Staff writer Nathanael Hood takes a look at the deeper cuts from legendary directors with the his column B-Roll. This week, Nathanael takes a look at John Ford’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1943).
The year was 1945 and John Ford hadn’t made a Hollywood picture in almost four years. Laboring for the majority of World War II as the head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services, Ford had released a string of award-winning documentaries and newsreels in the interim since his last studio film, 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. Though these contributions were by no means insignificant, they did serve to deprive the American filmgoing public of one of their supreme cinematic craftsman and myth-makers. For those on the home front, John Ford, America’s cinema laureate, had gone AWOL.
And so came They Were Expendable, Ford’s first chance to ignore the fact and “print the legend.” He had only made one other fiction film on World War II: 1940’s The Long Voyage Home, a work more remarkable for Gregg Toland’s cinematography than Ford’s direction. But in the five years since Ford had been baptized by fire: he had participated in both the Battle of Midway (where he had been wounded) and the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. Never again would his war films be based on personal speculation about the realities of combat. Ford had walked through hell and survived. And They Were Expendable was the first time he would loose the weight of his experiences on a general audience.
Based on the real-life exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, a PT boat unit that participated in the doomed, disastrous Battle of the Philippines (1941-42), the film gave Ford a chance to return to one of the themes that obsessed him: the military unit as family. Whether the familial bond between soldiers was literal (Four Sons ), Rio Grande ) or metaphorical (Wee Willie Winkie , The Long Gray Line ), the military was always seen by Ford as a place of surrogate fathers, surrogate sons, surrogate brothers. In this case, the “fathers” are Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and Lt. J.G. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), stolid and steadfast sailors who beam with pride over the capabilities of their PT Boats. Their squadron is lively and tightly-knit with the older sailors keeping a warm and watchful eye on the younger. Notice how at a retirement party for one member they make sure that their youngest sailor, a boy no more than 12-13 years old, gets a glass of milk instead of liquor for a celebratory toast. In most films, serving milk to a man at a bar is a shocking and overt assault on their masculinity. But here, the boy thankfully drinks it down because he knows that it isn’t an insult.
Ford manages to establish all of this within the first ten minutes of the film. And then he spends the next two hours savaging this family; tearing it down bit by bit until it is annihilated. For it is at around the ten minute mark that they receive the terrible news: the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.
Over the next several months, the horrors of war begin to take their toll. One by one the members of the squadron are killed or critically injured. Four PT boats will go out on patrol and only three will return. As the garrisons at Bataan and Corregidor crumble at the advance of the Imperial Japanese Navy, even more of Brick and Rusty’s men are stripped from them in one of the most ignoble ways imaginable for sailors: they are reassigned to the infantry. Though they successfully sink several Japanese ships, their victories are short-lived as they ultimately fail to stop the enemy’s advance. They have no illusions about their missions: they are the rear guard tasked with slowing the enemy for as long as possible while the main military force evacuates. As the title so eloquently summarizes, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three is expendable.
Even at his most bombastic, Ford’s films almost always had a melancholy streak. But his only films to rival the outright sadness and pessimism of They Were Expendable were the aforementioned How Green Was My Valley and Four Sons (it is perhaps no coincidence that all three films deal with the destruction of a family unit). One of the most jarring things about the film is how out of place the combat scenes seem. Outstandingly staged and photographed, they are some of the most exciting and thrilling action sequences of the 1940s. One sequence in particular where the squadron attacks and sinks a Japanese cruiser seems to predict the smooth yet effortlessly kinetic visual language used during the climactic shark hunt in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). And one doesn’t have to look too hard to see parallels between John Wayne firing torpedoes while under heavy enemy fire with Luke Skywalker scoring a direct hit during the Death Star run in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).
And yet the scenes in between (which constitute the vast majority of the film’s run-time) are stripped of triumph or emotional catharsis. Their struggle is Sisyphean: the number of enemies never decreases, only their own. Ford’s control of tone during these scenes is devastating: even supposedly happy moments are subdued and mournful. Nowhere is this more apparent than a scene where Rusty goes on a date with 2nd Lieutenant Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), an army nurse he met while being treated for blood poisoning. The ballroom of the dance they attend is soaked in deep shadows that cast smothering sheets of blackness over the characters. Not even the blithe, happy music can disguise the fact that they seem to be imprisoned. The fact that their romance ends not with a consummation but with a resigned parting seems practically inevitable.
They Were Expendable ends not with a victory but with a retreat: Brick, Rusty, and the two remaining members of the squadron are airlifted out of the Pacific so they can return stateside to train new PT boat crews. Brick assures his men, “We’re going home to do a job. And that job is to get ready to come back.” But by the time the film had been released, the war in the Pacific had been won. So why the tragic tone? Why an ending of ambivalence and heartbreak when celebration was more in order? I believe it is because the film is Ford’s eulogy for the fighting men and women who were shaped, tested, and later discarded by the War. With the arrival of peacetime, the sailors and soldiers, infantrymen and naval cadets would return stateside to their homes and families. But Ford knew that in returning, they were also leaving another kind of home and family; a kind that only those who had experienced it for themselves could ever hope to understand.