Tuesday, June 1, 2021

They Were Expendable


Director John Ford (center) on the set

Ford with actress Donna Reed

John Wayne and Donna Reed

The principal players












































THEY WERE EXPENDABLE                     B                                                                             USA  (135 mi)  1945  d:  John Ford

You and I are professionals.  If the manager says sacrifice, we lay down the bunt and let somebody else hit the home run.  That’s what we were trained for and that’s what we’ll do.                  —Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge)

The title itself may be the most devastating aspect of the picture, adding a unique sense of gravitas, shot 8 months after D-Day in WWII and released to audiences only after victory was at hand on the 4th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, yet depicting an earlier period during the war when American forces were constantly losing ground in the Pacific.  While it is jingoistic to the core, especially in its repeated use of conventional military music, it lacks the propagandistic allure of wartime films, typically caught up in the euphoria of victory, carrying moralistic platitudes about how the world was saved from the forces of evil.  There is none of that here, as instead we find ourselves in the Philippines as it’s about to be overrun by Japanese forces, the site of one of America’s most resounding defeats in the Pacific.  While it’s rare to see a more restrained John Wayne on the losing side, war pictures are normally associated with winning the war, but this is a decidedly different slant, as American forces are in full retreat mode, much like the Russian depiction of WWII in Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli) (1957), where the war’s ultimate outcome is far from certain, creating a profoundly elegiac mood replete with tragic overtones.  Nonetheless, it’s a heroic account of the effectiveness of PT boats, known for their speed and quick maneuverability, yet they were an unknown quantity during the war, overshadowed by the larger vessels carrying all the guns and ammunition that could inflict major damage, as a PT boat could carry only one anti-aircraft gun and four torpedoes.  More deceptive and elusive than the larger vessels, they were used for quick assaults where they could get in and get out, but the men were more exposed to incoming fire.  Ford headed the Eleventh Naval District Motion Picture and Still Photographic Unit for the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA), headed by Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a legendary World War I Medal of Honor winner, with Ford accountable to Donovan, who in turn reported directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Enlisting more than 200 men making a series of documentary war shorts for the Department of Navy, as Ford was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, filming THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY (1942), where a reconnaissance team decoded Japanese messages and thwarted a surprise attack, while also filming the Doolittle Raid, the first to inflict damage to Tokyo, a major morale booster at the time, and even had film crews landing on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, providing footage used in newsreels.  But this film was based on the 1942 book by William Lindsay White offering first-hand accounts from Lt. John D. Bulkeley, one of the most decorated men of the war who commanded a squadron of six PT boats in the Philippines known as Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, his second-in-command Lt. Robert Kelly, and U.S. Army Nurse Lt. Beulah Greenwalt Walcher (known as Peggy Smith in the book), with the latter two becoming romantically involved in the film, each of the three filing separate lawsuits against MGM for infringement rights and confidentiality violations, each settling out of court.  In the movie, Bulkeley becomes John “Brick” Brickley, played by actor Robert Montgomery, who actually commanded a PT boat during the war (also a destroyer at Normandy, co-directing second-unit action sequences).  John Wayne, in contrast, a man who never served his country (and Ford never let him forget it, constantly deriding and hounding him over this issue), is his constant sidekick, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan, something of a showboat action figure, a mix of bravery and impetuousness, where a bit of shrapnel sends Ryan to the hospital where he encounters Donna Reed as Lt. Sandy Davyss, an attractive yet level-headed girl showing uncommon grace under fire.  At the outset, growing tired of the inactivity, Ryan is about to enlist on a destroyer ship when Pearl Harbor is invaded, altering the course of history.    

While not a documentary, the film is fictionalized, shot with a darkened and shadowy Expressionist style by Joseph A. August, adding a romantic element while emphasizing realism, becoming one of the more intriguing WWII war films for that reason, showing very few combat sequences for a war movie, yet Ford feared making a commercial film while still in uniform.  In documentary tradition, Ford didn’t want to use wall-to-wall music to score the film, having MGM’s indistinguished house composer Herbert Stothart thrust upon him, but he ended up doing exactly that, clearly objecting to some of the “heavy music” added afterwards.  Actually shot in Key Biscayne, Florida, the palm trees swaying in the breeze add a tropical flair, setting the scene in the Philippines just prior to the fall of Bataan when American forces quickly lost their foothold.  The grim resolve is what separates this film from others, as the fighting force is ready for action, but they take severe casualties, losing both ships and men, creating a downbeat mood of grief and sorrow that is unrelenting, exemplifying the meaning of the word “sacrifice.”  In the early days of the war, there was open suspicion about the smallish stature of the PT boats, as they couldn’t be counted on to inflict major damage, which is what was really needed until planes could get back into the air, as it was the Air Force that turned the tides of the war.  Early on, however, after the epic destruction suffered by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans were simply outmanned and outgunned, with the Japanese continually expanding their grip on the Pacific, where holding their ground was often catastrophic.  The romance surrounding PT boats had yet to emerge, personified by President John F. Kennedy’s heroism as a PT boat commander during the war (Sixty Years Later, the Story of PT-109 Still Captivates ...), making him a glorified war hero.  But in 1945, this film actually captured the nation’s imagination, where Ford was convinced this wasn’t just another war movie, having already achieved critical success with his WWI war epic The Lost Patrol (1934), with this bearing an eerie similarity of inexplicable loss, believing the story of John D. Bulkeley, one of the most decorated U.S. naval officers of World War II, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, who along with his PT boat operators were part of America’s heroic tradition, like the cowboy or gunslinger of the American West, eventually commercialized in the American television comedy McHale’s Navy (1962 – 66).  The sentiment of these undervalued and underused naval veterans is that they were underappreciated by the military brass, never given a chance to prove what they could do, instead scrounging for fuel and torpedoes, mostly used as mail transport vehicles or sitting idly, rarely seeing combat activity.  As they ask for increasingly more dangerous missions, however, Ford’s visualization at sea is extremely effective, with the boats roaring into battle like a cavalry charge, offering a visceral experience that becomes even more harrowing, particularly after taking heavy casualties and losing the majority of the boats they came with.  Perhaps the centerpiece of the film is transporting General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat) and several high-ranking officers under cover of darkness from Corregidor (surrounded by the Japanese) more than 500 miles over two days to Mindanao, braving mines and rough seas, avoiding detection by patrolling Japanese warships, where they could then safely escape to Australia, Patriotic Movie Scene of General MacArthur from "They Were Expendable" YouTube (1:16), an act which earned every member of the squadron the Silver Star.

