Conceived in irony, released in haste and shot almost entirely in Florida by the great Joseph H. August; one of the truly momentous, though catastrophically overlooked masterpieces as yet to be rediscovered by the public, They Were Expendable (1945) holds the dubious distinction of being director, John Ford’s rabble-rousing/flag waver to have missed the end of the war by only a few months; thereby blunting both the picture’s timely popularity with audiences, then eager for escapism of a different sort, and its’ timeless appeal ever since as an understated retrospective on an all but forgotten chapter in WWII, told with unvarnished sentiment as only Ford could. Right off the bat, Ford gets us interested in all those young, impressionable clean-cut American faces, so many – too many, in fact – never to return from these gallant hours; their hopeful promise cruelly, repeatedly snuffed out by a foe left autonomous and strangely absent from the fray. Like a ghostly apparition, we never encounter ‘the Japs’ except in long shot in They Were Expendable; thunderous shelling from secret destroyers at a distance or raining down depth charges from kamikaze dive bombers.
Based on William L. White’s jingoistic novel, They Were Expendable takes one of the war’s unbridled U.S. military blunders - Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s near escape from Corregidor to Cagayan De Oro in March, 1942 - and manages to find, a nugget of wisdom, a kernel of truth, and, more than a ray of hope from its hellacious surrender and fall of the Philippines. Once again, Ford’s passionate direction elevates what otherwise might easily devolved into typically hackneyed hokum with an injurious propaganda slant; Ford, thoroughly invested, if chronically prone to groundswells of heartfelt empathy for these fighting men, blind-sided by patriotism, forced to endure and sacrifice for an already lost cause; Ford, electing himself the patron saint of all such lost causes, suffering right alongside co-stars, Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, even as the casualty lists mount with the names of the fallen. The workaday approach to the drama, authentic rather than artificially exalted for the sake of movie-land schmaltz, is offset by some exceptionally orchestrated action sequences, given girth and presence with the complicity of the U.S. Navy and a screenplay so transparently written with the voice of experience by retired U.S.N. Commander, Frank Mead (with un-credited assists from Norman Corwin, George Froeschel and Jan Lustig).
I have read far too many retroactively written reviews, claiming rank sentiment, dull drama and (choke) bad acting, to be the scourges in this forgotten Ford gem; the inadequacies and blame, frankly, one-sided and pontificated mostly by navel-gazers from their comfy armchairs, cozy nooks and writing desks; unknowing and equally as unaware of how truly staggering the losses in Bataan were, and, how exceptionally Ford and his cast have managed to touch upon the precepts of a more honorable nobility that gives the tired ole cliché ‘war is hell’ a genuine run for its money. They Were Expendable is a movie mostly devoted to the lulls between combat; the intimacies gently (occasionally, desperately) divvied by this band of brothers, despite heart-palpitating dread and thought-numbing self-sacrifice, worn on the sweat-soaked, rolled up sleeves of this motely, brutalized and ‘expendable’ brood of military personnel who, despite their lack of vision for the overreaching arc in Washington’s grand campaign in the Pacific, are nonetheless thoroughly committed to see the cause – whatever it may be – through to completion, or die with the strength of their own convictions unbowed. Too many war movies forget the horrors of the war are better illustrated in close-up rather than long shot; Ford and cinematographer, Joseph H. August looking deep into the wounded stares of actors who intuitively possess a genuine sense, not only of their own stature as actors, but astutely are able to assess and embody the content of their characters with class, and, with the ability to transmit a more personalized sense of angst in their do or die, frequently, without ever moving their lips.
