They Were Expendable is a movie about defeat. Or, rather, the glory that may be found in defeat.
John Ford’s first post-war film (it was shot in February of 1945 and released that December, after the armistice) is the true story of a U.S. Navy squadron of PT boats which in the months after Pearl Harbor fought a rear guard action against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.
It was a fight these sailors could never win.
They fought anyway.
Based on a non-fiction book by William L. White (son of the legendary Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White), it’s a grim, sad yarn, but a strangely uplifting one. British critic and future filmmaker Lindsay Anderson described it as “a heroic poem.”
Expendable was the first commercial feature film made by director Ford in four years. For most of WW2 he’d been in uniform shooting documentaries for the Navy: Torpedo Squadron, The Battle of Midway, December 7th, German Industrial Manpower, We Sail at Midnight and the nightmare-inducing Sex Hygiene.
But not knowing how long the war in the Pacific might last, the Navy brass decided that by turning White’s 1942 book into a feature film they could shore up American resolve to see the fight through to the bitter end. There was only one man they trusted to direct it: John Ford.
The Navy was willing to send Ford back to the States for the project, and it urged his longtime bosses at 20th Century Fox to allow Ford to shoot the picture for rival MGM, which owned the book.
Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck agreed, especially when Ford announced that all of his $300,000 salary would be used to establish a home for military combat photographers. The great director was working for free.
Location photography was done in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. Taking the leading roles as the bickering heads of the PT boat unit were Robert Montgomery and John Wayne. Donna Reed was cast as a Navy nurse who attends surgeries under artillery bombardment and who has a tentative romance with Wayne’s character.
This was an unusually serious role for the urbane, coolly sophisticated Montgomery, who was best known before the war for his romantic comedies. And in fact early in the production the actor panicked. After four years of military duty – he’d been a naval attaché in London, had worked on PT boats, and served on a destroyer during the D-Day invasion – Montgomery feared that he’d completely lost his acting chops.
One night he was nervously pacing in his hotel room at 2 a.m. when Ford knocked on his door and asked what was the matter. Montgomery voiced his fears and announced that the director had better find a replacement actor, and fast.
Ford, known to have no tolerance for actorly neuroses, was surprisingly sympathetic. He promised to delay filming Montgomery’s big scenes for as long as possible, giving the actor a chance to rediscover his stage legs. And in fact that is just what happened.
But the two men didn’t always see eye to eye.
Ford was notorious for berating John Wayne, sometimes reducing the Duke to near tears. (Wayne put up with the cruelty because he credited Ford with making him a star in Stagecoach several years before. It was a classic abusive father/obedient son situation).
Now Ford rode the Duke mercilessly, publicly humiliating the actor for not serving in the military during the war.
It got so bad that at one point Montgomery, a four-time president of the Screen Actors Guild, got into the Old Man’s face.
“Don’t ever talk to the Duke like that,” he fumed. “You ought to be ashamed.”
This time it was Ford’s turn to weep.
But when Ford broke his leg in a fall on the set, it was Montgomery who volunteered to direct while the Old Man was incapacitated.
They Were Expendable in many ways marks a turning point in John Ford’s preoccupations as a storyteller.
Critics have noted his fascination thereafter with military life and the ways in which individualism is tested against the restrictive military community. (Ford claimed to care more about his military honors than his Oscars and spent his latter years shamelessly lobbying for yet more decorations ... his daughter described him as a “ribbon freak.”)
Some have argued that thematically Expendable would fit quite nicely with Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy (Rio Grande, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). The only differences are the uniforms and the sources of locomotion (horses vs. machines).
In virtually all of his military movies, Ford is concerned with men who sacrifice their individualism for a larger cause.
Ford said he approached the film as a documentary, as a summation of all he had seen and felt in war.
“A documentary, yes,” said one Naval bigwig, “but with good actors.”
And a seemingly effortless directorial voice. Ford biographer Joseph McBride says of Expendable: “Ford’s visual and dramatic style now expresses his feelings with a blend of emotional simplicity and the seemingly effortless artistry of a master craftsman.”
Reviewing the film in The Nation, James Agee wrote:
“For what seems at least half of the dogged, devoted length of They Were Expendable all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel one foot of the film was wasted ...
“Visually, and in detail, and in nearly everything he does with people, I think this is John Ford’s finest movie.”
Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- March 5: Wee Willie Winkie (1937) Not rated
- March 12: Mogambo (1953) Not rated
- March 19: The Wings of Eagles (1957) Not rated
- March 26: Donovan’s Reef (1963) Not rated
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 3: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Not rated
- March 10: How Green Was My Valley (1941) Not rated
- March 17: They Were Expendable (1945) Not rated
- March 24: The Quiet Man (1952) Not rated
- March 31: Mister Roberts (1955) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.