My favorite John Ford movie, and my favorite World War II film, is "They Were Expendable" (1945). I never tire of seeing it and watch it every Memorial Day weekend. I've always had an affinity for movies and TV shows set in the U.S. Navy that focus on the Pacific Theatre of the War. "They Were Expendable" has always stood out as a class act in the genre because of its emphasis on character and nuance. Even though there is plenty of action, it can't be defined as a pure action film. The movie has a very relaxed, episodic structure as it follows the men of the United States Navy's 3rd Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron in the early days of the war. What also strikes me about the movie is that it's not a film that follows our protagonists, and the Allied effort in the war, as they go from strength to strength. The movie has the courage to demonstrate moments of defeat, disaster, and disappointment as the personnel depicted in the story attempt to push back Japanese advancement in the Pacific. It has a serious, but not heavy-handed, tone that gives it a sense of gravitas that is not always present in other World War II movies.
Robert Montgomery stars as Lt. John "Brick" Brickley, Commander of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three based in the Cavite province of the Philippines in Manila Bay. At the start of the film, Brickley and his second in-command Lt., J.G. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) are frustrated because Navy leadership do not have faith in the efficacy of the torpedo boats. However, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provides Brick and Rusty an opportunity to demonstrate what the boats are truly capable of. After disappointment that their initial orders are to patrol the bay and standby for messenger duty, the Squadron begins to distinguish themselves when they shoot down three Japanese planes that have attacked the island and destroyed a majority of the base. During the battle against the Japanese planes, Rusty badly injures his right hand. Despite this, the squadron is still assigned to messenger duty on the island of Bataan. While there, Brick orders Rusty to medical treatment at the military hospital on Corregidor when Rusty's injuries develop into blood poisoning in his arm. As a result Rusty, and the personnel on his boat, must sit it out as Brick and another torpedo boat are assigned to sink a Japanese cruiser that is patrolling Bataan and shelling Allied positions on the island. While in the hospital, Rusty meets and falls in love with level-headed, no-nonsense Army nurse Lt. Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed).
Rusty eventually recovers and returns to duty as the Torpedo Boat Squadron continues to prove their mettle as they work to thwart Japanese efforts in the Pacific. Brick and Rusty are given their most important assignment yet when they are ordered to transport General MacArthur, his family, and other key military personnel to Mindanao. However, Brick receives orders that a majority of his enlisted personnel must stay behind in Bataan and help the Army hold back the Japanese on land. Rusty phones Sandy to bid farewell before he leaves Bataan, but is unable to finish his phone call when Sandy is ordered off the phone by military personnel who are dismantling the phone lines so that they can move South. Brick and Rusty successfully bring MacArthur to Mindanao and are eventually assigned to sink a Japanese cruiser on its way to Corregidor. They succeed in their mission, but both Brick and Rusty's boats end up separated, with Rusty's boat eventually destroyed from Japanese aerial assault. Meanwhile, Rusty learns that American forces have surrendered at Bataan, and wonders about the fate of both Sandy and the squadron's enlisted personnel who stayed to help the Army fight the Japanese. By this point, Brick and Rusty have proven to Navy leadership the importance of the torpedo boats and receive orders to head first to Australia and then eventually back to the United States to help train a new squadron of torpedo boat personnel. As they reluctantly fly out of the last plane leaving the Philippines, they ponder the fate of their squadron as well as all the other American military personnel left behind.
What distinguishes "They Were Expendable" from other World War II movies are the beautifully nuanced moments and characters that director John Ford and screenwriter Frank Wead, a retired Naval aviator, have weaved throughout the film. People who have never seen "They Were Expendable" might dismiss it as a John Wayne starring vehicle, but Wayne shares equal screen time in the film with Robert Montgomery, who is the film's co-leading character. The versatile, level-headed Montgomery, who should be remembered by short-sighted movie and TV fans as much more than just Elizabeth Montgomery's father, is terrific as Lt. Brickley. He strikes a good contrast with the larger-than-life Wayne by demonstrating Brickley's calm, quiet, diplomatic leadership qualities. Brickley has a maturity about him that is refreshing compared to other characters in war movies. Rather than being a presumptuous hot-head eager to prove the worth of both himself and his squadron, Brickley quietly accepts disappointing and unchallenging orders rather than be insubordinate and disrespectful of military protocol.
