Entire family: No
1945, 135 min., Black-and-white
Warner Archive Collection
Not rated (would be PG for war action and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
War movies probably have more permutations than any other genre, but the most fascinating and family-friendly ones are probably those that were made during WWII when the Office of War Information had to approve content. Most of them were patriotic films aimed at boosting recruitment or morale back home, and as a result probably fewer than a dozen are good enough to entertain today. Some of the best? Wake Island (1942), Action in the North Atlantic, Bataan, Destination Tokyo, Guadalcanal Diary, and So Proudly We Hail! (1943), as well as Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), Objective, Burma!, Pride of the Marines, and They Were Expendable (1945).
The latter—a black-and-white John Ford tribute to the men who served on America’s flimsy plywood PT-Boats in the Pacific—stars Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed in a film that tries to capture not just the heroism of the men who fight, but also the boredom and frustration. What makes They Were Expendable doubly interesting is that it details the mostly true story of two officers who were trying to prove the worth of these Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons, as they were initially called, when they were still an experimental dream like the 1807 steamboat people called “Fulton’s Folly.”
There are battles in these wartime films, but the violence is dimmed while the spotlight is on service and the day-to-day life of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses. People back home knew their loved ones were at war and that they probably saw action. Did they want to see graphic killing? No, but they did want to get some sense of what life in the military was like and what their loved ones were going through so far from homes, families, and sweethearts. And Ford’s tribute is one of the most authentic from the era.
The stars are fine in their roles, but really it’s the story that holds our attention—though it’s a long one (135 min.). The action picks up in the Philippines, where the military learns that Pearl Harbor has just been attacked. Everyone is given orders to do their part to stop the advance of the Japanese fleet, except for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, which is given the token assignment of messenger and transport duty. The Navy brass can’t see value in the boats, though that doesn’t stop Lt. John Brickley (Montgomery) and Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) from pushing. But even as the Japanese keep taking over more territory, it’s a fight for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons just to get into the fight.
PT-Boats became famous because of former Pres. John F. Kennedy, whose story is told in the movie PT-109 starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Culp. Watch this black-and-white movie first and then the color 1963 film for a decent double feature. In They Were Expendable Ford is careful to add plenty of detail about life on the small, fast plywood boats that were equipped with machine guns to battle aircraft and torpedoes to launch from the deck at heavier ships. We see the crew patching it up, dealing with boring assignments, and yes, mixing it up with the enemy. Eventually the boats’ value was proven: their small size made them a small target, and their speed and maneuverability enabled them to get in close enough to launch torpedoes and then get to safety.
War or not, the core story is one that everyone—even children—can identify with. Children’s books are full of characters who are disregarded because they’re too small, too insignificant, or too something to succeed. In the nautical vein, there’s Tuffy the Tugboat, the children’s book hero who is scoffed at by the boats who have bigger and more important jobs to do, until one day Tuffy is the only one with the skill set to save the day. That archetype is at work here too, while Reed provides a romantic interest that’s wholesome as can be and secondary to her own heroics as a nurse stationed at Manila and Bataan hospitals. The weepy-eyed sentimentality that creeps into Ford films is here too, but thankfully it’s limited. Still, young viewers not familiar with history might raise their eyebrows when “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung while we glimpse an actor meant to be Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And if they don’t know about his famous “I shall return” promise made to the people of the Philippines as he himself fled to safety, that’s the period of history encompassed by Ford’s mostly fascinating and sometimes stirring film.
Language: Mild swearwords occasionally used
Sex: Nothing at all, wholesome as can be
Violence: No blood or gore or glorifying violence, but boats are blown up and battles are waged
Adult situations: Some drinking and smoking
Takeaway: War movies like Inglorious Basterds and Fury try to be edgy and shocking and rattle viewers out of their complacency; war movies like They Were Expendable look to tell a story that will enlighten and inspire as much as the biopics that came out of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and They Were Expendable is among the best of that type