Memorial Day Movies: They Were Expendable (1945)

“This isn’t going to be some goddamned two-bit propaganda flick.”

-John Ford to Vice Admiral John Bulkeley, USN

John Ford put off making They Were Expendable for over two years. He was busy with his Field Photo Unit making war documentaries, and he wasn’t eager to to go off active service. He was completing post-production on The Battle of Midway (1942), and dealing with the negative reaction to December 7th (directed by Gregg Toland), a Pearl Harbor re-enactment whose depiction of a less than prepared Navy led to its shelving, and to the future censoring of the Photo Unit’s output. Joseph McBride, in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford, writes that “the navy reacted to the long version of December 7th ‘by confiscating the print and ordering Ford to lock up the negative.”

MGM was developing They Were Expendable this whole time, hiring Sidney Franklin to polish Frank “Spig” Wead’s script and assigning Ford associate James Kevin McGuiness as the executive to oversee the project. Wead was a former Navy aviator who turned to writing about flyboys after a tragic fall down the stairs broke his neck (he wrote Hawks’ great Ceiling Zero, and Ford filmed his life story in the underrated The Wings of Eagles (1957)). The raw material for the story were the exploits of John D. Bulkeley, a lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, based in the Philippines, as reported in a best-selling book by W.L. White, and then an essay in Life magazine. With a skeleton crew and no lines of support, Bulkeley took down multiple Japanese planes and ships, and famously spirited General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao (from where he escaped to Australia) over 620 miles of open water.

McBride opines that another reason for Ford delaying production until ’45 was that he couldn’t film such a downbeat subject in an appropriate manner while the war was still raging. For Bulkeley’s story ultimately ends in defeat, as the U.S. is forced to retreat, and the majority of Bulkeley’s crew is killed. McBride quotes Bulkeley:

I was very bitter about the thing. …We went over there with 111 men and only 9 men came back alive. [The War Department] put 80,000 soldiers over there, and that was a political decision on the part of the president  and [Secretary of War Henry L.] Stimson that we were going to show the Asiatic race that we supported them, that we did not back off the Japanese. But the war plan was totally, utterly hopeless. You could not send a battle fleet out there and defeat the Japs and bring aid and so forth to the Philippines. We were not only too far away, we weren’t ready. To try to defend the Philippines was stupid, we couldn’t do it. But we had to put up a fight.

To film a realistic portrait of this event would be impossible in ’42, but in ’45 he pulled it off – and it’s one of the most mournful, moving, and static war films ever made. Very little happens. Men leap on and off PT Boats, rag on a callow ensign, and occasionally exchange fire with Japanese planes and battleships (I now realize I’ve inadvertently copied James Agee, who said: “all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT Boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel  one foot of the film was wasted.”) The love interest, Donna Reed, glows incandescently for a few scenes with John Wayne, and is then re-located by command. She does not return. The narrative is jagged, with dead-end detours followed by long sinuous set-pieces, lensed by cinematographer Joseph August. The action scenes are evenly-lit in razor sharp deep focus, while the interiors are sepulchral and shadowed – both the harrowing surgery sequence (held on Reed’s clenched, disbelieving face), and the staff dinner (again centered on a Reed close-up, adjusting her necklace for a reminder of normalcy), are shot in heavy chiaroscuro, as if the characters didn’t want to see the world outside their doors.

On the surface Robert Montgomery was an offbeat casting choice to take on the Bulkeley role (here named Brickley), as he rose to stardom as a light comedian. But in his naval service he was assigned to Bulkeley as executive officer during PT boat combat in the Southwest Pacific in 1943, earning a bronze star. His performance is of implacable good humor, a stalwart, impenetrable veneer that quickly compartmentalizes disappointment to do the job at hand. John Wayne plays the blustery, self-destructive Rusty Ryan, whom Brickley keeps together through force of will. When Ryan, hiding a blood disease contracted after a hand injury, is about to lunge into battle (and begin, one expects, a major subplot surrounding the disease), Brickley sees the hand, and forces him into a hospital. Professionalism trumps drama here at every turn. Aware that they are cannon fodder, they enter the breach again and again, trying to give their side just a few more seconds to turn the tide. It is an insane kind of dignity, which perhaps makes it even more admirable. So when Rusty places his hand on Brickley’s shoulders, and squeezes, right before they are to take their leave for Australia, it speaks for all the men they lost, and the few they might have saved. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.

