In the Philippines the attack on Pearl Harbor is announced. Based on John Bulkeley, Naval Lieutenant John Brickley has been promoting the war-readiness of motor torpedo (“PT”) boats, which the U.S. Navy regards as too flimsy for anything other than message delivery. Once the boats start proving themselves, however, their crews are consigned to a no-man’s-land of official concern. These sailors are “expendable.” Sacrifice is war duty’s calling, and the only realistic orientation for sailors and other soldiers is the presumption that they will be killed.
Based on William L. White’s book, Frank Wead’s script is brilliant; but John Ford’s filmmaking raises the result to an even higher level. Dramatizing elements of the fall of the Philippines while the Second World War was yet in progress, Ford’s They Were Expendable has its rousing, patriotic moments and its poetic, elegiac ones; it is a film of hope and of solemn tribute to lost warriors and those who will be lost. Flanked by The Long Voyage Home (1940) and Mister Roberts (1955), it occupies the middle position in Ford’s seafaring war trilogy. It’s an American masterpiece.
Hauntingly, Ford and his black-and-white cinematographer, Joseph H. August, create scenes where characters appear as shadows. The lighting achieves a suggestion of humanity drifting into mystery, myth. The scenes of military engagement, despite a necessary reliance on studio back projection interwoven with outdoor shooting, electrify and terrify; they impress upon the viewer the reality of war to a greater degree than any other U.S. nondocumentary does.
The acting is excellent—with one exception. As Brickley, Robert Montgomery is laconic, compassionate without being sentimental, sly, funny, worn and weary, resolute. In his greatest role he gives the performance of a lifetime.
To this tremendously moving film “We shall return.”
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