Montgomery is superb in the scene, right after the squadron has shot down three Japanese planes that have attacked the base at Cavite, when he receives word that Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge) wants to speak to him. Brickley excitedly goes to see the Admiral, expecting him to issue orders for the torpedo boat squadron to engage a Japanese task force moving into Lingayen Gulf, only to learn that the Admiral wants them to use the boats to deliver messages between Manila and Corregidor. Rather than overplay the scene, Montgomery subtly demonstrates Brickley's disappointment by first staring intently and reacting in a deadpan manner to the orders, and then blinks his eyes just once to project the extent to which Brickley is crestfallen by the assignment. In this instance, one gesture says a thousand words. Brickley calmly listens as the Admiral explains, "That task force will land. You and I can't stop it...Listen, son you and I are professionals. If the manager says 'Sacrifice' we lay down a bunt and let somebody else hit the home runs...Our job is to lay down that sacrifice." Brickley doesn't try to play hero by arguing with the Admiral because Ford and Montgomery, who both served in the Navy during the war, clearly understand that respecting military protocol and maintaining a calm perspective of the larger picture are of paramount importance in these circumstances.
Throughout the movie are sequences of the Torpedo Boat Squadron awaiting orders to engage in combat, rather than depicting scene-after-scene of action. This gives "They Were Expendable" a relaxed quality that allows Ford an opportunity to develop the relationships of the characters in the movie. I particularly liked the way Ford demonstrates the different cultures and dynamics of the officer and the enlisted personnel. Unlike other war movies, which do not make as much of an effort to demonstrate the distinction between officer and enlisted, "They Were Expendable" makes it clear that the two groups co-exist in a separate world apart from one another. The opening sequence at the officer's club, with the officers wearing their choker white uniforms and dancing with beautiful women in an attractive nightclub/restaurant setting is intercut with the scene at a local bar where the enlisted men are celebrating the impending retirement of Doc (Jack Pennick), the squadron's medic. The polite formality of the social atmosphere in the officer's club is contrasted with the warmer and more exuberant celebration of the enlisted personnel at the bar. You see how both groups of personnel have their own chain of command and traditions that complement one another in ways that are rarely demonstrated in most movies set in the military (which oft-times focuses mainly on the officers, as they are purportedly considered more "glamorous" by Hollywood).
Ford also dramatizes a degree of competitiveness among the enlisted personnel, demonstrated by the scene when Chief Boatswain Mate Mulcahey (Ward Bond) attempts to share anecdotes concerning his boat crew's combat with the Japanese cruiser patrolling Bataan with Rusty's boat crew. Rusty's boat crew got left behind as the boat Mulcahey serves on is sent in its place to help sink the Japanese cruiser when Rusty is ordered by Brickley into the hospital because of the worsening injuries on his hand. Rusty's crew yanks Mulcahey's chain and prevent him from boasting by responding to each of his anecdotes with feigned disinterest, "Pick up any chow?...Oh, I forgot to tell you, Mick, your laundry's drying. Came out swell...Youse guys was late for breakfast too. It was wonderful...Yeah, cupcakes with raisins," which only serve to frustrate Mulcahey. Mulcahey returns the favor later when Rusty's crew, who are now excitedly sharing anecdotes after they return from combat with the Japanese, is interrupted by an annoyed Mulcahey who throws back in their face, "We had cupcakes for breakfast! With raisins." We see during these moments how the crew members of each individual boat in the squadron attempt to distinguish themselves from one another in a competitive manner that still allows the entire squadron to remain a cohesive whole.
Ford even takes time to demonstrate the friendly tension between officer and enlisted during the scene, after Brick's squadron successfully transport MacArthur to Mindanao, where junior officer Ensign Gardner (Marshall Thompson) attempts to notify the enlisted that they've been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry by MacArthur. The enlisted personnel are too busy trying to fix one of the boats, or laughing about how the squadron's black cat stowed away on one of their boats during the operation, to pay the increasingly frustrated Gardner any attention. This follows-up on an earlier scene in the movie when Gardner is inspecting the kitchen and drinks a ladle of dishwater, thinking that it is soup, only to have Doc shake his head and dismissively mutter under his breath "Ensigns!" In depicting this friendly competitiveness amongst the officer and enlisted personnel, Ford helps to develop the personalities and relationships amongst these characters with a refreshingly nuanced level of detail. It demonstrates the extent to which these characters are able to retain their sense of individuality even within the inherent conformity that is required in order to serve in the military.
