Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Friday, December 28, 2012

They Were Expendable: John Ford

As you may have noticed, I haven't had much time to update this blog recently. It's crunch time to complete my Master's Degree work at NYU. But I don't want to end the year without one last review. So here, in its completion, is a paper that I wrote for one of my classes on John Ford's great and underrated They Were Expendable.

Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt appointed former aid Lowell Mellett as the government liaison between Washington and the Hollywood motion picture industry. In his letter of appointment, Roosevelt made it clear that the cinema was a vital part of both American society and the war effort: “The American motion picture is one of the most effective mediums in informing and entertaining our citizens.” What followed in the ensuing years was one of the most astonishing transformations of American cinema in history. The Hollywood machine began to churn out patriotic movies, shorts, and newsreels with incredible speed and enthusiasm. One of these films was John Ford’s They Were Expendable, the true story of a doomed flotilla of PT boats that participated in the catastrophic American retreat from the Philippines between December 1941 and May 1942. And yet, the film is a curiosity of World War Two cinema. While it’s true that the conception and production of They Were Expendable was emblematic of war-time Hollywood films, in many ways, Ford looked beyond the cinematic conventions of his time to make a statement that was both unique and unusual for the era.

First, They Were Expendable must be examined as an entry of the combat film genre. By 1944-1945, Hollywood had developed two new narrative formulas that eventually coalesced into distinct genres: the home-front melodrama and the combat film. The combat film developed its own themes, character archetypes, and plot devices. In a near exhaustive study, Jeanine Basinger identifies some of the most basic attributes of the combat film genre:

“The combat film from World War II can indeed generate such a list: the hero, the group of mixed ethnic types (O’Hara, Goldberg, Matowski, etc.) who come from all over the United States (and Brooklyn), the objective they must accomplish, their little mascot, their mail call, their weapons and uniforms.”

If we use these as the basis by which to classify examples of the combat film genre, then we must identify these within They Were Expendable. First we must examine “the hero.” There are actually two main protagonists in the film, both of which were based on the flotilla’s real life commanders: Lieutenant John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his second-in-command Lieutenant “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne). They are accompanied by their men, the “group of mixed ethnic types.” Together they struggle to accomplish not one, but two objectives. First, they must help defend American fortifications at the Philippines against Japanese attack. Second, they desperately try to prove the worth of the PT boats as a useful weapon to their superiors who remain skeptical about their capabilities. They have a “mascot,” a black cat named “Bad Luck” that they have to shoo off their boats before a mission. While there isn’t a traditional “mail call,” there are several scenes where dying or doomed men give letters to their superiors to send home. Their “weapons?” The PT boats. Their “uniforms?” Those of the US Navy.

But beyond these specifics, Basinger gives a much more sober definition of the combat film genre: “The combat film is about death and destruction, and how we have to fight to avoid it.” Indeed, at the core of They Were Expendable is the desperation felt by the American soldiers who realize that they are fighting a battle they are doomed to lose. The film watches as the PT boat flotilla is gradually annihilated by the Japanese. Friends and comrades are picked off one by one. They are shuffled from one base to another. By the end, the last boat is commandeered to deliver messages for the Army. Brickley and Ryan are stripped of their command and ordered to the states to train sailors. While the last shot displays a promise that “WE WILL RETURN,” it is clear that Brickley and Ryan will not.

While this may seem unusual for a film about American soldiers during World War Two, it is actually characteristic of internal trends within the combat film genre. In addition to defining the genre, Basinger categorizes these trends as well:

“In screening the films released between December 7, 1941, and August 8, 1945, I saw the combat genre emerge. The definition appeared out of the fog of war, as it were. From the development I observed in these films I discerned three divisions:

Introductory Stage: December 7, 1941 - December 31, 1942.
Emergence of the Basic Definition: 1943.
Repeat of the Definition: January 1, 1944 - December 31, 1945.”

The “Introductory Stage” represented a transition period within Hollywood where the film industry struggled to adapt to the nation being at war. The “Emergence of the Basic Definition” focused on military defeats as a mean of patriotic inspiration. Indeed, by 1943 the tide of the war had finally begun to slowly shift in the favor of the Allies after a number of hard-fought victories at battlefields like Stalingrad, Sicily, and Guadalcanal. But America was weary of fighting. Hollywood realized that the best way to keep America going was to galvanize them with tales of bitter defeats like Brickley’s doomed men in They Were Expendable.

They Were Expendable began shooting in February 1945. As such, it was part of the third period of the combat film genre: the “Repeat of the Definition.” If the “Emergence of the Basic Definition” looked towards the past with outrage, this period looked towards the past with sorrow, despair, and even disgust. Basinger explains:

“The films of 1944 tend to repeat this pattern, or to inspire by a sense of we ain’t licked yet. As American forces began winning the war, our films grew even darker. Even when we survive and take our objectives, the overall sense is one of death and sacrifice.”

