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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
Memorable, slow-paced World War II film with fine performances from Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed with excellent direction by John Ford.
This is a memorable war film. Unlike other war films which depict glamorous battles, brutal campaigns and heroic exploits, this film focuses on average sailors who are merely doing a job. This often touching story is sandwiched around the real life escape of General and Mrs. McArthur from Corregidor at the beginning of World War II. The film does a good job portraying the collapse of American and Fillipino resistance in late 1941 and early 1942. The war is going badly, and this film does not try to sugar coat it. General Martin's character (played by Jack Holt) articulates this well at the end of the film. "The end is near here", he says.
John Wayne plays Rusty, a somewhat disgruntled officer who is unhappy about serving on a patrol torpedo (PT) boat. "Plywood dreams", he calls them in one scene. The fortunes of war intervene and Rusty and his comrades must fight the invading Japanese. Wayne's performance is memorable here, because it is uncharacteristic of his work. Wayne is not the macho heroic fighter that we see in most of his other war films. Here he is a professional sailor doing his job the best he knows how. At the end he predictably tries to be a hero, but star Robert Montgomery polites reminds him that there are other priorities. "Who are you fighting for", he asks. Wayne's character has depth. Uncharacteristically for Wayne he is even a little unsure of himself at times. This is particularly evident in his relationship with the young nurse played by Donna Reed. This is a different Wayne.
Robert Montgomery's performance as the commander of the squadron is also first rate. Like Wayne he is a professional who wants to do his job. The burden of command falls on him as he begs, cajoles and even blackmails fellow sailors to put his PT's in the war. Montgomery's performance is understated, credible and moving. It may be his best work.
This film is a collection of images. The destruction at Subic Bay in a Japanese air strike comes the closest to graphic violence of any scene in the movie. Instead of bodies, we see fires, smoke, debris and the faces of dazed servicemen and civilians. In another scene Wayne and Montgomery stand on a long dock stretching out into an empty inlet. "Are you looking for the Arizona, too," Rusty asks. The scenes depicting the escape of the McArthur's are well staged and realistic. The scenes of the defeated American army retreating on Mindanao show graphically that the war is not going well. The last image in the film with the last American plane to leave the Phillipines flying over a tropical beach at sunset is one of the most memorable in any war film. The words "I shall return" which appear on the screen are trite and unnecessary. Director John Ford has created a collage of memorable images here.
This film is slow paced for a war film, but it works. There is sufficient action, but there are interludes of peace and tranquility. There is a candlelight dinner for Rusty and his girl. There are a few moments near the end in a bar. In another scene Wayne visits with an elderly shipwright. The journey with the McArthurs provides another appropriate interlude in the middle of the film. There are even light moments interspersed. In one of these Marshal Thompson is inspecting the galley and asks derisively "What kind of soup is this?" When told it's not soup but dishwater he goes quickly to his next stop.
This is a simple story of fighting men doing a job that isn't considered particularly important. John Ford's excellent direction turns these mundane moments into one of the most memorable war films ever. Star Robert Montgomery even had a chance to direct in this film when Ford was injured in a fall. I liked this film and would recommend it without reservations.
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