They Were Expendable Review

They Were Expendable has its roots in a 1942 book by W. L White which tells the story of the exploits of Naval Lieutenant John Bulkeley during the early days of war just after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Head of a motor-boat torpedo squadron, Bulkeley and a group of 111 men attempted to hold off the Japanese in the Philippines during the first half of 1942, finally emerging from a hopeless situation with a death toll of 102. The story appealed immensely to John Ford who saw it as a chance to do two important things; to bring home the horror of war to post-war audiences and to celebrate the courage of those who stood up to defend what seemed like a lost cause. He was also a personal friend and comrade of Bulkeley and relished the opportunity to show off his naval connections.

The story was close to Ford’s heart because he was himself a Navy man. In 1934, he was summarily made a Lieutenant Commander in the US Naval Reserve, the fulfilment of a longtime ambition to join the military which went back to a thwarted attempt to serve in World War One. There is some suspicion, reported by Joseph McBride, that Ford may have done some intelligence work which led to his commission being approved so quickly. Shortly before America entered the war, Ford formed his Field Photographic Branch of the US Navy, a unit designed to record combat, and once the war began he made several well received films, notably The Battle of Midway during the making of which he received a minor injury. It seems that Ford’s naval service and his time amongst military men had a lot to do with his increasing conservatism and it was shortly after the war that he first described himself as a ‘State of Maine Republican’.

John Wayne, on the other hand, was not a military man in any sense of the word. Although permitted to play a supporting role in They Were Expendable, his relationship with Ford had suffered from his all too obvious reluctance to serve his country during the war. This went down badly with Ford, who was a fervent patriot even during his liberal period, and seems to have been an embarrassment to Wayne right up until his death. Wayne claimed to have been keen to join Ford’s Field Photographic Unit but made his excuses when a position was offered. Ford despised what he saw as either cowardice or vanity; the latter seems most likely since other Hollywood stars were willing to enlist in the lower echelons of the services. Another of Ford’s circle, the raucous troublemaker Ward Bond, was reduced – due to epilepsy – to serving as an Air Raid Warden, resulting in much cruel ribbing from the director.

Both Wayne and Bond appear in They Were Expendable, although the former was only the second choice after Robert Taylor proved impossible to cast. This owes a good deal to Ford’s loyalty even to those who he had scant respect for, and he was particularly generous to Bond who had recently been in a car crash and could only film either lying down or with the assistance of crutches. However, Wayne was not cast in the leading role, one which would, a few years later, have been automatically given. The central part of Bulkeley – renamed Brickley in the film – was assigned to Robert Montgomery, an MGM star who had a meritorious war record in the Navy. It was a good choice. Montgomery has a calm authority and an air of maturity and good humour which would probably have been a little beyond a pre-Red River John Wayne. He never seems like a Hollywood military cliché, just a normal navy man with a job to do. There’s a great scene where he surveys the wreckage wrought by a Japanese attack and evokes everything necessary without a single line of dialogue.

One of the most interesting things about They Were Expendable is how doggedly it evokes both the minutiae and the atmosphere of sudden warfare. It begins with the announcement of Pearl Harbour – initially ignored by Ward Bond’s ‘Boats’ as he commences a windy tribute to the retiring Doc – and goes on to explore the effects of the shattering incident on Brickley’s small group of men. We know that Brickley wants to play a very active part in the war but his frustration in being given an initially supportive role is tempered by a sense of duty and sacrifice. Montgomery plays this beautifully, never letting his disappointment show to his men and appearing the epitome of patience and calm, so the exhilaration when they’re given active duty is easy for us to share. The camaraderie between the men and their affection and respect for their superiors is, of course, vividly evoked and you can see here the roots of the Cavalry Trilogy. It’s particularly interesting to watch Fort Apache where Wayne also plays second fiddle to a powerful commanding officer about plays it very differently. In this movie, his Rusty Ryan is a questioning and somewhat cynical figure but he’s ultimately in complete accord with Brickley. In Fort Apache, Wayne’s Captain York begins in basic disagreement with Henry Ford’s vainglorious Colonel Thursday and eventually moves to a position of outright rebellion. Yet even here, Rusty Ryan is never made simply a ‘yes’ man and he’s given a depth of character – through his relationship with Donna Reed’s tough dame – that gives him equal importance in the narrative to Brickley. Wayne’s performance is one of the most complex that he had thus far given. Ryan develops before our eyes from a resentful and ambitious deputy into a fine Lieutenant. The failure of the love affair is also pivotal – Wayne was always very good at evoking loss and weakness, perhaps because it challenged him and ran counter to audience expectations.

It’s very evident that They Were Expendable could never have been such an impressive document about the sacrifice and courage of American troops were it not for Ford’s experience with Field Photo. There’s a sense of immediacy to the battle scenes which has more to do with documentary than most war films of the period and even though, as James Agee pointed out, we spend much of the film watching men getting on and off PT boats, the verisimilitude has a beauty all of its own. Ford is also fascinated by people’s faces – close-ups are used with a spare eloquence, notably a grieving woman and a young boy drinking milk shortly before the announcement of the Pearl Harbour raid – and this links They Were Expendable to his earlier work, notably How Green Was My Valley where the emotional possibilities of the close-up are explored to devastating effect. Throughout, the visuals of the film are spectacular, thanks to glowingly atmospheric, shadowy monochrome cinematography by Joseph H. August. August was one of the great pioneers, starting his career in 1913, working on two or three films a year and finally gaining recognition for his work on The Informer and Gunga Din. This penultimate film may be his finest work because the artistic beauty of his earlier Ford films is anchored into a very strong narrative line and not allowed to overwhelm everything else. Few other war films offer quite such a strong evocation of loss and the price of war. The visual poetry of the film comes together with the heartfelt emotions and celebratory intentions behind it to create a war movie which has a very unusual realism and depth of feeling.

The Disc

The fullscreen monochrome transfer is identical to the one released by MGM in 1998 and then, subsequently, by Warners. It’s sharp and clear although there is some print damage and artifacting evident in places along with a little wobbling. Shadow detail is excellent however and definition is very sharp throughout. The mono soundtrack is very acceptable – crisp and crystal clear.

We only get the theatrical trailer by way of extras. This is a shame because there’s ample scope here for some material on Ford’s wartime experiences. If you’re interested in that story then I refer you to the documentary John Ford Goes To War.

This review makes reference to two excellent books:

Searching For John Ford by Joseph McBride
John Wayne: American by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson

Anyone interested in John Ford and John Wayne is directed to these reliable and fascinating sources

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