Ford further underscores the line of demarcation between officer and enlisted personnel during the brief scene where the enlisted are waiting outside as Brick, Rusty, and the other officers are inside strategizing how to sink the Japanese cruiser patrolling Bataan. It's a brief moment, but it helps to demonstrate how the enlisted are left out of certain aspects of the decision making process in the military and must follow the orders given to them by the officers. But there is no complaint, frustration, or insubordination among the enlisted as they accept this protocol as part of the reality of their service, the same way Brick must quietly accept disappointing orders issued to him by Admiral Blackwell. Ford demonstrates, with little vignettes and subtle touches such as these throughout "They Were Expendable," the importance of respecting the chain of command in the military, and how traditions such as these help to develop a sense of cohesion so that the military personnel never becomes distracted or muddled in their efforts to defeat the Japanese. Even though Ford underscores the distinction between officer and enlisted in "They Were Expendable," what's amazing is how, in the end, the squadron still operates as a cohesive whole despite (or, perhaps, because of) the differences in the classes of military personnel.
But I don't want to give the impression that "They Were Expendable" is a movie that lauds protocol and conformity above all other qualities in its characters. Ford also goes a long way to demonstrate that a level of passion and spontaneity can also be useful, as exemplified in John Wayne's impatient Rusty. With Rusty's character, Ford demonstrates how, in specific occasions, the ability to think outside the box helps to ensure that military protocol and conformity never turns into complacency. Rusty, like Brickley, gets frustrated by the unchallenging, disappointing orders issued by Navy leadership. At the start of the film, when Admiral Blackwell seems unimpressed by the capabilities of the torpedo boats, we see Rusty at the bar in the officer's club drafting a request to be reassigned to a destroyer, where he feels his talents might be better utilized. However, Rusty remains a team player and, upon learning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, tears up the request he is drafting and immediately reports for duty with his squadron. Rusty is much more vocal in his frustration of Blackwell's orders that the squadron be utilized as a messenger service, but he has enough regard for the chain of command that he does not disrespect those orders. He never becomes arrogant and presumes to know better than those in command. Instead, he impetuously kicks a can on the ground in frustration, which inspires Brickley to also take out his frustration by kicking another can nearby.
This balance between maturity and passion is exemplified by the scene at the very end when Rusty and Brickley are about to be flown out of the last plane out of the Philippines. A guilt-ridden Rusty almost gives up his seat on the plane to friendly Army Air Corps Captain Carter nicknamed "Ohio" (Louis Jean Heydt) whom he met while being treated in the hospital. Rusty does not want to leave behind the other American military personnel in the Philippines, who are facing a grim fate, but Brickley sternly reminds him that his act of sacrifice would be selfish in the larger picture because it prevents him from returning to the United States to help train new squadrons of torpedo boat personnel to fight the Japanese. Brickley simply states, "Rusty! Who are you working for? Yourself?" Ford demonstrates, in that short scene, how important it is for military personnel such as Rusty to set aside their own personal feelings and interests and remember that they are merely a cog in a much larger wheel than themselves. In this instance, true sacrifice is much more than merely laying down one's own life.
The beauty of "They Were Expendable" is that Ford acknowledges the sacrifice of not just people like Brickley and Rusty, but other people who have a major stake in Allied victory as well. I liked the way Ford incorporated Donna Reed's likeable Army nurse Sandy into the proceedings in a way that was not contrived and remained believable throughout. Reed's Sandy, like Brickley and Rusty, is a dedicated, no-nonsense professional who is good at her job and keeps her cool throughout the movie. Donna Reed was only 24 years old when she filmed "They Were Expendable" and her performance reminds one of how comparatively immature most portrayals of women in their early 20s are in movies and television these days. Reed portrays Sandy with an intelligence and internal strength and calmness throughout the movie that helps the character to remain contemporary almost 68 years later. When Rusty checks in to the military hospital to have his infected arm treated, she doesn't take any guff from him, and retains a bemused attitude towards this bull in a China shop who has suddenly showed up at her post. Sandy puts Rusty in his place by telling him, "You better lie down and take it easy. You've got a temperature of 103...You Navy boys always run about two degrees above normal. Must be that time you spend at sea." An incensed Rusty asks Sandy what her rank is and learns that she is a second lieutenant. Rusty reminds her, "Well, I'm a j.g. so watch your language!" Sandy remains unflappable and responds with "Oh, I thought you were a motorcycle cop. Despite your gold braid, you don't tell us. We tell you. So lie down." She orders Rusty to unfasten his pants so that she and the orderly can pull them off from under the covers so he can rest.
