The story goes that after John Ford saw Howard Hawks‘ Red River, he said of John Wayne, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.” I have a hard time swallowing that and I’m sure you will after seeing They Were Expendable. Released three years before Red River, the film marked Ford and Wayne’s first collaboration since Stagecoach (1939) and showed that Wayne could act under Ford’s direction. The film is one of the best World War II movies and it doesn’t even show Americans succeeding.
They Were Expendable is about Lt. John Brickley (Robert Mongtomery), Lt. ‘Rusty’ Ryan (Wayne) and the rest of their PT Boats crew as they try to prove their usefulness in defense of the Philippines in the days after Pearl Harbor. It’s based on the book by William L. White and the script was written by Frank ‘Spig’ Wead (whose own life would be the subject of Ford’s The Wings of Eagles ).
Initially, the team is disappointed to be assigned to messenger duty, but they are eventually assigned to help destroy a Japanese cruiser. Later, they are ordered to help evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family from the Philippines. The Japanese occupied the Philippines from May 1942 until July 5, 1945, so They Were Expendable has an open ending. In fact, the title card at the end promises the return of the U.S. military to liberate the Philippines.
This is a fascinating film, in that it it’s very similar to She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and other Ford movies where the filmmaker is more interested in the characters than the plot. It’s not really necessary for Ford to put so much focus on supporting characters, like Ward Bond’s “Boats” Mulcahey or Marshall Thompson’s “Snake” Gardner. Rusty’s relationship with Sandy Dayvss (Donna Reed) isn’t even important to the main plot. But these are characters that only Ford would devote time to.
By the end of the 135-minute film, we feel like we’re a part of the team. We want to be Rusty and jump out of that plane to go right back to fighting. Sure, other war movies put audiences right at the soldiers’ shoulders, but Ford also let us into the camaraderie and friendship felt between soldiers off the battlefield. Ford is the only person who’d rather have an audience watch soldiers dance than soldiers fight because he knew we’d learn more about the characters that way.
For some unknown reason, They Were Expendable has never been treated properly on home video. The DVD didn’t include anything beyond a trailer and the Blu-ray is the same. I’ve always felt like this would be the perfect film to include some of Ford’s World War II documentaries as bonus features with. (The Battle of Midway is even mentioned on the back of the package!) Alas, nothing extra is included.
That said, the Blu-ray looks fantastic and a significant upgrade over the poor DVD presentation. The DVD was so old that the film started up the moment you put it in the player.
Honestly though, I don’t think that the lack of bonus features should stop you from buying this release. It’s an essential World War II film because it shows that Hollywood was not shy about examining some of America’s failures during the war to paint a better picture of just how tested these brave men were in the early days.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this Blu-ray to review.