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THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (director: John Ford; screenwriters: from the book by William L. White/Frank Wead; cinematographer: Joseph H. August; editors: Douglass Biggs/Frank E. Hull; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: John Wayne (Lt. (j.g.) ‘Rusty’ Ryan), Robert Montgomery (Lt. John Brickley), Ward Bond (‘Boats’ Mulcahey), Donna Reed (2nd Lt. Sandy Davys), Marshall Thompson (Ens. ‘Snake’ Gardner), Jack Holt (Gen. Martin), Jack Pennick (‘Doc’, the storekeeper), Charles Trowbridge (Admiral); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Ford; MGM; 1945)
“Surprisingly rich film is one of the best war films ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A John Ford (just returned from action himself in the South Pacific as a documentary filmmaker for the Navy) film directed with the uncredited help from Robert Montgomery (a real life navy officer), is a flag-waving but restrained historical film based on the book by William L. White and scripted by retired navy commander Frank ‘Spig’ Wead. It glorifies the PT boats during WWII. Set in the South Pacific in 1941, it follows the adventures of a squadron of motor torpedo boats in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. In reality, it was a tribute to WWII hero John Bulkeley (called in the film Brickley as played by Robert Montgomery) and covers his exploits in the Philippines during the early part of the war. Shot in splendid black-and-white and looking like a docudrama, this surprisingly rich film is one of the best war films ever made.

Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) is a fiery executive officer to a PT squadron headed by Lt. John Brickley, who is frustrated because he wants to see action and the navy brass doesn’t have confidence to send the small PT boats into action if there was combat. At the outbreak of the war, Rusty ceases writing requests to transfer to a destroyer. All the navy men are gung-ho to the cause and their duty. The film follows the squadron as they get a chance to shoot down Japanese planes and are assigned as message carriers between Bataan and Corregidor, until, at last, as ship hunters. Just as the PT squadron is ennobled as warriors and the fight on Corregidor begins, the two top officers are ordered to the States to promote their PT-boat as essential to the war effort. This leaves their men to face an almost hopeless chance of survival, considering they are greatly outnumbered by the Japanese forces. There’s also a well-conceived unsentimental love story, as a hospitalized Rusty meets nurse Sandy Davys (Donna Reed).

The film benefits greatly by looking and feeling authentic. One of those underrated films that still awaits discovery by the public. It was shot in Florida, and photographed with great skill by Joseph H. August.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”