John Ford Blogathon: “They Were Expendable”
Though John Ford was one of the most, if not *the* most, highly regarded directors of the studio era of Hollywood, by critics (Andrew Sarris and others put him in their pantheon of great directors), the Academy (he won four Best Director Oscars) and other filmmakers (when making Citizen Kane, Orson Welles said he prepared by watching movies by old masters, by which he meant, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford”), Ford himself never talked about himself in much regard. During the notorious battle between Cecil B. De Mille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the Directors Guild in 1950, for example (when De Mille wanted every director to sign a loyalty oath), Ford prefaced his speech by introducing himself and adding, “I make Westerns.” He was notorious for not talking about his pictures or their meaning, with the actors he worked with (Henry Fonda has told of Ford ripping pages from the screenplay if an actor dared ask about them), and even with admiring critics or younger filmmakers (during much of the documentary Directed by John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich is unable to get an answer out of Ford). What Ford did like to talk about was his war service – not necessarily the combat he’d seen, but just the fact he served at all. And that war service helped inform one of his best films, the 1945 drama They Were Expendable.
Like many in Hollywood at the time who were able, Ford signed up eagerly to serve in WWII. Unlike most of his fellow directors, however, who served in Europe and Africa, Ford, who was in the Navy, was mostly involved in the War in the Pacific (though he was part of the crew filming D-Day). And so it seemed fortuitous the first film he decided to take on after he finished his service in WWII was about a naval hero. William L. White’s book (adapted for the screen by Frank “Spig” Wead – whose own story Ford would tell over a decade later in The Wings of Eagles, with Ford regulars John Wayne and Ward Bond as, respectively, Wead and Ford – with an uncredited assist by Jan Lustig; Sidney Franklin and Budd Schulberg also did uncredited work on the film) is an oral account by Lieutenants John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly, along with two other men, about their experiences fighting in the early days of the war in the Philippines on PT Boats. When the film was originally conceived, it was meant, as with the book and the other combat movies being turned out by Hollywood at the time, as a way of boosting morale at home. By the time Ford was put on inactive status in October of 1944, the war was thought to be winding down (though it wouldn’t end in Europe for another seven months, and the Pacific for three months after that), and Ford wanted a more sober and clear-minded view of the war than Hollywood was turning out (one of the reasons why he was reluctant to take on the job at first was he thought MGM would insist on more of a flag-waving movie), which, as it turned out, the public was ready for as well.
The film begins in December of 1941 in the Philippines, as Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) informs his superior, Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), that he’s applying for a transfer to a destroyer, where the action is, as Brickley once again has been unable to convince the navy brass of the usefulness of PT Boats in warfare, and Ryan is frustrated with sitting on the sidelines. However, everything changes when Brickley, Ryan, and the other members of the crew hear the news of Pearl Harbor, and Brickley’s crews are eventually used in the war. At first, they’re just used to ferry people out of the Philippines after the Japanese invade, including General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat), but after Brickley and Ryan, on separate boats, are able to sink Japanese ships with their torpedoes, the PT Boats are approved for combat. During this time, Ryan strikes up a relationship with Lt. Nancy Davyss (Donna Reed), a nurse who treats his finger (shrapnel grazes it while he’s steering the boat, and he starts to suffer from blood poisoning), though he’s not able to see much of her after he gets back into combat duty.* But while Brickley and Ryan are eventually able to prove to the brass how well the PT Boats can work in fighting conditions (at the end, both of them are called to go back to the States to help train the Navy use them), they end up losing some of the boats, and many of their men, in the effort.
Part of how the movie differs from other war films of the time is the look. Cinematographer Joseph H. August (who had shot The Whole Town’s Talking, Mary of Scotland and the documentary The Battle of Midway for Ford) gives this a darker look than most movies at the time.** Obviously, in scenes such as when Ryan reluctantly goes to the hospital, the low lighting can be explained by the fact these were places under blackout conditions. But even in the scenes where the ships are in combat, such as in late in the movie when the boats go on a nighttime run, Ford and August shoot those scenes so you can barely see the faces of anybody, giving it a level of authenticity. In keeping with the seriousness of the subject matter, and the elegiac tone Ford is striving for throughout, there’s also less humor on display, and much of it is sarcastic, as when sailors who have been stuck on shore while their compatriots have either been on escort or fighting missions tell anyone who’s excited about where they’ve been about the conditions they’ve had to put up with back at the base. The humor is also used to cover up other feelings, as when Brickley and his men visit one of the sailors who’s dying, and they joke around with him to keep him from figuring that out (he sees right through it, of course). As sentimental as Ford could be, he handles this scene just right, without ever getting cloying.
