A Navy commander fights to prove the battle-worthiness of the PT boat at the start of World War II.


John Ford (as John Ford Captain U.S.N.R.), Robert Montgomery (uncredited)


William L. White (book), Frank Wead (screenplay) (as Frank Wead Comdr. U.S.N. {Ret})
Nominated for 2 Oscars. See more awards »





Cast overview, first billed only:
Robert Montgomery ... Lt. John Brickley (as Robert Montgomery Comdr. U.S.N.R.)
John Wayne ... Lt. (J.G.) 'Rusty' Ryan
Donna Reed ... Lt. Sandy Davyss
Jack Holt ... General Martin
Ward Bond ... 'Boats' Mulcahey C.B.M.
Marshall Thompson ... Ens. 'Snake' Gardner
Paul Langton ... Ens. 'Andy' Andrews
Leon Ames ... Major James Morton
Arthur Walsh Arthur Walsh ... Seaman Jones
Donald Curtis ... Lt. (J.G.) 'Shorty' Long / Radio Announcer
Cameron Mitchell ... Ens. George Cross
Jeff York ... Ens. Tony Aiken
Murray Alper ... 'Slug' Mahan T.M. 1c
Harry Tenbrook ... 'Squarehead' Larsen SC 2c
Jack Pennick ... 'Doc'


In the wake of Pearl Harbor's surprise attack, World War II hero, Lt. John Brickley's experimental squadron of agile fast-attack Patrol Torpedo boats is sent to warm and humid Manila to avert a potentially imminent Japanese invasion. As he and his second-in-command, Lieutenant "Rusty" Ryan, desperately try to prove the newly-founded naval unit's worth, the enemy launches a devastating all-out attack--and despite the PT boat flotilla's undeniable success--the considerably outnumbered and outgunned American soldiers are fighting a losing battle. Little by little, the Philippine campaign is doomed to cave in, as comrades-in-arms perish in the sea. Is there glory in defeat? Written by Nick Riganas

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


The Book That Thrilled Millions See more »


Drama | War


Approved | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


Though many had questioned John Wayne's getting an exemption from military service during World War II, it was not entirely his fault. Wayne was exempted from service due to his age (34 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and family status, classified as 3-A (family deferment). He repeatedly wrote to John Ford, asking to be placed in Ford's military unit, but consistently postponed it until "after he finished one more film", Wayne did not attempt to prevent his reclassification as 1-A (draft eligible), but Republic Pictures was emphatically resistant to losing him; Herbert J. Yates, President of Republic, threatened Wayne with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract and Republic intervened in the Selective Service process, requesting Wayne's further deferment. See more »


When one of the PT boats shoots down a Japanese plane it is seen crashing behind some trees. The fireball from the crash appears in a wrong spot from where the plane would have crashed. Also it appears as soon as the plane is below tree height before the plane would actually explode. See more »


'Slug' Mahan T.M. 1c: Mr. Ryan, this has gone far enough! That 41 boat is always hoggin' the good jobs, sir.
Seaman Jones: We'll get all the soaking we need on our way up to hit the Japs, sir.
'Squarehead' Larsen SC 2c: What are we gonna do, sit around on our duffs till they get back, sir?
Ens. 'Snake' Gardner: 41 can't handle this job alone... sir.
Lt. 'Rusty' Ryan: How about it, sir?
Lt. John Brickley: Okay. But if she starts taking water, turn back. Sir.
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Crazy Credits

Opening credits prologue: Manila Bay In the Year of Our Lord Nineteen hundred and Forty-one See more »

Alternate Versions

MGM produced a different version, dubbed and with credits in Spanish, probably to be used by television stations. This version omits the final sequence (nearly more than 15 minutes of running time) and the film ends a previous scene with Robert Montgomery and John Wayne saying farewell to the soldiers that had to remain in the Phillipines, then the scene cuts to a plane leaving the island and to a "The End" title in Spanish. This version aired in Argentina in a cable station called "Space". Turner Network Televsion, in all Latin American countries, used to air the film in its original form. However, they lifted the Spanish language dubbing from the old version and, without any explanation why, the last minutes of the film play in English. See more »


Referenced in Donovan's Reef (1963) See more »


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User Reviews

"As big as they come..."
9 March 2003 | by rmax304823See all my reviews

This is one of John Ford's best. There is a factoid circulating that this film, released in 1945 when we were about to end the war, was a flop because no one wanted to hear about a defeat in the Philippines, but Tad Gallagher's research shows this not to be true. It was a success, and for good reason.