Dialogue in They Were Expendable is sparse, perhaps because Ford himself was a man of few words; or more to the point, as Ford has placed the faith of his own convictions in long pauses of silence; allowing the echo of gunfire and falling bombs to take their terrible and haunting toll on the soundtrack, only occasionally augmented by Herbert Stothart’s syrupy underscore. Stothart, a warhorse composer at MGM, offers up a restrained, though occasionally too familiar orchestral underlay; cues to compliment Metro’s moneyed resolve to make a ‘big picture’ with A-list ‘class’ but also afford its’ eminent director the run of their resources to create as fine and subtly nuanced a picture as his stoic little heart will allow. I am reminded of Ford’s own comments made on another picture, when asked by his cinematographer if he preferred to shoot a close-up, Ford casually suggesting, “What for?…they’ll only use it.” Indeed, in a John Ford picture, a close-up always stands for something; a punctuation of a character’s internal resolve or a monumental minute of self-realization only capably transmitted to the audience via the internal workings behind a skilled actors’ eyes. A lot of They Were Expendable takes place in the shadows of life; the actors photographed from behind or in moonlit/candlelit silhouette; Ford using the interplay of light filtered through bamboo Venetian blinds or lazily rotating ceiling fans in the Officer’s Hall to vivisect a more critical comprehension of what makes these men of action tick.
What motivates Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) in his clear-eyed/careworn sense of duty or restrains and softens embittered Lt. (J.G.) 'Rusty' Ryan (John Wayne) – separating the soldier from the man, later to humanize and elevate both from darkest despair, enough to make us care about what happens to the burgeoning/thwarted romance between Ryan and ‘nurse’, Lt. Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). For all his pathos and passion, Ford utilizes the close-up more readily than he is usually given credit, never once suffering a misstep into contrite tomes for the heroic living or glorified dead. When silence can say more, the screen is enveloped by a deafening profoundness no amount of clever prose can succinctly rival. When levity is needed it is given - carefully parceled, so as not to undo or break with the Fordian traditions already well-established; threads of male-bonded collective regret running with artery-like precision from the very first introductory frame of Ford’s storytelling to the magnified culmination of its assets brought into a full-faculty summation without all that needless and perfunctory, moralizing finality in the very last.
The more one pauses to reflect upon Ford’s artistic conservatism in this picture, the more exponentially admiration grows to see such big names as Montgomery and Wayne pulling their weight in this rather weighty ensemble piece; frequently taking a backseat to the stellar supporting cast; Donna Reed, Ward Bond, Jack Holt, Marshall Thompson – and notably, Cameron Mitchell – along with others; genuinely perceived as the ‘whole show’ rather than the absolute reason for its’ being. Ford’s emphasis is on the innate value of teamwork, focusing the artistry of his camera on that usually intangible masculine rectitude. Ford is ever so subtle in his analysis of it under extreme pressure – those who break and those who merely bend – employing a refreshingly matter-of-fact tenacity to stay the course of their duty to its inevitable last gasp, or until that defending moment of absence when life itself is prematurely snuffed out by mitigating circumstances beyond everyone’s control.
It ought to be pointed out that They Were Expendable is a work of fiction rather than fact; using the premise of America’s early defeat in Bataan only as a skeletal framework to depict events which actually did not take place during the war. It may be argued author, William L. White was functioning on more altruistic principles and from a vantage of limited resources (a lot of what went on during those early years remained ‘classified’ for many thereafter) believed to be true at the time of the novel’s publication. However, by the time John Ford set his cameras to work near Key Biscayne, there was little doubt a lot of the book had been padded out by White’s artistic license. Robert Montgomery’s John Brickley and John Wayne’s Rusty Ryan are loosely based on Medal of Honor recipients, John D. Bulkeley and Robert Kelly respectively, but with major alterations by White to serve the dramatic arc in his storytelling. It should also be noted Ford did not direct this picture in its entirety. Having fallen from a scaffold midway through production, and laid up with a broken leg, the director relied on Robert Montgomery’s own wartime expertise as the commander of a PT boat to temporarily take over the more elaborate shooting of key action sequences. Montgomery’s skill would prove so fluid and complimentary to Ford’s own sense of style that within a few short years he would begin to make a seemingly effortless transition into directing feature films and later, television. They Were Expendable receives a major boost to its authenticity by securing extensive resources from the U.S. Navy Dept.; Ford and his company given unprecedented access to 80-foot Elco PT Boats as well as additional naval aircraft stationed in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West, fashioned to resemble Japanese aircraft in the movie.
