They Were Expendable

by Peter Bogdanovich
October 17, 2010 4:22 AM
13 Comments
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Most war films are, ultimately, about winning. In 1945, however, as World War II was ending, John Ford made probably the finest U.S. war picture, about one of America’s greatest defeats—-in the Philippines—-the title of which alone is devastating in its implications: THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (available on DVD). Ford, who had entered the Navy in 1941, at age 47, was closely involved in numerous missions and operations all through the War, serving with the O.S.S. (forerunner of the C.I.A.) and making several war documentaries, including this country’s first one, The Battle of Midway (1942), which mostly he himself shot hand-held and during which he was wounded. It received the Oscar as Best Documentary, as did another that Ford supervised, December 7th (1943). Although he rarely spoke of his war experiences, records recently have come to light that he also was there on D-Day, and shot some of the most significant color footage in various campaigns. Certainly his intimate involvement with all aspects of that terrible conflict is apparent in his sensitively unadorned, elegiac handling of They Were Expendable. “What was in my mind,” Ford told me once, “was doing it exactly as it had happened.”

The picture-—excellently adapted, from the William L. White non-fiction account, by Ford’s Navy pal, Frank “Spig” Wead (about whom the director would make the underrated 1957 biographical film, The Wings of Eagles)—-focuses on the use of PT-Boats in the Philippines, specifically through the deeds of its central pioneer John D. Bulkeley, also a good friend of Ford’s and one of the most decorated men of the war: he is played with simple dignity by Robert Montgomery, also a Naval veteran.

His fictional cohort—-who gets the brief but memorable love interest with a Navy nurse perfectly incarnated by Donna Reed—-is done in a most effectively understated performance by John Wayne. The few scenes involving the nurse, in fact, give a remarkably resonant sense of the preciousness of females in these essentially male occupations; there’s unaffected chivalry displayed and tremulous warmth without really sexual overtones. When Wayne and Reed dance silently together, lit with evocative chiaroscuro, the emotional intensity is almost palpable. When she’s the male officers’ dinner guest, and enlisted men serenade her from outside, it is unaffectedly poignant with unspoken suggestions of family, peace and the hearth fire. The last time the two speak over a long-distance phone line and their connection is prematurely severed, the break is wrenching, and there is no further resolution.

Essentially, like a good many of Ford’s pictures, They Were Expendable deals with the peculiar glory in defeat. When I pointed this out to him, Ford said it wasn’t something he had “done consciously,” though he allowed, “it may have been subconscious... Of course, they were glorious in defeat in the Philippines—-they kept on fighting.” Typically Fordian is the way he visually sums this up in the movie, as the old-timer played by Russell Simpson (a Ford regular—-Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath)—- seats himself on the front steps of his house, rifle in hand, moonshine-bottle next to him, awaiting the inevitable Japanese onslaught as a distant accordion plays “Red River Valley.”

There are numerous such illuminating and personal Ford touches throughout: After showing the destruction and casualties from one of the encounters, Ford cuts to a large close-up of an anxiously grieving Filipino mother—-her men also were expendable. Or, at a burial, the artless simplicity of Wayne’s reading, “Home is the sailor/ Home from the sea/ And the soldier/ Home from the hill.” Or, in a bar when all the doomed men raise a grave yet hopeful toast as the battle is to intensify, Ford cuts around to various groupings, but ends the sequence with a young sailor, not yet old enough for alcohol, who drinks his toast with a glass of milk. This is the kind of picture making we simply do not get anymore, reminding us why, when questioned who his favorite directors were, the very modern Orson Welles replied that he preferred “the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

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13 Comments

  • Dennis Patrick | March 4, 2013 6:53 PMReply

    Great post Mr. B...My father who will be 91 this year served with the US Army in the Philippines on Mindanao, Negros and Luzon for the retaking and occupation. Even though Ford's They Were Expendable is about the Navy service, this film has haunted me ever since the first time I saw it decades ago because it somehow emotionally personifies my father's sacrifice and lost young adulthood. I watch it once or twice a year on DVD and still choke back the tears towards the end sequences, especially the funeral/ bar scene and when Montgomery says goodbye to his enlisted men. In the 1980's and 90's I attended the Unity Church of Dallas where actor Donald Curtis was pastor and when I asked him about his experiences on the set with Ford all he would say is how brutal Ford had been to "Duke" Wayne.

  • warren matha | February 22, 2011 6:19 AMReply

    For almost 55 years of my life, this greatest of all WWII war films has remained one of my very favorites. My father landed at Leyte as part of the 1st Cavalry Division and saw MacArthur wade ashore. He then landed on Luzon and helped rescue the Army nurses of Corregidor whom the Japanese incarcerated at Santo Tomas in Manila.
    "They Were Expendable" always made my dad sad because his best boyhood friend served as a Marine at Cavite during the time frame the movie depicts. That fellow died as a prisoner of the Japanese. Jack Holt's portrayal of the old school cavalryman always brought a smile to my dad's face...because Holt played the part so well.

