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They Were Expendable is the greatest American film of the Second World War, made by America's greatest director, John Ford, who himself saw action from the Battle of Midway through D-day. Yet it's been oddly neglected. Or perhaps not so oddly: for as the matter-of-fact title implies, the film commemorates a period, from the eve of Pearl Harbor up to the impending fall of Bataan, when the Japanese conquest of the Pacific was in full cry and U.S. forces were fighting a desperate holding action. Although stirring movies had been made about these early days (Wake Island, Bataan, Air Force), they were gung ho in their resolve to see the tables turned. They Were Expendable, however, which was made when Allied victory was all but assured, is profoundly elegiac, with the patient grandeur of a tragic poem.
"They" are the officers and men of the Navy's PT boat service, an experimental motor-torpedo force relegated to courier duty on Manila Bay but eventually proven effective in combat. Their commander is played by Robert Montgomery, who actually served on a PT and later commanded a destroyer at Normandy; James Agee called his "the one unimprovable performance" of 1945. In addition to giving it, Montgomery codirected the breathtaking second-unit action sequences (and took over the first unit for a week when Ford broke his leg). John Wayne's costarring role as Montgomery's volatile second-in-command initially looks stereotypically blustery, but as the drama unfolds--the death of comrades, a friendship-that-never-gets-to-be-a-romance with an Army nurse (Donna Reed)--Wayne sounds notes of tenderness and vulnerability that will take Duke-bashers by surprise.
They Were Expendable is a heartbreakingly beautiful film, full of astonishing images of warfare, grief, courage, and dignity: the artificial "rainfall" that lashes the beached Wayne as his PT boat explodes in the surf; the glow around a communally improvised dinner for nurse Reed; an old ship-repairer (Russell Simpson, The Grapes of Wrath's Pa Joad) settling in grimly to wait for the Japanese, with "Red River Valley" as benediction; the propeller spray that hangs over a jungle inlet, like the dust from one of Ford's cavalry pictures, as the PTs round a bend and disappear into history. This is a masterpiece. --Richard T. Jameson
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