They Were Expendable begins in Dec. 1941. Under the command of Lt. John Brickley, the 3rd Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron is sent to Manila Bay to defend the Philippines against a potential Japanese invasion. Ford establishes a sense of complacency during these early scenes; the men - Boats' Mulcahey C.B.M. (Ward Bond), Ens. 'Snake' Gardner (Marshall Thompson), Ens. 'Andy' Andrews (Paul Langton), Seaman Jones (Arthur Walsh), Lt. (J.G.) 'Shorty' Long (Donald Curtis), Ens. George Cross (Cameron Mitchell), ‘Slug’ Mahan (Murray Alper), 'Squarehead' Larse (Harry Tenbrook) among other impressionable faces in the crowd, have grown bored with their stalemate; as yet, unknowing of the horrors of war. After all, what the hell did they join up for if not to fight? Now, their commission in Manila seems to hint their deadlock is at an end. However, upon their gallant arrival into port, instead of a welcome, Brickley is ridiculed by the local military commanders who do not believe small torpedo boats can be effective against the Japanese war machine. Lt. Rusty Ryan concurs with the assessment. He grows sullen, holding Brick accountable for their shortcomings thus far. Alas, Rusty’s request for a transfer to a destroyer is rendered moot with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Brick is fiercely devoted to his squadron, recognizing its capabilities. Assigned by his superior, Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge) to messenger duty, the 3rd squadron is pressed into combat after Japanese warplanes descend on Manila Bay in a surprise bombing raid. Brick’s men manage to distinguish themselves by putting out to sea and downing three Japanese planes. It is a bittersweet victory however. For upon their return to base camp, Brick and his men are met with the fiery decimation inflicted by the bombings. Admiral Blackwell is ordered to pack up and move out. Brick and his men are sent to Sisiman Cove on the island of Bataan where once more they find themselves relegated to messenger service; a bitter blow to their pride. Can’t the navy see their worth? Apparently not, until Blackwell informs Brick he needs a pair of his PT boats to carry out a reconnaissance ‘seek and destroy’ mission on a Japanese cruiser, presently shelling several key installations at Bataan. Brick chooses his boat and Rusty’s for the assignment. Alas, before they can put out to sea, Brick takes notice of Rusty’s bandaged hand. Diagnosed with blood poisoning, Rusty’s commission is revoked. Instead, he is sent to the local hospital to await emergency surgery that will spare his arm from amputation. Under the care of bright-eyed nurse, Lt. Sandy Davyss, Rusty begrudgingly resists falling in love with his amiable caregiver, but is seen to reason by ‘Ohio’ (Louis Jean Heydt); a fellow officer recovering from a head wound, who convinces Rusty he is wasting precious time on his own ego rather than making hay with Sandy while the sun shines.
Interestingly, Ford stages virtually all of the vignettes devoted to their burgeoning love affair perpetually at twilight or late evening, perhaps to heighten the romantic mood, but moreover, likely to provide isolated moment by contrast to emphasize and counteract the inevitably doomed prospect after Brick is recalled into battle. Inquiring after Rusty’s health, and informed by Sandy his finger is still very fragile, having been cut to the bone, Brick nevertheless cannot wait any longer for the return of his right-hand man. And Rusty, despite his transparent affections for Sandy, is a navy man first and foremost; ingrained with a sense of duty to God and country first and an itch to distinguish himself in battle. Bludgeoning the Japanese stronghold with all the military might they can muster, Brick and Rusty’s strategic assaults gain momentum, but incur many casualties along the way, including Ens. ‘Andy’ Andrews. Wounded, though seemingly spared after a hellish confrontation at sea, Andy is rushed to the local army hospital where Brick and Rusty are informed by the attending physician (Vernon Steele) it is virtually impossible to save his life. The most that can be done is to offer him rest and comfort while he slowly succumbs to his injuries.