  • janet grayson | February 21, 2011 11:00 AMReply

    Just read this--and so pleased that my affection for this film is shared by many. No matter how often I watch it, it never fails to impress me with the depiction of friendship and duty and sacrifice. The scene when Robert Montgomery gets his orders is especially riveting. But the most moving are the two scenes one after the other where John Wayne recites the poem over the coffin, followed by the men gathering in the bar. John Wayne's expression is beautifully fixed and tender and the line of silent men at the bar is unforgettable--all to the background music of Marqueta. My favorite WWII film.

  • PB | December 6, 2010 6:26 AMReply

    Thanks for the correction on the spelling of John Bulkeley's name, folks,
    we fixed it. PB

  • Philip King | December 1, 2010 3:49 AMReply

    Peter,
    I agree totally with the comments posted earlier. I have one technical point to raise, though. My dad served in WWII, you see, and details of stories about the war stick in my mind.

    It's a minor point: Donna Reed's character is an Army nurse -- a second lieutenant as she tartly responds to John Wayne's character's barging into the hospital ward seeking treatment for his wound.

    My mother worked in a small yacht brokerage on Biscayne Blvd. in Miami in the '40s. As a child, I played among surplus PT boats stacked for shipment from the P&O docks behind her office. I like to think that they might have been used in the movie.

    Thank you for the background your notes provided on this fine director and his great work.

    PAK

  • Alan Cassidy | November 8, 2010 4:50 AMReply

    I served with (then) Capt. Bulkeley (not Buckley) when JFK was in the White House. He was transferred and promoted to Rear Admiral to become C.O. of Gitmo. I treasure my picture with him at my advancement as an enlisted man. He cast a long shadow. A true hero and a sailor to his last breath.

  • Nancy | November 5, 2010 9:12 AMReply

    That's John Bulkeley, not John Buckley. The least we can do for someone awarded the Medal of Honor is to spell his name correctly.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bulkeley

  • Greg | October 26, 2010 2:23 AMReply

    Peter,

    You once again have struck the nail on the head. This picture is one of my favorites. While it does have the sentimentality of most films of the "Golden Age", it does put a twist on things. We don't know for sure if Donna Reed's character is ok. We don't know what will become of Duke and Montgomery's characters. Will they be successful in getting the PT boat program the proper funding when they go back to the States?

    My favorite scene involves Robert Montgomery and his C.O. near the beginning of the film. It involves Montgomery's character getting instructions to "lay a bunt down". Not everyone can hit the home runs in life. Not everyone can be the hero. However, by doing the job, one becomes heroic.

    Great film in every way. Script, production, acting, direction.

    Greg

    PS: When are you going to make another great film? Great painters never forget how to paint. Great directors never forget how to direct great films. Somebody get this fellow a great script and the money to produce it! :)

  • Jeff Heise | October 25, 2010 7:48 AMReply

    Having just read all the early scripts for this film, I was surprised to find one draft that had the return to the Phillippines as the finale with Wayne's character searching for and finding Reed's character alive but haggard. With the exception of this ending, the script is extremely close to Ford's film, so the impression one gets is that Pappy decided that less is more and that the audience hoping for a happy ending would have to supply their own, especially since the war in the Pacific was still not finished and in fact, was intensifying the summer of '45. Even though the film was not a financial success, it is probably one of Ford's great films from the period of his career that many consider his greatest. A lovely film.

  • Tom Moran | October 24, 2010 9:47 AMReply

    Actually, most of the great WWII films made while the war was in progress were about defeat -- that six-month period in between Pearl Harbor and Midway. I hope someday to teach a film course on the films of that period, ending with "They Were Expendable."

  • Curt Milton | October 24, 2010 5:21 AMReply

    Thanks for recognizing this film, which I consider to be one of John Ford's best. It is heroic yet understated with great performances all around. Robert Montgomery, in particular, is terrific. His performance is simple and honest; one of the best pieces of screen acting you'll find anywhere.

    This is one of my favorite WWII films and one of my favorite John Ford films.

  • John Goldwyn | October 24, 2010 3:19 AMReply

    I have never seen "They Were Expendable" and can't wait to do so. John Ford is one of my favorite American filmmakers and arguably one of the finest directors ever to work in Hollywood. So glad you're keeping his work alive with your relevant and insightful commentary. Thank you!

  • Tom Roberts | October 18, 2010 2:04 AMReply

    Peter,

    Your eloquence of word and introspective turn of phrases do old John Ford proud.

    From "The Lost Patrol" or "Wee Willie Winkie," to "Drums Along the Mohawk" or "The Quiet Man," Ford's interjections touching upon the simple human emotions, and the longing for what is lost, in contrast to the brutality of human nature are what make him unparalleled in American cinema.

    Thank you for your article.

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