During the sequence when Sandy helps the military doctor operate on wounded casualties from Bataan, as enemy aircraft continue to attack from above, Reed plays the scene calmly, without pity or revulsion for her patients' wounds, as Ford gives her awe-inspiring close-ups showing her hair pulled back, wearing a baseball cap and no make-up, while the lights flicker on and off, that help to demonstrate her calmness, courage and professionalism under trying circumstances. Sandy's sturdy reaction helps to demonstrate how this moment is about taking care of her patients, not about herself. Rusty witnesses Sandy's selfless dedication to the wounded from afar and begins to fall in love with her as he realizes he has met his match. However, Rusty still doesn't give her an easy time when she invites him to attend a dance being held for the nurses and the wounded personnel. Rusty snaps at her, "Listen, sister, I don't dance. And I can't take time out now to learn! All I want to do now is get out of here." Rather than getting emotional or begin bickering with Rusty, Sandy silently turns and walks away, which demonstrates she has no time to waste on Rusty's childish immaturity. Ford cuts to a shot showing Sandy and the other exhausted nurses smoking and walking down a long corridor towards their quarters to prepare for the dance. With one silent shot, Ford demonstrates the loneliness, sacrifice and dedication of these nurses which parallels the men who have gone into combat. To Ford, these nurses are as brave, and contribute as much, as the men. That's why it is so devastating when "They Were Expendable" ends without any word as to Sandy's ultimate fate. We surmise she is among the American personnel captured at Bataan and wonder, as Rusty does, what will happen to her. Ford courageously doesn't give us a traditional happy ending to this appealing romance, allowing our imagination to determine what will happen to Sandy and Rusty. I've always felt that Sandy survives the war and she and Rusty are eventually reunited and given a chance in postwar peacetime to develop a relationship with each other. After everything both characters have experienced, they deserve it.
Ford also acknowledges the sacrifice made by the younger enlisted personnel with the character of Willie (William McKeever Riley), the youngest member of the squadron. Willie is mostly assigned to mess duty but is one of the enlisted men ordered to help the Army fight the Japanese on land in Bataan. We see Willie at the start of the movie when the enlisted men are celebrating Doc's retirement with a toast. As most of the men drink a toast to Doc with beers, Ford silently cuts to Willie drinking a glass of milk, a gesture that demonstrates the age disparity between Willie and the other members of the squadron. When Japanese aircraft attack the base at Manila Bay, Ford cuts to a scene showing Willie peeling potatoes in the squadron's kitchen. Upon the realization that they are being attacked, the much older men pick Willie up by the shoulders and rush him to safety. When Brickley acknowledges, after the attack, in front of the younger enlisted personnel that they don't have a monopoly on being scared, Ford cuts to a close-up of a shaken Willie, feeling reassured and validated by his commanding officer that his reaction to the attack is human and to be expected. When Brickley bids farewell to his enlisted personnel who remain behind at Bataan, he reminds them "You older men, with longer service records, take care of the kids," Ford cuts to a shot of Willie standing proudly amongst his fellow enlisted men. Right before he shoves off for Mindanao with General MacArthur, Rusty shakes Willie's hand and reminds him to "Be a good kid." With this character, Ford acknowledges the contribution of young enlisted personnel who have volunteered to serve their country during times of war. Willie's fate, along with that of Sandy and the older enlisted personnel left on Bataan, is also left unresolved by Ford in order to remind viewers that genuine sacrifice and heroism can come from unexpected sources.