They Were Expendable screens tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 10:15PM on TCM, as part of this month’s Donna Reed series. There is a 72-hour Memorial Day war movie marathon starting May 28th at 6AM with John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934).

24 Responses Memorial Day Movies: They Were Expendable (1945)
Posted By wilbur twinhorse : May 25, 2010 9:47 pm

Yeah, War Sucks!!! The brutality and suffering swing both ways I think. They started it? And paid the big price of being the only human beings to be nuked. Lose-Lose situation all around. Peace.

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : May 25, 2010 9:47 pm

Yeah, War Sucks!!! The brutality and suffering swing both ways I think. They started it? And paid the big price of being the only human beings to be nuked. Lose-Lose situation all around. Peace.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : May 25, 2010 11:19 pm

“It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.”

May I quote you? If I have a religion, it’s John Ford movies.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : May 25, 2010 11:19 pm

“It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.”

May I quote you? If I have a religion, it’s John Ford movies.

Posted By Medusa : May 26, 2010 7:52 am

Thanks once again for re-opening our eyes to a movie that I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen and certainly don’t remember. I’m going to DVR it tonight and watch it (when I can stay awake — I’m at that age where I tend to fall asleep in front of the TV and finish watching everything at 4am!).

Lovely post and lovely scene caps!

Posted By Medusa : May 26, 2010 7:52 am

Thanks once again for re-opening our eyes to a movie that I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen and certainly don’t remember. I’m going to DVR it tonight and watch it (when I can stay awake — I’m at that age where I tend to fall asleep in front of the TV and finish watching everything at 4am!).

Lovely post and lovely scene caps!

Posted By Kingrat : May 26, 2010 12:50 pm

Emmet, you zeroed in on one of the oddest things about They Were Expendable: it’s a very leisurely war movie. I happened to see this immediately after The Nun’s Story. They’re both about the same length, but The Nun’s Story has such amazing narrative momentum that it seems shorter. Ford does push some obvious buttons with patriotic songs, and the deification of MacArthur doesn’t set well today, but the power of the last half hour when the last plane leaves probably makes up for all shortcomings. Like you, I also love how the John Wayne/Donna Reed romance develops, then has to be cut off abruptly.

Posted By Kingrat : May 26, 2010 12:50 pm

Emmet, you zeroed in on one of the oddest things about They Were Expendable: it’s a very leisurely war movie. I happened to see this immediately after The Nun’s Story. They’re both about the same length, but The Nun’s Story has such amazing narrative momentum that it seems shorter. Ford does push some obvious buttons with patriotic songs, and the deification of MacArthur doesn’t set well today, but the power of the last half hour when the last plane leaves probably makes up for all shortcomings. Like you, I also love how the John Wayne/Donna Reed romance develops, then has to be cut off abruptly.

Posted By Jeff H. : May 26, 2010 2:11 pm

It took courage on Ford’s part to make a WWII movie that ends on a down note, with the fate of some characters either unknown or doomed, and MGM paid the price with a film that got very good reviews but failed at the box office.

That being said, it is one of Ford’s most stunning films pictorially, the performances are top-notch from top to bottom (the Duke gives one of his more tender performances here: his scenes with Donna Reed are poignant beyond belief-you really hope her character survives), and to have an open end to a war film was quite daring in those days, although at the time of the production getting under way the resolution in the Pacific was not sure, but when the film was finally finished Germany had surrendered, two Japanese cities had been nuked and the public was tired of war stories. It is a downer of a film in the end, but still stirring to watch, and one of the best war films produced in that era.

Posted By Jeff H. : May 26, 2010 2:11 pm

It took courage on Ford’s part to make a WWII movie that ends on a down note, with the fate of some characters either unknown or doomed, and MGM paid the price with a film that got very good reviews but failed at the box office.

That being said, it is one of Ford’s most stunning films pictorially, the performances are top-notch from top to bottom (the Duke gives one of his more tender performances here: his scenes with Donna Reed are poignant beyond belief-you really hope her character survives), and to have an open end to a war film was quite daring in those days, although at the time of the production getting under way the resolution in the Pacific was not sure, but when the film was finally finished Germany had surrendered, two Japanese cities had been nuked and the public was tired of war stories. It is a downer of a film in the end, but still stirring to watch, and one of the best war films produced in that era.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : May 26, 2010 2:52 pm

Jeff H. – I agree with your assessment, except for the fact that the film did decently at the box office. According to McBride’s bio, it brought in $3.25 million in rentals, making it one of the top twenty films of the year.