It's got about everything you'd expect in a war movie released during that year, and it's finely done. Beginning with the photography and location shooting, in which Florida provides a first-rate substitute for the Philippines. No bravura acting is apparent, and none is called for. Montgomery is stolid as the squadron commander. Wayne, as his exec, follows orders competently and even is rather moving when he recites Robert Louis Stevenson's epitaph during a funeral scene, foreshadowing his famous scene when he's given the gold watch in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." Marshall Thompson plays an inexperienced new man, not for the last time. Ward Bond is a hearty boatswain's mate. Donna Reed, looking enchanting, is Wayne's aborted love interest. She doesn't have much screen time, but good use is made of what she has, and after all, it's hard to bang a full-blown romance into this kind of film.

It's pretty downbeat for Ford, when you come right down to it. One after another the "cardboard boxes" that, along with a handful of submarines, constituted MacArthur's navy are lost. Blown-up, wrecked, requisitioned by the Army, or just disappeared. The editing is fine too. Wayne's 34 boat is strafed and damaged by Japanese airplanes and he manages to beach it in a deserted area. He and his men struggle ashore through the surf. The planes return and they bomb it and strafe it until it erupts in flame, sending a geyser of seawater into the air. As Wayne emerges from cover there is a shot of him staring bleakly at his burning boat, then the seawater cascades over his figure forming a black-and-white rainbow as it does so. The eruption of water and its finally falling on Wayne's figure couldn't have been better times if a stopwatch had been used, a fine example of technical expertise.

Made as it was during the war years, it couldn't be more realistic than it is. Sometimes this is a weakness, due not to Ford and his crew but to the strictures of the time. The MTBs were glamorous duty. They were developed during WWI, when ships were mainly designed to be big enough to outshoot other big ships, and torpedoes hadn't proved themselves. Well, they did during the first war, delivered by torpedo boats that were small and fast and could duck under the big guns to deliver their weapons. (The destroyer was originally meant to be a "torpedo boat destroyer.") In WWII they served in every theater and were valuable assets. But they weren't suitable for blue-water work and were mostly used in sheltered waters. "They Were Expendable" shows them attacking under fire at high speed, in some very exciting shots. In real life, as Richard Tregaskis has reported, the engines delivered about 40 knots when new -- fast, but not that fast. A bit faster than a new destroyer, about the same speed as a torpedo. But under conditions in which maintenance was difficult or impossible, as they were here, the efficiency of the engines dropped and so did the boat's speed. The usual technique was not to attack at full speed with flags flying, but to sneak up as quietly as possible on an enemy ship, launch the torpedoes, then get out quickly. Also the torpedoes malfunctioned frequently, and the launching mechanism used gunpowder which flashed when ignited and revealed the boat's position. By the end of the war the boats had reverted to a more primitive system in which the weapons were simply dumped overboard. But that has nothing to do with the movie except that these observations reveal the major action scenes to be what Gallagher calls a boy's matinee program. It didn't happen that way.

Nevertheless, this is an honest movie. We lose, although we've done the best we can. And one of our boys can't kill a dozen of their boys. And you can tell Ford is behind the camera. Lots of booze. A reverence for authority. (MacArthur, whom his biographer, William Manchester, called "a remarkable man", is seen only from a distance, kind of like a spiritual vision seen in the clouds. MacArthur's complexity couldn't be dealt with, and shouldn't have been.)

It's a well-done film, thoughtful and exciting. The enemy aren't referred to as Nips, nobody calls them names or tries to explain their motives. Hemingway may have enjoyed it if he ever saw it because it is a very nice illustration of "grace under pressure." See it if you can.

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Official Sites:

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Release Date:

31 December 1945 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

They Were Expendable See more »

Filming Locations:

Florida Keys, Florida, USA See more »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


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Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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