Instructed to make light of the situation, Rusty, Brick and the rest of the men attend Andy at his bedside, offering ebullient, false, though nevertheless sincere words of encouragement. Andy is optimistic and grateful for their visit, but afterward has Brick stay behind – confiding he knows he is going to die. Andy’s farewell is one of the most memorable moments in They Were Expendable; Ford, depriving us of the usual movie-land mawkishness; Andy, frank and without tears, gently asking Brick to mail two letters for him; one to his mother, the other to a sweetheart he had intended to marry at war’s end. The poignancy herein is derived not entirely through affecting performances given by Robert Montgomery and Paul Langton, but, in fact, by Ford’s moodily lit set and staging; stark outlines of these departing friends, trailed by their own elongated shadows glistening against a cobblestone tunnel until, like mirages in a desert landscape, they suddenly dissipate and are no more; a supremely impressionistic compliment for death.
Blackwell gives Brick and Rusty a cryptic assignment, later revealed as to provide safe conduct for General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat) to the island of Mindanao. Desperate to say his goodbyes, Rusty attempts to explain the depth of his affections to Sandy by telephone. Alas, the call is repeatedly interrupted; then, permanently cut off by urgent communications between two, four-star generals. Brick and Rusty’s squadron of four PT boats pull out of harbor. Only three arrive at their destination, forcing Brick to send out a search party. Eventually found, but having incurred irreparable damage, Rusty’s fleet is whittled by half. The timing could not be any worse, as Brick is now ordered to intercept and destroy a Japanese cruiser on route to Corregidor. Under siege, Rusty and Brick hit the Japanese cruiser with everything in their arsenal and eventually triumph over its seemingly insurmountable firepower. Although both boats survive the mission, Rusty’s is later blown to bits during an aerial attack.
When news of the gruesome surrender of 36,000 American soldiers at Bataan reaches the outpost, with the Japanese rapidly advancing on Corregidor - the last American stronghold in the Philippines - Gen. Martin (Jack Holt) orders Rusty and Brick to retreat to Australia where they will begin training a new force of torpedo boats. Despite assurances they will be reunited with their squadron at some later date, both Rusty and Brick wisely assess they have come to the end of their long-standing alliance with these brave men under their command. They will likely never meet again. Having earlier befriended ‘Ohio’ and another officer, Major James Morton (Leon Ames), Rusty and Brick prepare to be evacuated on the last plane out. At the last possible moment, Ens. Gardner and Cross take Morton and Ohio’s place. The plane lifts off, the men of 3rd squadron left to an uncertain fate as they quietly observe their last chance at freedom depart into the skies.
They Were Expendable remains an impeccably crafted wartime melodrama. John Ford’s documentarian approach is slightly at odds with MGM’s verve for superficial sheen and glamour. Indeed, even when the stars get their faces dirty, their limbs sprained or their hair tussled and sticky wet, they cannot help but epitomize robust and hearty masculine virility of the Central Casting Hollywood-ized movie lore strain. Those who seek more bloody realism from their art should look elsewhere. They Were Expendable is a morality play with its stars kept securely out of any real harm’s way. The drama is slightly offset by having two major stars vying for the lead; John Wayne, typified as that prepossessing monument to American valor, somewhat dwarfs Robert Montgomery – both in physical stature and performance. Indeed, Wayne’s role is the flashier of the two. Perhaps recognizing this, Ford has favored Montgomery with more close-ups and more dialogue. After all, a little Wayne goes an awfully long way, but a lot of Montgomery proves an efficient counterweight to make both men appear as equals on the screen.
It would remain a source of constant consternation for Wayne that he waited out the war years playing such larger-than-life he-men of the fighting corps on various soundstages while many of his contemporaries actually joined the fight for real. In more recent times it has become rather fashionable to chastise and condemn Wayne for his absence from the conflict. Indeed, there are several accounts of John Ford razzing Wayne on the set of They Were Expendable and one documented incident reaching the private memos of producer, Herbert Yates: Wayne storming off the set after a particularly violent exchange of words with his director. For the record, John Wayne did not dodge the draft under surreptitious circumstances. Rather he was repeatedly – and legitimately – denied by third party interventions not necessarily made on his behalf or with his own interests at heart; studio heads, eager to cash in on Wayne’s meteoric stardom by keeping him busy states’ side, churning out a whopping thirteen war-themed movies between 1941 and 1945 – all of them fattening the coffers of Argossy, Republic, RKO and MGM. 3-A and 2-A deferments applied for on Wayne’s behalf benefited Wayne’s career immensely; filling a gap left behind by other major stars like Clark Gable and James Stewart, who served their nation with distinction on the battlefront in Europe.