Kingrat – I think the MacArthur scene gently satirizes hero-worship a bit – as the young ensign stands zombie-like in his presence as Ward Bond has to push him aside. This also fits with the anti-heroic stance of the film in general…think of the scene where the men ignore the news of their winning the silver star. And leisurely is a great word for the pacing…

And you can quote me anytime, Patricia.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : May 26, 2010 2:52 pm

Jeff H. – I agree with your assessment, except for the fact that the film did decently at the box office. According to McBride’s bio, it brought in $3.25 million in rentals, making it one of the top twenty films of the year.

Kingrat – I think the MacArthur scene gently satirizes hero-worship a bit – as the young ensign stands zombie-like in his presence as Ward Bond has to push him aside. This also fits with the anti-heroic stance of the film in general…think of the scene where the men ignore the news of their winning the silver star. And leisurely is a great word for the pacing…

And you can quote me anytime, Patricia.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 26, 2010 3:00 pm

Your account of the quiet power of They Were Expendable (1945) is very moving, RES.

I was so glad to read your appreciation of all the elements that went into this film, but especially of the impact of Joseph August‘s remarkably artful black and white cinematography. The 14 films shot with John Ford are only a fraction of this prodigious man’s work, whose next film would also be his last, the visually ravishing Portrait of Jennie (1947). According to some of David O. Selznick’s biographers, August‘s death at 57 while working on the latter movie, may have been precipitated by the arduous task of trying to please the perfectionist producer–but what a cinematic legacy the cinematographer left us!

My only qualm about this movie comes from the memory of a conversation I once had with my Navy veteran uncle just after I saw this movie for first time. As an artist as well as a combat veteran himself, my uncle acknowledged the film’s beauty and the detailed attention to the lives given by the mostly anonymous individuals in this and every battle. He qualified his appreciation of They Were Expendable with the observation that the war was treated with “too much reverence” in this film, though he felt that it showed far more respect for the humanity of participants than the vast majority of propaganda films of that period.

He also observed that the movie did a good job of capturing the tedium punctuated with terrible violence that had been a significant part of his own WWII experience, and thought it paid needed attention to what he regarded as the seemingly pointless orderliness of many military orders from on high. (He also thought that the MacArthur references were way over-the-top).

I do not wish to denigrate the contributions of veterans, for whom I have a deep well of gratitude, in any way, but wondered if this observation, coming from a man who had seen a considerable amount of war, including losing friends, might be pertinent to a discussion of this movie?

Btw, I believe that tonight, Wednesday, May 26th, is the evening when Mary Owen, Donna Reed’s daughter, joins Robert Osborne to host the programming featuring the actress, beginning with a screening of From Here to Eternity (1953).

Posted By moirafinnie : May 26, 2010 3:00 pm

Your account of the quiet power of They Were Expendable (1945) is very moving, RES.

I was so glad to read your appreciation of all the elements that went into this film, but especially of the impact of Joseph August‘s remarkably artful black and white cinematography. The 14 films shot with John Ford are only a fraction of this prodigious man’s work, whose next film would also be his last, the visually ravishing Portrait of Jennie (1947). According to some of David O. Selznick’s biographers, August‘s death at 57 while working on the latter movie, may have been precipitated by the arduous task of trying to please the perfectionist producer–but what a cinematic legacy the cinematographer left us!

My only qualm about this movie comes from the memory of a conversation I once had with my Navy veteran uncle just after I saw this movie for first time. As an artist as well as a combat veteran himself, my uncle acknowledged the film’s beauty and the detailed attention to the lives given by the mostly anonymous individuals in this and every battle. He qualified his appreciation of They Were Expendable with the observation that the war was treated with “too much reverence” in this film, though he felt that it showed far more respect for the humanity of participants than the vast majority of propaganda films of that period.

He also observed that the movie did a good job of capturing the tedium punctuated with terrible violence that had been a significant part of his own WWII experience, and thought it paid needed attention to what he regarded as the seemingly pointless orderliness of many military orders from on high. (He also thought that the MacArthur references were way over-the-top).

I do not wish to denigrate the contributions of veterans, for whom I have a deep well of gratitude, in any way, but wondered if this observation, coming from a man who had seen a considerable amount of war, including losing friends, might be pertinent to a discussion of this movie?

