(1945) dir. John Ford
I like John Ford’s Westerns, such as The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but I’ve never been a big fan of War films. But as any cineaste who follows anything along the lines of auteur theory, the director as film author, especially through classic Hollywood genre films, I’m open to seeing just about any of his films.
The real reason I queued up They Were Expendable was not because I had a sudden interest in the Pacific Theater of WWII and the noble efforts of the PT torpedo boats that innovated during the war to save money, and yet be able to bring down big war ships. No, it was really a bit more of a commentary of my feeling when I was recently let go from the company that I’ve worked for for the past 10 years. But good to my quip, I queued it up.
It’s an interesting war film, made during WWII, roughly based on real people and events, though typically written with artistic license. It stars John Wayne, Robert Montgomery (who had been a “real life PT skipper” in the war), and the lovely Donna Reed. The PT boats were small speedboat style ships, made cheaply to run errands and deliver payloads to torpedo down Japanese destroyers.
The film does have some riveting action sequences. The nobility of the war effort, the bravery of the enlisted men, even the decency of men to one another as the last plane out is loading passengers, just exudes ideology. Reed’s character is interesting. She’s a nurse who dresses in slacks, a somewhat de-sexualized attire. There is something going on with the portrayal of women here, but I’m a little inapt to analyze it.
At 135 minutes, it’s a near epic, and apparently a film that was quite a personal effort for Ford, a pretty damn proud American and war veteran himself. It’s funny too because as a younger person, John Wayne just seemed to symbolize so much of this type of American ideology and conservative philosophy, but in reality, I don’t know how many films I’d really seen him in. He’s a commanding and charming presence, perhaps not with a massive range, but he’s quite good.
To be expendable in war, to know that you are part of a group not expected to survive, but who must go and fight the good fight for the greater good, for God and country, it does almost take that wide-eyed determination and sense of right and wrong. And the nobility of such a commitment is not questioned here, just commended, admired, and recognized.