Ford never shows the face of the enemy, avoiding bloodthirsty images of their slaughter, where the thrust of the film is built around the camaraderie of the men, exclusively white, seen in everyday, ordinary life where they’re keen to make a difference, and seen in highly pressurized situations, performing in combat, where viewers get to know many of the faces of the squadron, called by affectionate nicknames, where there’s a playful air about them, using plenty of sarcasm to voice their displeasure, meeting and drinking in the watering hole afterwards, seen relieving plenty of stress.  Songs are sung, music is played, with Ford integrating the wholesome beauty of Donna Reed to symbolically remind the troops of just what they were fighting for, as most have an image of the girl back home, where Reed easily fits into that role.  But in the male dominated war operations, women are few and hard to come by, yet Reed holds her own, providing a needed medical service, bravely patching up the men and sending them back to their squadrons.  Similarly, many of the boats remain out of commission in a state of emergency repair, where Russell Simpson, Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), plays a crazy old coot known as “Dad” Knowland who repairs the PT boats, a cantankerous old man who would be out of place in any civil society, insufferably individualistic, standing his ground even after all the others have left the island, refusing to leave the place he’s lived and worked for 40 years, seen with a rifle in his hand and a bottle of hooch, with the strains of Red River Valley heard in the background (reportedly Ford’s favorite song), waiting for the Japanese Army to arrive where he’ll take them all on single-handed, They were expendable clip - YouTube (51 seconds).  As much as anything, this perfectly expresses the insanity of war, as there is no good outcome, just a profoundly lingering tragedy, with so many troops abandoned at Bataan and left to suffer an all but certain doom, discovering that during times of war, “they were expendable,” forced to sacrifice themselves to slow the methodical advance of the Japanese Army.  The bleak tone of the film is always understated, as are the brief romance scenes, where the romance barely has a chance to survive before they are separated, leaving an ambiguous ending surrounding many of the characters, their fates remaining unknown, exactly as it is in times of war.  In real life, only nine out of 111 men in the original squadron made it out of the Philippines alive, while most of the 80 or so Army and Navy nurses (known as the Angels of Bataan) spent the rest of the war confined to a Japanese POW camp, along with tens of thousands of U.S. and Filipino soldiers.  Like most Ford films, his racist views make it to the screen, but unlike Indians and blacks, his normal targets, his depiction of Filipinos is very much like his dehumanized depiction of Indians, speaking broken English, only a few words, completely overlooked, barely even viewed as human, but when they run around yelling “Jap come, Jap come,” it reflects how the enemy and even our own allies are continually demonized in cinema, where in Ford’s lifetime this incendiary human devaluation is never rectified, but instead normalized, remaining part and parcel with his artistic aesthetic, as warning signs of white supremacy simply reoccur ad nauseum throughout his films with continuing regularity.  To his credit, however, Ford demanded from MGM’s Louis B. Mayor the highest price ever paid to a director, then donated it all to the 21-acre ranch known as the Field Photo Farm, Field Photo Farm - The American Story, a memorial to 13 members of his unit in the Field Photographic Division of the Offices of Strategic Services who had died in the war, mostly comprised of cinematographers, actors and writers, including writers Garson Kanin and Budd Schulberg, cinematographer Gregg Toland, editor Robert Parrish, and special effects expert Ray Kellogg, providing a place where veterans of the unit could come with their families and enjoy the comradeship they enjoyed during the war.  In 1946 there were 176 active members, with a free and open invitation to stay at the farm whenever they wished, eventually falling into disuse when it closed in 1965.  Ford built a chapel on the property and inside the words of English poet A.E. Housman were inscribed offering his WWI reflections:  

Here dead lie we because we did not choose to live and shame the land from which we sprung.

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