The final group of individuals that Ford takes time to acknowledge throughout the movie are the people of the Philippines who were valuable allies to the United States throughout the War in the Pacific. A few politically correct film reviewers have incorrectly identified the nightclub singer and the hostess who appear in the officer's club party at the start of the film as purportedly Japanese-Americans. They opined that this was meant to be Ford's acknowledgement of the patriotism of Japanese-Americans who were unjustly placed in internment camps during World War II, since the nightclub singer openly weeps and begins singing "My Country 'tis of Thee" and the hostess is clearly saddened to hear about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, I don't know how they came to this conclusion because my understanding of the scene is that it's set in the Philippines since the opening title card at the start of the movie places the setting of the location of Brickley's squadron as being based in the Cavite province near Manila Bay. I believe that Ford was acknowledging the personal stake that Filipinos had in the war rather than underscoring Japanese-American patriotism. The Japanese-American reading of this scene appears to be wishful thinking on the part of politically correct critics more than anything else.
Ford's acknowledgement of the significant contribution of Filipinos to the war effort is underscored by the fact that the nightclub singer is played by Pacita Todtod, a Filipino-American from Northern California who wrote to then-Secretary of the War Henry Stimson and successfully advocated for Filipino-Americans to be allowed to serve in the U.S. military during World War II after they had initially been rejected. (Todtod also entertained for the USO during the war.) Ford also includes the character of Steward, Third Class Benny Lecoco (Alex Havier), a Filipino-American, as a member of Brickley's Torpedo Boat Squadron to further underscore the contribution that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans made to the war. There is also the haunting close-up of the Filipino woman clutching a handkerchief who appears deeply moved and despondent as she bids farewell to the wounded American personnel who are being taken by the torpedo boat crew to seek medical treatment at the end of the sequence when the Japanese planes attack Cavite and Manila Bay. During the sequence at the hospital on Corregidor when Sandy is helping the doctor operate on wounded personnel as Japanese aircraft continue to attack from above, Ford cuts to close-ups of both wounded American and Filipino military personnel. All of these nuances, which expresses empathy both for and by Filipinos and Filipino Americans, help to underscore that they were in this fight with the rest of us and, as such, deserve to be acknowledged accordingly.
"They Were Expendable" remains a genuine Hollywood classic because of its ability to transcend being merely a World War II action movie. It is a character study of individuals rising to the occasion under difficult circumstances, as well as a social history of the different cross sections of society, and of the world at-large, who successfully came together for a common purpose. John Ford intersperses moments of action, comedy, romance, drama, tragedy, poignancy, sacrifice, friendship, and camaraderie so that the movie never becomes one-dimensional and successfully operates on several different levels simultaneously. Ford and director of photography Joseph August beautifully photograph "They Were Expendable" in a moody, shaded, noir-tinged black and white that, instead of demonstrating moral ambiguity as such lighting typically does, reflects the tragedy and death the protagonists are continually facing. John Wayne and Donna Reed are touchingly honest and direct in their romantic scenes with one another so that the Rusty/Sandy subplot never feels contrived, and the scenes of action and epic drama demonstrating the torpedo boats in combat with the Japanese are suspenseful and awe-inspiring. The film also has one of the most moving and poignant endings ever in a Hollywood war movie. When Ensigns Gardner and Cross (Cameron Mitchell) finally arrive before the last plane leaves the Philippines, two other officers, Army Major James Morton (Leon Ames) and the aforementioned Army Air Corps Captain nicknamed "Ohio" must forfeit their seats on the plane and stay behind. When Gardner and Cross learn that no other planes are coming in to take the remaining personnel out of the Philippines, they slowly realize to their horror that their arrival may have sent Major Morton and "Ohio" to certain, eventual death at the hands of the Japanese. Brickley reminds them that the sacrifice of Morton and "Ohio" is for the greater good because they must all go back to the United States to help train additional torpedo boat personnel so that they can eventually return and help save their colleagues by defeating the Japanese. When Brickley says to Gardner and Cross, "Look, son, we're going home to do a job. And that job is to get ready to come back. Check?" he has come full-circle and has himself become Admiral Blackwell, reminding the personnel under his command of the larger picture that is at stake. It's at this point you realize the title "They Were Expendable" is not a reflection of helplessness, defeatism or cynicism, but actually demonstrates how nobility, integrity, and hope are the hallmark of individual sacrifice.