Btw, I believe that tonight, Wednesday, May 26th, is the evening when Mary Owen, Donna Reed’s daughter, joins Robert Osborne to host the programming featuring the actress, beginning with a screening of From Here to Eternity (1953).

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : May 26, 2010 9:27 pm

& she (*Donna Reed) went to early at only 65!

*Ford always played down his work too

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : May 26, 2010 9:27 pm

& she (*Donna Reed) went to early at only 65!

*Ford always played down his work too

Posted By Al Lowe : May 27, 2010 6:59 am

I recently reported for a local newspaper on a speech given by a biographer of Bill Mauldin, the celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning World War II cartoonist.
I never really understood Mauldin until I heard the talk.
Mauldin’s cartoons really showed what the life of the average dogface was like. This was no “Beetle Bailey.”
Mauldin’s infantrymen characters were short of equipment since it was sold on the black market and they suffered due to preference given to officers and petty regulations.

Back in the States, during the early days of the war there was a huge propaganda push. It was reported that battles were always being won and the military was functioning perfectly.
This blew up in the military’s face.

Those back home asked if everything was going so great why did they have to ration food and why didn’t their husbands and sons return from war sooner.
General George Marshall then encouraged a more realistic depiction of what was going on by the media. The home front was told it would be a long tough slog until the end.
Marshall originally allowed Mauldin to do his cartoons for military newspapers and then allowed them to be printed back home. Patton and MacArthur hated the cartoons.
What all this was leading up to was to show what Ford was up against. He still managed to convey a sense of what the war was really like.

After all, he was Jack Ford.

Posted By Al Lowe : May 27, 2010 6:59 am

I recently reported for a local newspaper on a speech given by a biographer of Bill Mauldin, the celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning World War II cartoonist.
I never really understood Mauldin until I heard the talk.
Mauldin’s cartoons really showed what the life of the average dogface was like. This was no “Beetle Bailey.”
Mauldin’s infantrymen characters were short of equipment since it was sold on the black market and they suffered due to preference given to officers and petty regulations.

Back in the States, during the early days of the war there was a huge propaganda push. It was reported that battles were always being won and the military was functioning perfectly.
This blew up in the military’s face.

Those back home asked if everything was going so great why did they have to ration food and why didn’t their husbands and sons return from war sooner.
General George Marshall then encouraged a more realistic depiction of what was going on by the media. The home front was told it would be a long tough slog until the end.
Marshall originally allowed Mauldin to do his cartoons for military newspapers and then allowed them to be printed back home. Patton and MacArthur hated the cartoons.
What all this was leading up to was to show what Ford was up against. He still managed to convey a sense of what the war was really like.

After all, he was Jack Ford.

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : May 27, 2010 10:00 am

A superb & subtle film! & *Ford again round up the usual “stock company”

The marvelous dinner, singing, Ward Bond,etc

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : May 27, 2010 10:00 am

A superb & subtle film! & *Ford again round up the usual “stock company”

The marvelous dinner, singing, Ward Bond,etc

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : May 27, 2010 10:06 am

Most probable saw her daughter by now,
reading some of WW11 letters soldier’s sent her

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : May 27, 2010 10:06 am

Most probable saw her daughter by now,
reading some of WW11 letters soldier’s sent her

Posted By Debra Bullock : May 28, 2010 2:16 pm

This is a remarkable film. Also, as a Robert Montgomery fan, this is one of just a few of his movies that did him justice as the remarkable dramatic actor that he was. John Wayne’s autobiography said he thought Montgomery looked “war weary” when he made this film. This fact only added to the poignancy of his performance. It also said that Ford had Montgomery in mind for this role from it’s inception. This film is a character study more than a war film. It shows the dedication, valor, and camaraderie that was the World War II soldier. It’s a film that should not be missed.

Posted By Debra Bullock : May 28, 2010 2:16 pm

This is a remarkable film. Also, as a Robert Montgomery fan, this is one of just a few of his movies that did him justice as the remarkable dramatic actor that he was. John Wayne’s autobiography said he thought Montgomery looked “war weary” when he made this film. This fact only added to the poignancy of his performance. It also said that Ford had Montgomery in mind for this role from it’s inception. This film is a character study more than a war film. It shows the dedication, valor, and camaraderie that was the World War II soldier. It’s a film that should not be missed.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.