|They Were Expendable|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 18 May 1999|
They really don’t make war movies like this any more. In the first place, there’s been nobody quite like director John Ford since the one and only, and in the second place, it’s just about impossible for a filmmaker at the end of the 1990s to replicate with a straight face the soaring U.S. patriotism of the mid-1940s, which here goes as far as listing the actual military ranks of all those involved in the production. (Director Ford is listed as Captain USNR.)
According to the booklet that accompanies the DVD, ‘They Were Expendable’ is loosely based on William L. White’s nonfiction book about the wartime experiences of Commander John D. Bulkeley, who served in the Pacific during WWII. Bulkeley’s fictional alter-ego in ‘Expendable,’ Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), is having trouble getting his superior officers to see the military value of his new PT craft. Even his pal Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) is desperate to transfer to a more exciting unit -- until the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, the Navy needs to send its men to the Philippines. Brickley, Ryan and their little PT fleet are headed for Bataan, right in harm’s way with virtually no back-up.
It’s helpful to remember that ‘They Were Expendable’ was made while WWII was still being waged. Despite the horrors now associated with Bataan, the film does not depict the p.o.w. experience (the fate of troops left behind is described in a radio broadcast), concentrating instead on air/sea battles and the heroism of Brickley and his men. Indeed, by the end, ‘They Were Expendable’ is in some sense a movie about survivor guilt; the characters are more comfortable facing their own deaths than heading home, as comrades will surely die in their places. Although war and its effects are depicted much more cleanly here than they are these days -- we see virtually no blood or maiming, we hear no screams of agony -- the filmmakers credibly capture the attitudes of men trying to conceal their emotions as they go ever deeper into a terrifying situation.
Director Ford and screenwriter Frank Wead (Comdr. USN, ret.) provide a lot of good details, like the sad, frightened reaction of a Japanese diva who is in the middle of serenading the Navy men with "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" when the outbreak of war is announced. They are thereafter diligent in providing action in steady doses. There is a pretty nifty air/sea battle in Chapter 8, with crisply distinct engine roars and percussive machine gun fire, capped by explosions, with some impressive columns of water at points of impact. Chapter 21 has even richer combat sounds, though Chapter 36 has what seems to be a brief audio near-dropout during a quiet beach landing.
The black-and-white photography is handsome and sharp throughout -- what looks momentarily like a vertical emulsion scratch in Chapter 14 turns out to be a meticulously-shot jeep antenna. The black-and-white contrasts also help smooth out some rear-projection shots, making the typical special effects of the era blend in much less noticeably.
‘They Were Expendable’ by today’s standards is more than a little idealistic and idealized. On its own terms, however, it not only is a telling barometer of the prevailing sentiments of its day, it’s a commendably engaging war drama.