The movie didn't do well at the box-office; in 1945, when it was released right after V-J Day, movie-goers had become bored with the saturation of war movies in the theaters. And They Were Expendable told about the dark days of the Pacific War—after Pearl Harbor but before Midway and just after the evacuation of the Philipines—when things didn't look so positive. It might have been a case of battle-footage fatigue; the book on which it's based—"They Were Expendable" by William L. White—was a bestseller, and those who didn't buy the book might have read portions of it in Reader's Digest and Life Magazine. Plus, at the time of the book's events, the Japanese Navy was handing the Allied effort a severe whipping. Except for scenes where the crews' PT Boats achieve some sinkings in their few skirmishes with the Japanese Navy and the successful evacuation of MacArthur and his family, the command of Lt. John Brickley (Montgomery, based on Lt. John Bulkeley who received the Medal of Honor for his service) takes it from all sides: the Japanese Navy, which picks off the individual ships one by one, whittling their numbers and crews, and his own Navy that considers the small vessels capable of messenger duty and nothing more.
The situation is frustrating enough that Lt. J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (Wayne) wants to transfer to destroyer duty and away from skippering "high-powered canoes", but keeps getting turned down. There's no doubting his devotion, though; during one run, he's injured but refuses medical care until he's finally hospitalized with blood poisoning, but only after he's been ordered to by "Brick." This does not sit well with "Rusty" in creasing his obstinacy, which doesn't ingratiate him with the hospital staff. Only one Army nurse, Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed)—after getting the brusque end of Ryan's frustrations—starts to break through his crust and the two begin an awkward often-interrupted romance.
Cribbing any munitions they can and keeping the PT boats together with spit and bailing wire, the boats manage to do some damage, but, at best, it's a stalling game, trying to keep Japanese forces from advancing, while the Navy rebuilds its fleet and repairs their carriers in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. But, it's merely staving off the inevitable as more men die and more island terrain gets occupied, getting ever closer to their positions.
But, it becomes clear that the inevitable cannot be forestalled. Evacuation of all the Navy men is impossible, and those that can fight are turned over to the infantry, to face death or capture. Brickley and Ryan are two of the few who are shipped off for reassignment of training and building more PT boats, guiltily leaving their commands to their fates.
It's an unconventional war movie—certainly serving its propaganda purposes showing the spirit of the Naval forces despite the merciless conditions (Ford was right in the middle of his duties overseeing films for the Navy as part of the war effort and his experiences on Midway Island during that battle informed a lot of the work on this film), but it's completely atypical for its time in that it is not a story with the confidence of a victorious ending. They Were Expendable—despite being released after the war's end with an Allied victory—shows the U.S. Navy still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attack and trying to "make-do" in any way it can, the top brass, used to its aircraft carriers and destroyers at the ready, having to regroup and re-think its strategy (and being none too quick about it) with further attacks and certain capture right over the horizon for the forces stationed there. Any victories are piece-meal and certainly not decisive in the overall scheme of things. And we see the men go from "spit-and-polish" regimentation to looking like bedraggled castaways, uniformity going by the wayside in its efforts just to survive.
Soon, it is difficult to tell Navy from Army or Marines, their PT boats taken away or having to be abandoned, the sailors transformed to infantry and ground troops, because that is what it takes to survive, if survive is what they hope to do in a war-zone. Ultimately, Brickley has to even abandon his men to their fates because...orders. It doesn't sit well with him, eats at him even if he does all he can to have them prepared on that small little island, but it ties in with the whole theme of the film of service...and sacrifice. With more sacrifices to come.But, it's strange to put this in the "History" of John Ford, although it's essential that it be there. The events were only a couple years old when the film was made, but given Ford's time working for the OSS—especially in his time on Midway just before the attack—he had a feel for how Navy-men worked, spent their time waiting, and how they dealt with stress...or didn't deal with it, it is a document of the American history that Ford was starting to specialize in, even as it was being made. Ford's picture is sentimentalized a bit (it IS Ford, after all), but with its interrupted romance, the military conflict with no resolution, and lives left in the balance, it is also one of his most melancholy films, far from a Hollywood standard crowd-pleaser, let alone a gung-ho war-film, so it was far more unconventional and rougher than most American movie-goers were used to.*
It is also one of his best films, done on a tight schedule, but still with the sensitivity and artistry that Ford—at his best—could command. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in John Ford and the History of John Ford.
|Ford put everybody's rank in the service in the credits, both out of pride|
and to get a dig at John Wayne and Ward Bond, who did not serve.
Ford, Wayne and Wead would work together again, and a scene from that film will be Sunday's Scene.