They Were Expendable was the great John Ford’s first movie after his discharge from the navy following World War II. Most tend to regard it as an underappreciated treasure. It is, unlike most war films of the time, a very sobering and somber look at the war through the eyes of primarily two PT boat captains, John Brickley (played by Robert Montgomery) and Rusty Ryan (played by John Wayne).
Expendables is one of the more realistic visions of war, especially of the US’s early participation in it. We feel the frustration of this PT squadron as their deficiencies in men and material make successful results against the onrushing Japanese impossible.
Montgomery, being the larger star at the time, gets first billing. Also, his actual wartime experience as a PT Captain pays off in spades and his performance as the gutsy but realistic hero of the film (if there is one) is one of his best.
Wayne, has the second lead as another PT Captain, but a career navy man. This is a really atypical film for Wayne. Here he is not the cocksure confident hero of the film. He’s uncertain about what his role is- he is a bit overwhelmed by the war and is simply doing the best he can to keep his head above water.
Ford, as is fairly well known now, chastised Wayne for his avoidance of military service during the war, feeling that Wayne’s behavior bordered on cowardice. (Amazing how the perception of Wayne has changed.) Perhaps this contributes a bit to Wayne’s portrayal.
Ford shoots the film wonderfully and technically there is few ways for improvement. However, the film runs a bit long and there really is something lacking in terms of plot. The dialogue is well written – extremely well so- but the film has little overall direction, and the lack of a definitive ending shows most obviously this shortcoming.
I actually watched this film twice fairly recently before putting down my thoughts – really hard to depict a John Ford film as I felt after the first viewing. After that first viewing I felt bored, and disjointed. My biggest takeaway (and a shallow one) was there was a tremendous bit of footage of folks jumping on (and shortly thereafter jumping back off) PT boats.
The second viewing did nothing to really change this perception. It is very realistic and gripping as a historical document, but simply doesn’t work as a movie. Unlike most of Ford’s masterpieces, there is no real story arc and the result here seems overly episodic. There are flashes of greatness but too much of the film is spent churning its wheels.
Like Hitchcock, Ford has several common threads which run through his films. Again in They Were Expendable there is a close familial bond among these PT crews. There is the requisite serenading, touches of light humor, and a romantic storyline with Donna Reed. However, the romantic storyline detracts a bit from the story (it really factors in no way into the story) and there is perhaps too much time spent developing the characters of the various PT crewmembers.
Back when the film was first released it was a bit of a commercial dud- a war film so close after the ending of World War II perhaps wasn’t what the populace had in mind. They had already moved on. Also, the film harkens not to the ultimate triumphs of 1943-45, but the absolutely disastrous early months of the war in early 1942. Definitely not an uplifting film about an unsuccessful period in American military history.
Its still an above average film, but not up to its reputation as a forgotten classic. The acting and cinematography are top notch, just the lack of a concrete plot greatly diminishes it.