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Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a squadron of PT-boat crews in the Philipines must battle the Navy brass between skirmishes with the Japanese. The title says it all about the Navy's attitude towards the PT-boats and their crews. Written by
The film covers the World War II Battle of Bataan in the Philippines. Bataan is a region of central Luzon province on Luzon Island and occupies the whole of the Bataan Peninsula on the island. See more »
In one of the first battle action scenes of a torpedo being fired you can see a stray 50 cal. shell rolling across the starboard deck just to the left of the torpedo tube. Several minutes later in another battle on another PT boat you can see the same shell rolling across the deck in the same place, indicating they used the same sequence of footage twice. See more »
They Were Expendable is John Ford's first Hollywood feature since his discharge from the U.S. Navy and the same can be said for Robert Montgomery. Both had served in the Navy and Montgomery in fact on P.T. Boats. From the last presidential election we now know them as Swift Boats.
It's an unusual John Ford film because the usual heavy comedic monkeyshines are rather subdued here. I'm thinking that John Ford wisely decided that World War II being recently over, the country's mood was joyous, but somber in terms of the heavy human cost.
They Were Expendable has the benefit though of the American audience knowing the ultimate victory. The story begins in the Phillipines in 1941 with Robert Montgomery as real life naval hero John Bulkeley, renamed Brickley for the film, trying to convince the brass of the usefulness of the P.T. Boat in combat, not just for scouting and courier duty. Of course that experiment is cut short and the P.T. Boats and their crews are rushed into some on the job experience.
During the film MacArthur, you might recall Gregory Peck saying that he was going to be evacuated from Corregidor by "one of Johnny Bulkeley's torpedo boats." That scene is dramatized as a wordless Robert Barrat plays MacArthur traveling on the boat commanded by John Wayne.
Wayne is Montgomery's second in command of the P.T. boat squadron who is not thrilled to be there. He'd like to be on at least a destroyer. He gradually comes around though. He also gets a fling in the romance department with Navy nurse Donna Reed.
During that interlude John Ford had some of the crew outside singing Dear Old Girl in a comic vein. Ford was never one to not let a good bit of business die with one film. You might remember in Fort Apache and Rio Grande there was some serenading done. And Donna Reed got serenaded on her "Hawaiian" honeymoon with James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life with Ward Bond once again being one of the serenaders. I'm sure Frank Capra would have conceded he stole that from Ford.
The story is first and foremost about some very desperate American armed forces who after Pearl Harbor were at the Japanese mercy. Pearl Harbor had totalled our Pacific fleet and no supplies could get through. Still the troops there fought on bravely, they were in fact by geography expendable.
Wayne and Montgomery give good but subdued performances. No do or die heroics here, just a sobering reminder of a terrible beginning for the Americans in the Pacific theater of World War II.
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