Ford has been accused in recent years of racism in his films, especially in his westerns, but what’s striking about this film is how he avoids the jingoism of many, if not all, of the war films of the time. The Japanese are referred to as “Japs”, but only a few times, and in an offhand manner; also, early in the film, when a naval officer at a bar announces the attack at Pearl Harbor, Ford, August and editors Douglass Biggs and Frank E. Hull cut to a shocked Japanese woman. Also, Ford treats the Filipino characters with dignity for the most part; after the announcement of Pearl Harbor, a singer bursts into a rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (which Ford claimed actually happened) that’s mournful rather than patriotic, we later see how the destruction of the navy yard at Cavite has affected the Philippine natives as well as the U.S. navy, and when Lt. Davyss joins Ryan and the other officers at dinner, the waiter is respectful without being obsequious, and doesn’t speak in forked tongue either (only the owner of the bar Ryan crashes after saying a eulogy for his fallen crew can be seen as speaking in the broken English Asian speakers were often stereotyped with).
Another departure from many combat films is just how little combat there is. Except when Japanese planes attack the base (this is when Ryan hurts his finger), and two sequences where we actually see the boats fighting, most of the fighting is done off-screen. What we see instead is mostly the waiting (making everyone’s impatience, particularly Ryan’s, that much more believable), as well as the sequence near the end when Ryan has been separated from Brickley after his PT boat has been sunk by the Japanese, and he tries to find Brickley. This is both believable and accurate to White’s book, but it does have the effect of making one wonder why PT boats (which were smaller and faster than most boats, and were thought to be able to hit enemy ships, especially destroyers and supply ships, more effectively) were held back by the navy so long (Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge, a Ford regular) and Major James Morton (Leon Ames), to some extent, say the boats wouldn’t hold up to heavy fire, but we don’t get much of an argument from them or Brickley). The other debit of the film is the music by MGM house composer Herbert Stothart (forced on Ford by the studio) is undistinguished, though at least it isn’t used too often, and the best musical moment comes during the dinner Lt. Davyss has with Ryan and the others, and a group of sailors, led by “Boats” Mulcahey (Ford regular Ward Bond) serenade them. However, those are minor quibbles.
As with most, if not all, Ford pictures, he singled out one actor to display his wrath towards. On this film, it was Wayne, though in this case, the rancor was especially pointed; Ford never really forgave Wayne for not serving during the war, even if, for many filmgoers at the time, he was fighting the battle at home (the hardship deferment Wayne claimed – trying to support his family – didn’t impress Ford). By contrast, Ford treated Montgomery, who had commanded a PT Boat (as well as observe Bulkeley to prepare for the movie), kindly; according to Mark Harris’ Five Came Back, Montgomery felt uncomfortable coming back to acting, so Ford told him to go out on a boat by himself, take all the time he needed, and they would wait for him to be ready (it took three days). Montgomery even shot some scenes when Ford fractured his knee while on a sound stage, and he even made Ford apologize to Wayne for his treatment of him.
Whatever Ford did to his actors, they all responded with terrific performances. I must confess I’ve always found Montgomery flat as an actor, but he’s able do some complex work here while saying very little, whether masking his disappointment when Admiral Blackwell turns him down yet again, or the way he handles Ryan, or the kind reserve he greets Lt. Davyss with when he finally meets her. One of Ford’s most quoted remarks about Wayne was his line, “I didn’t know the son-of-a-bitch could act” after seeing him in Howard Hawks’ Red River, but by this film, Ford must have known something, because Wayne has a more complex character than he played under Ford before, and he responds in kind. Ryan is constantly warring with himself throughout between thinking of himself (which is why he wants a transfer) and of the unit and his commander, and Wayne does a good job with that conflict. He also isn’t afraid of showing Ryan’s more abrasive side either, as with the nasty way he treats Lt. Davyss when he first gets to the hospital, or when he refuses to go to a dance with her at first. Finally, while Wayne was often called upon to give gung-ho speeches, there’s very little of that here; his most memorable scene for me, in fact, comes when he’s speaking over the coffins of his shipmates who have died, he reads the only poem he knows, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” (“Under the wide and starry sky/Dig the grave and let me lie”), and his voice cracks. Reed manages both toughness and vulnerability, as well as a certain playfulness when she flirts with Ryan. And there’s good work from Bond, Russell Simpson (as “Dad” Knowland, a shipbuilder), and Louis Jean Heydt (as a soldier at the hospital whom Ryan bonds with), among others.
Though the movie only received a couple of Oscar nominations in technical categories (Best Sound Recording and Best Special Effects), it did well at the box office and received good reviews (James Agee, a tough critic when it came to fiction war movies, wasn’t impressed with the story, but he praised Ford’s direction, the photography, and Montgomery’s performance, and Bosley Crowther praised the sober tone of the movie). Today, They Were Expendable stands as one of the best WWII movies ever made, and one of Ford’s best. Not bad for a director who only said of himself, “I make Westerns”.
*- Lt. Beulah Greenwalt Walcher (known as Peggy Smith in White’s book), the nurse Lt. Davyss was based on, sued MGM for implying she and Lt. Kelly had gotten involved romantically (to be fair to the movie, in White’s book, Kelly implies he has feelings for her, and the movie never shows anything explicit); Kelly also sued for Wayne’s portrayal of him, which Bulkeley has stated was accurate. Wayne and Reed were also named in the suits, and they and MGM eventually settled out of court with Kelly and Smith.
**-Ford originally wanted Gregg Toland, who had shot The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home for Ford, to co-direct and shoot the film, but Toland was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn at the time, and Goldwyn refused to release him.