Without its production context this might appear as a fairly conventional war combat picture except for two factors: its celebration of survival masking a defeat is unusual for an American film and its length at 135 minutes is remarkable (and probably not necessary). Digging into that context, however, it becomes something else. John Ford spent the Second World War as head of the US Navy Field Photography Unit and director of several important documentaries for the US Military, two of which won Academy Awards. This film was his final action as a serving military officer in the Naval Reserve and he felt manipulated into making it at the behest of senior figures in the US Navy. The film was produced by MGM, the major studio with which Ford had most problems it seems. As part of the deal to make it, Ford insisted on an enormous fee, not for himself but as something he could use to set up a home for the veterans of his Field Photography Unit. He duly shot the film between February and June 1945 and it premiered at the end of December 1945. I’ve read the accounts in both the Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride books on Ford and I still don’t understand what the US Navy’s purpose was. There seems to have been a push to get the film made some two years earlier but even that seems odd to me (and impossible for Ford).
They Were Expendable is an adaptation of a book by William L White, a biographical account of a ‘real’ US Navy officer John Bulkeley who commanded a squadron of Motor Torpedo Boats in the Philippines in 1941 (known in the US as PT boats, though the official designation was MTB). The central character, ‘John Brinkley’ in the film, is played by Robert Montgomery, who had himself been an MTB Captain in the ‘Pacific War’, as it is known in the US and had served under Bulkeley. The film script had several contributors but appears to have been mostly the work of the retired Navy flyer Frank Wead, who would become the subject of John Ford’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles. The film narrative deals with a squadron of MTBs, a relatively under-rated form of naval power in 1941. In December 1941, Brinkley and his men, particularly his second in command, Lt. ‘Rusty’ Ryan (John Wayne) are disappointed that the Naval Commander in the Philippines doesn’t appear to rate the MTBs as an effective weapon, using them for ‘messaging’ and carrying important personnel. But when the Japanese attack cripples the US Navy in Pearl Harbour, the MTBs are thrust into the defence of the Philippines. Although distinguishing themselves in various conflicts the MTBs and their crews are finally forced to retreat to the last US stronghold in Bataan and Brinkley and Ryan are finally forced to abandon their men under orders, thus the ‘Expendable’ tag for the crews. The whole narrative reminds me of several British films from early in the war which were released as propaganda pictures with the message: “We have survived and we will return”. The turning point of the Second World War is usually taken to be the defence of Stalingrad in the East and the victory of the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in late 1942. At the same time the Americans were leading a North African landing and conducting an offensive in Guadalcanal. If They Were Expendable had been in cinemas around the end of 1942 it would have made sense. When it finally appeared, the American public was thinking about the aftermath of war and the film must have had a different reading. Ford himself is reported to have disowned the film, outraged by interference by MGM executives who recut parts of the film and added music Ford wouldn’t have chosen.
Lindsay Anderson, who met Ford on location in Ireland for the Quiet Man in 1950 and then at Elstree a couple of years later for Mogambo, was astonished by Ford’s view of They Were Expendable. Ford claimed to be ‘horrified’ by the experience of making the film and claimed to have not even watched the final version. Later he sent Anderson a telegram saying that having been persuaded to watch it, he agreed it might have merit, but several years later had reverted to arguing that it was no good. The mystery in this story is that Ford claimed some of his important scenes were cut but also that his intention was to produce a 100 minute film, which suggests that 40 minutes or more of the final film wasn’t intended to make it into the final cut. This is baffling, but Ford often made contradictory remarks, especially to interviewers. In Ford’s eyes, Anderson hadn’t yet made any significant films so he was just a critic/writer (but Ford still seems to have respected Anderson’s view that Expendable was a fine picture).
What is finally evident in the Warner Bros. restored print on the Blu-ray? There is a standout performance by Robert Montgomery. The black and white photography by Joseph H. August is excellent. August was a Lt Commander in Ford’s Photography Unit and had shot a couple of Ford’s pictures in the 1930s. Wayne is relatively subdued but rather petulant as Rusty Ryan, but he has the film’s only romance, with a nurse (an officer of similar rank) played by Donna Reed, also very good. Two other familiar Ford faces are Ward Bond and Jack Pennick and there is an important cameo by Russel Simpson (Pa Joad and other Ford characters) as a boat repairer. It is a recognisable Ford film in many ways. As a war combat film it is effective with exciting action (but probably unlikely action since US Navy torpedoes were not very reliable in 1941) but also a focus on the relationships between Montgomery and Wayne, Wayne and Reed and most importantly, Montgomery and all his crews. There is a reference to General MacArthur in the sequence in which the MTBs carry departing top brass and MacArthur’s famous phrase “We Shall Return” introduces the closing credits. The film was shot mainly in Florida, which is ironic since Ford himself loved the South Pacific. Several commentators refer to it as having a ‘documentary-style’. I think that is pushing it but there is certainly time spent on procedural issues and it is important that ‘verisimilitude’ is a key issue. Ford had spent so much time in different theatres of war and he knew how service personnel behaved, so the film had a sense of truth about many scenes.