Construction workers in World War II in the Pacific are needed to build military sites, but the work is dangerous and they doubt the ability of the Navy to protect them. After a series of ... See full summary »
A Union Cavalry outfit is sent behind Confederate lines in strength to destroy a rail/supply center. Along with them is sent a doctor who causes instant antipathy between him and the ... See full summary »
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
"Dad" Knowlton, the shipwright who repairs the PT boats, has a poignant little scene in which he refuses to leave the place he's lived and worked for 40 years, although the Japanese are advancing. Rusty Ryan, John Wayne's character, finally leaves Dad sitting alone on his porch with a rifle in his hands and a jug of moonshine between his knees, as "Red River Valley" plays in the background. How eerily reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which is particularly appropriate because Dad is played by Russell Simpson, whom John Ford directed as Pa Joad in 1940. See more »
Both American aircraft shown in the film (a Piper J5A observation plane and a Douglas C-47 transport) carry the national insignia markings of a white star in a blue roundel, which was authorized on August 18, 1942. This is incorrect for the period depicted in the film (early December 1941 through late April 1942), when U.S. insignia was a white star inside a blue roundel with a red ball in the middle of the white star. See more »
I have very strong feelings about this film. As a baby boomer, I have always felt that mine and future generations owe an eternal debt to those who didn't come back.
One way of acknowledging this debt is the way we watch war films, not as bloody spectacles but as tributes and reminders.
And what kind of tribute and reminder is "They Were Expendable"? Consider the rueful irony of the title. Such a sentiment is quite uncharacteristic of director John Ford's other work, especially his westerns (possibly excepting "Fort Apache"), which border on jingoism. Yes, there's a scene that's pretty hard to take: When the boats are detailed to take MacArthur out of harm's way, Ford tries to make out like they're rescuing Lincoln, complete with "Battle Hymn of the Republic" soundtrack. Today we know MacArthur as an overrated blow-hard, but 1945 was too early to see past the hype. And yes, there's some of the usual Ford corn-ball and the familiar Ford players, with John Wayne and Ward Bond doing their thing. But then, there's the great Robert Montgomery, who did active duty (unlike Wayne), and I truly believe he was playing this film, both as actor and co-director, straight from the heart. You can see it in a scene in which he realizes his duty means his death. Much of that scene is shot in shadow, but paradoxically the darkness serves to enhance Montgomery's underplayed emotions. The emotions are similar when Montgomery and Wayne are later confronted with an order that saves their lives but dooms their men.
Implicit in the belief that war is sometimes necessary is the inevitability of some of the most excruciating moral dilemmas imaginable. And when I see these dilemmas imposed on men and women, boys and girls, demanding their lives in payment for their sacred honor, I'm humbled beyond words.
Life magazine used to do huge layouts of kids killed in World War II combat. When I look at these faces and think of the words "They Were Expendable," I . . .
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