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They Were Expendable

After a remarkable run of seven pictures over a three-year stretch, starting with Stagecoach in 1939 and culminating with the masterpieces The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley in 1940-41, John Ford took a sabbatical from Hollywood filmmaking in order to shoot documentaries for the War Department, often under enemy fire. They Were Expendable (1945) marked Ford's return to feature cinema, although it failed to connect with audiences. In retrospect, it wasn't as much the wrong film as that it came at the wrong time — by the end of World War II, the public's tastes had shifted toward the noir genre, and few were interested in seeing a war film that chronicled an infamous military retreat at the outset of the conflict in the Pacific, even though it was perhaps the most dramatic sequence of events in America's naval struggle with Japan. Robert Montgomery stars as U.S. Navy Lt. John Brickley, who commands a squadron of four Patrol Torpedo (or simply "PT") boats at an American base in the Philippines in late 1941. Assisted by his executive officer, Lt. 'Rusty' Ryan (John Wayne), Brickley hopes that the brass will look favorably upon the new vessels, even though he's been informed that the higher-ups don't think the boats are substantial enough for combat duty. However, after Pearl Harbor is attacked, the Philippines goes on a war footing, certain that the Japanese will try to take the islands. After surviving an initial assault, the American forces are put back on their heels — the U.S.S. Arizona has been sunk at Pearl Harbor, much of the remaining fleet is still at San Diego, and the Air Force is nowhere in sight. Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat) has no choice but to split his forces, removing himself to Corregidor and sending others to the Bataan peninsula. With much of the island chain under Japanese occupation, Brickley mounts a daring raid against an enemy destroyer. But the victory comes at a cost, and before much longer he and Ryan are given a new, secret mission: ferry Gen. MacArthur on his secret escape to Australia, after which they are left to plan their own operations as best they can, hoping for little more than survival.

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By most accounts, They Were Expendable earned a muted reception from critics and audiences upon its release, even though it had a profitable box-office. And few took less interest in the movie than John Ford himself, who resented being taken away from his documentary work by the War Department in order to shoot a feature film that was meant to support America's recapture of the Philippines. The war was over by the time Expendable came out, and Ford took no part in post-production, admitting to critic Lindsay Anderson in 1950 that he had never even seen it and was certain it was terrible (in fact, much of this interview involves Anderson explaining details of the theatrical release to Ford). True, some elements of Expendable were changed by MGM, including the addition of a score that undermined Ford's documentary intent. But the fact that the completed picture comes in at two hours, 15 minutes — as opposed to Ford's expected one hour, 40 minutes — indicates that the studio was willing to treat the film with the respect it deserved. A bridge work that separates Ford's pre-war literary adaptations and the elegiac westerns that would follow, Expendable is both exciting and pleasingly episodic, covering a great deal of narrative territory, from the peacetime opening to the Japanese assault on the Philippines, the squadron's fight for survival, and the American surrender on Bataan. In the midst of it all, John Wayne even falls for a female officer in the medical corps (a luminous Donna Reed), and while there isn't quite as much humor here as in other Ford titles, there are moments of levity. But the film's true stars are the PT boats themselves, which Ford captured at high speeds amidst flak and explosions, allowing viewers to marvel at their hydrodynamic grace. John Ford made many good films, but They Were Expendable ranks as one of his authentic masterpieces, taking material as grim and episodic as The Searchers and coming up with a back-against-the-wall war movie that's a definitive example of the genre. Warner's DVD release features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a very good black-and-white source-print with only the barest hints of collateral wear, while the excellent audio seems to exceed the limitations of the monaural Dolby 2.0 soundtrack. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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