Therefore, despite its somber content, They Were Expendable is not asymptomatic of its place in Hollywood history, at least in terms of content.

But as previously mentioned, Ford’s film had several idiosyncrasies which in hind-sight separate it from the rest of World War Two combat films. The first was the casting of John Wayne in a lead role where he played a serviceman. Between 1939-1945, John Wayne appeared in thirty films. During this time, he only played as a soldier seven times. Perhaps due to the fact that his studio prevented him from serving, Wayne seemed out of place among all of the authentic veterans on the set of They Were Expendable. Ford, Montgomery, cinematographer Joseph H. August, screenwriter Frank Wead, and second unit director James Havens had all served in the military and had brought that experience to the film.  

But perhaps the most bizarre thing about Wayne being cast as Ryan was that in the end, he didn’t get the girl. He entertains a brief flirtation with one of the Army nurses named Sandy Davyss after he is sent to the hospital with a case of blood poisoning. But as the Japanese get closer and closer, they drift apart and realize that they cannot be together again. This came as a massive blow against the public’s image of John Wayne at the time. By that point, Wayne had already entered America’s imagination as the embodiment of the American fighting man. To see him fail to “get the girl” would have been preposterous for audiences in the 1940s. By casting Wayne, the American Male, in this role, Ford seemed to be making a statement about the indiscriminate nature of war: in actual combat, not even legends are invincible.

But the other major factor that makes They Were Expendable seem out of place with other World War Two combat films was its portrayal of Asian-Americans and civilians. Not once did Ford actually show Japanese soldiers and sailor on-screen. He refused to demonize the Japanese a decision which was shocking for its time. As Anthony Navarro explains that “[Hollywood and the army] wanted to send the message that Japan, and the other Axis powers, were a loathsome group of villains who would wreak havoc upon civilization not stop unless America and the rest of the Allies stopped them.” What’s more, Ford seemed to have went through pains to depict the Asian-American civilians trapped in the middle of the conflict as sympathetic. In one of the film’s most emotional scenes, a Filipina lounge-singer tearfully sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” when it is announced that the United States has entered the war. By masking the Japanese as an autonomous, impersonal force and sympathizing with Asian Americans, Ford makes a much more powerful statement about man’s suffering during war-time than the other combat films of the era. Once more, Basinger succinctly summarizes the film’s distinction: “With its sense of dignity and truth and its rejection of false battle heroics, They Were Expendable is almost an anti-genre film - something it couldn’t be if the genre were not already fixed.

While They Were Expendable may have been a product of its time, it was nonetheless a singular accomplishment in director John Ford’s career. It was a combat film full of action and patriotic vigor that simultaneously condemned the very war it was depicting. It was a film about loss that didn’t demand violent retribution against the enemy. The central characters failed in almost all of their main objectives: they couldn’t stop the approaching Japanese and they couldn’t keep their unit together. Even one of the leads (played by non-veteran John Wayne) didn’t get the girl that he had spent most of the time courting. Truly, They Were Expendable was an oddity: a film that followed and broke the rules at the same time.


  1. Excellent paper, Nate, really special. I particularly liked your assessment of the issue of Wayne not ending up with the girl: "Ford seemed to be making a statement about the indiscriminate nature of war: in actual combat, not even legends are invincible." Sadly true. So what grade did you get on this? Should have been a high one!

    1. I actually don't know. I never got it back. But I got an 'A' in the class!

    2. Nat I am 74 but only in the last 15 years have I wanted to learn about the world wars. I had a couple uncles in 1st and 2nd but my dad and husband .Only served in the reserves in the states. So I love the movie They were Expendable .. I wonder what happened to those who were there and didn't die .Do they have a web or FB page. Do they meet at times. And. How many didn't come back. How many served there and how many died there. Thank for your help. I pray for them all after seeing this movie. I never before paid much art to this part of ww11 funny. I grew up in st louis co missouri. A on a street named Corregidor. When I need to use that address now. The younger ppl. Say what. How do you spell it .And I say .Like ww11. And they answer .What are you talking about .Sad

  2. A well-done article on a beautifully shot and provocatively told story that is not easily forgotten.

  3. One of my favorite John Wayne movies as well as World War II films. Thanks for the review!

  4. Your comments on rarely mentionned movie are welcome. This is a stunning movie, with an essence of stoicism rather than heroism, full of a myriad of "useless" but amazing sequences (waves shot in contre-jour, Wayne lying on the ground, near the end of the movie, with his body convulsing like he was dying etc)

  5. yes....however... the announcement of the attack of Pearl Harbor insinuates a Saturday night party... and there is no mention of this glaring false truth in any of the film reviews... a Sunday morning attack slaps the face of the truth in this film...

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