I suspect if They Were Expendable has a flaw, it is owed to the rest of the supporting cast, giving uniformly solid performances; though wretchedly, without the indelible presence of a Victor McLaglen or Claude Rains among the bunch. In retrospect, one of MGM’s significant failings as a studio was they tended to regard second string contract players as simply that; background fodder, and, as such, rarely endeavored to establish a roster of immediately distinguishable talents to fill these ‘bit’ roles; as say other studios did with an enviable ragtag of familiar faces; Rains, McLaglen, Sidney Greenstreet, Nigel Bruce, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Basil Rathbone, Oscar Levant, John Williams, Donald Crisp among them. They Were Expendable might have benefited greatly from at least a couple ‘brand’ name second-tier performers cropping up now and then. For example, I can definitely see how Donald Crisp might have been a superior Admiral Blackwell, or S.Z. Sakall or Nigel Bruce lent their iconic verve for relief to the parts of Slug and Doc, barely delineated by Murray Alper and Jack Pennick. Donna Reed distinguishes herself as the bright-eyed/no-nonsense nurse who cannot help but wear her heart on her sleeve for all these gallant men – “they’re all such nice boys” she tearfully muses after a quiet dinner party.
In his own endorsement of the picture in 1945, film critic, Bosley Crowthers noted “It is in no wise depreciatory of Metro's They Were Expendable to say that if this film had been released last year—or the year before—it would have been a ringing smash…Now… it comes as a cinematic postscript to the martial heat and passion of the last four years.” Indeed, timing in Hollywood is everything and They Were Expendable was hardly the bell ringer of the season. Nevertheless, it remains an exemplar in the Ford/Wayne catalog as a valiant and unapologetic crowd-pleaser, imbued with light comedic touches that never alter or impugn the sincerity or severity of the story being told. They Were Expendable is serious stuff, told with frank, occasionally stern honesty and a decisive gallantry that captures the essence of men’s mettle pitted against the uncompromising métiers of courage-testing/morale-breaking war.
I am beginning to sound like a broken record when it comes to reviewing Warner Archive Blu-rays, as They Were Expendable is another superb achievement in 1080p mastering, easily besting the deplorable DVD released back in 2000. Dare I say more? I love WAC! The DVD suffered from egregious edge effects, gate weave and wobble, and, some finicky nitrate shrinkage. Only the latter shortcoming, for which nothing less than a complete, meticulous and exorbitantly costly restoration would have sufficed, remains on view and even then, so minimally it can easily be set it aside. Prepare to bask in Joseph H. August’s magnificent B&W camerawork. We are seeing a refined level of detail and grain here as never before, except perhaps at the 1945 premiere. Contrast is bang on with deeply saturated blacks. But it’s the overall clarity and razor-sharpness of the image that completely blows the lackluster DVD out of the water. Gone are the age-related ravages of time. Without question, the Blu-ray stands at attention, having gained mine along the way. Gorgeous and so near perfect we might as well label it as such. You are going to love – LOVE – this disc. It’s that simple. The audio is sourced in mono from restored elements and carries unexpected ballast during the action sequences. Even with all its cumbersome limitations to produce, that ole Westrex recording technology truly was a marvel. As on the DVD, save a theatrical trailer, there are NO extras on this Blu-ray. But once again, WAC has spent its time and money wisely, and, the efforts born herein plainly advance and take their place among stellar achievements. This is a fantastic disc, sure to please for decades to come. Buy today. Treasure forever. Now, if we could just get WAC to give us a new Blu-ray of Mervyn LeRoy's utterly magnificent, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo...hmmm?!?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)