of highly competent character actors - Ward Bond, Jack Holt, et al - and seamlessly integrates shots of real combat in battle scenes. There's a scene where two PT boats attack a Japanese cruiser that is one of the best action sequences I've ever seen. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is a great war movie. "
No Mock Heroics -- This is the Real Thing. Beautifully Done
Great Movie Addict | New York City | 09/20/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If you're looking for mock Hollywood heroics or a bloated 'action movie', try The Flying Tigers or The Fighting Seabees. This beautifully made, understated film is about the courage and dedication of the forsaken Phillipine defenders in 1941-42. In particular, the scene in which a radio announces the American surrender tells what those early days were really like. John Ford, who served in the Navy, casts Robert Montgomery as a PT squadron leader (in fact, Commander Montgomery served in the same PT squadron with John Kennedy). The b&w photography is outstanding, often mesmerizing, quite unique for a war film, with locations that are dead ringers for the originals. Adapted from the 1942 Pulitzer prize book by a reporter who was on the scene, it follows the true story fairly closely. Every performance is right-on, as are the combat scenes. Not a pumped-up excercise in flag waving; rather, it's a well executed tale of courage in desperate times. Every scene fascinates with the ambiance of its time and place, and with chilling historical accuracy. If the ending doesn't get a grip on you, you're a lost cause. And, yes, Doug MacArthur is treated like a god -- which, in those days, he was. No ostentatious preaching here; it's understated brilliance from start to finish, and an education in an earlier generation's attitude toward duty, integrity, and sacrifice. Bruce Willis fans stay clear; this is a war movie for grown-ups."
The best Naval film of World War II
Paul Sayles | Japan | 05/17/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"They Were Expendable is the story of a small number of Sailors who found themselves in the Phillipines as World War II started. These men are operating small torpedo boats for the Navy which doesn't seem to have much of a use for them, if one listems to the admirals and captains viewing them in action.The all star cast includes George Montgomery, Donna Reed, John Wayne and Ward Bond, amongst others. All are excellent and make this story much more real than it might otherwise have been. You get the feel for the Philippines and the climate. Plus the deterioriation of the situation as the Army is forced down the Bataan Peninsula to the island of Corregidor and the ultimate siege and defeat.Many people "remember" Pearl Harbor but don't quite recall that the Philippines was a starker defeat for the United States. If you look at it objectively, Pearl Harbor was essentially avenged at the Battle of Midway. The Philippines took over2 1/2 years to see the return of US forces and it then evolved into a slogging match with the Japanese Army that went on until the surrender of Japan in 1945. Pearl Harbor sticks in the mind, the Philippines rapidly faded away.This movie brings back the events that made up the US role in the Philippines in 1941 and early 42. You see at the end that there is not a happy ending. The romantic interest stays behind to become a POW. The remaining members of the PT crews become rifle carrying Sailors as they march off into the bush. Pay attention to Montgomerey's farewell talk to his men. It should rank up there with Washington's farewell to the Army.This is a film that should be seen by all with an interst in Naval and Military history as well as the events of 1941-42. It is a movie about people that could be anyone of us."
The best war movie of all time!
Paul Sayles | 11/17/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am a Navy veteran. I served in the Submarine service, and truly understand what it means to live with men facing danger at all times. They Were Expendable is a film about courage,sacrifice, and the hard decisions that men under arms must face on a daily basis. I felt like a member of the crew, and at no time did I feel that I was "watching a movie." It should make all Americans understand what all servicemen in the Philipines did in the early months of World War II. They fought the holding action that led to our eventual victory!THE BEST WAR MOVIE IN OUR HISTORY!"