The John Ford / John Wayne classic They Were Expendable is a very different war movie. Released in December 1945, right after the end of World War Two, it is one of the first war movies that does not limit itself to supporting the war effort by telling a nice, positive, heroic story. John Wayne plays Lieutenant (jg) Rusty Ryan who, much like the US navy, does not quite believe in Lieutenant John Brickley's (Robert Montgomery) idea of a PT boat squadron. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Ryan finds himself still attached to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3.
They Were Expendable is the story of the slow, agonizing death of a force of motor torpedo boats or PT boats in the Philippines right after Pearl Harbor. While the United States is licking its wounds and building up its forces, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, based in the Philippines finds itself amongst the last barriers to the Japanese conquest. This John Ford war movie focuses more on historical events than battles. His focus on the slow disintegration of Squadron 3 is meant to echo the American forces withdrawing from the Philippines. By focusing on the characters, of which Wayne's is secondary, having many of them die by the movie's end, and focusing on the diminishing forces, Ford manages to portray the sacrifice of soldiers who knew they were in a no win position but continued the job nonetheless.
They Were Expendable is an original war movie in that personal heroics, as made clear by John Wayne's action at the end of the movie and Powell's answer to it, have no room in a situation where a greater plan must be followed. Another major difference in this movie is there is very little if any racism present in the dialogue or attitude of the soldiers. This is quite a departure from the movies made during the war which were heavy with jingoism.
An interesting touch in this war movie, something that can be found in many flicks by director John Ford, is the use of humor here and there not to lighten the tone but to make the characters that much more human. For example, a gung-ho ensign starts giving orders to the veteran cook and then tastes his latest concoction: "Holy smokes, Cook. You call that soup?" "No, sir. Dishwater."
If you are expecting a war film with lots of fighting and heroics, They Were Expendable is not for you. If you enjoy a subtle movie that focuses on character and symbolism, this is a great John Ford classic starring John Wayne. The picture quality on this sixty year old film is crisp.
The John Ford / John Wayne Collection from Warner Brothers also includes the classic The Searchers, The Wings Of Eagles, 3 Godfathers, Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and The Long Voyage Home.
Other John Ford Reviews
The Long Voyage Home: Classic sea-faring movie by John Ford with John Wayne
The Wings Of Eagles: Biography of Frank Spig Wead. John Wayne does comedy.
John Wayne - John Ford Film Collection: The ultimate collection of John Wayne and John Ford in one boxed set.
Stagecoach: A great western movie classic.
Fort Apache: A classic cavalry movie starring Henry Fonda
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon: Captain Nathan Brittles, on the eve of retirement, takes out a last patrol to stop an impending massive Indian attack.
The Searchers: Simply one of the finest old style western movies John Wayne ever appeared in.
3 Godfathers: Three outlaws on the run discover a dying woman and her baby. They swear to bring the infant to safety across the desert, even at the risk of their own lives.