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John Ford’s underrated “They Were Expendable” sparkles with new restoration

Updated: Jun 13, 2022


"They Were Expendable" was filmed in the steamy inlets and waterways of South Florida.


Blu-ray full-frame, 1945, unrated

Best extra: Theatrical trailer, by default (it's the only extra)

AFTER PEARL HARBOR, longtime friends John Ford and John Wayne went their separate ways.

Ford joined the Navy and organized the Naval Field Photographic Unit, producing influential documentaries under the command of Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan. But for Wayne, World War II was a crossroads: He was 34 and the father of four. Should he enlist or stay Stateside?

Henry Fonda and Robert Montgomery, both Oscar-nominated actors, were older than Wayne and had kids. They joined the Navy, saw plenty of action and were honored with Bronze Stars. James Stewart, Gene Autry, Clark Gable, William Holden and Tyrone Power also enlisted.

John Wayne plays Lt. "Rusty" Ryan commander of PT Boat 34.

Robert Montgomery plays the convincing squadron leader Lt. John Brickley, is at the helm of PT Boat 41.

Cinematographer Joseph H. August ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), a lieutenant commander, painted stark black and white imagery in a semi-documentary style.

Wayne considered joining Ford's unit, but was bothered by an old college football shoulder injury -- he played tackle for USC in the 1920s – and chronic inner-ear infections.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't want to dismantle Hollywood by forcing men to enlist, so he proclaimed the importance of movies to "inform and entertain" Americans. Gen. Lewis Hershey, director of the U.S. Selective Service, granted deferments to every active actor and filmmaker to keep Hollywood working and moviegoers got a steady stream of flag-waving movies.

With Wayne's classification mostly keeping him out of harm's way, audiences saw him in some of Hollywood's biggest war films: "Flying Tigers" (1942), "The Fighting Seabees" (1944), and "Back to Bataan" (1945). He was also active in the USO, visiting troops in the South Pacific and Australia, usually with a Colt 45 strapped on his hip and drinking homemade "jungle juice" with the guys into the wee hours.

When Capt. Ford returned to Hollywood, he decided to adapt war correspondent William L. White's "They Were Expendable" (1942), a thrilling account based on interviews with four PT boat skippers who were based in the Philippines. It was a labor of love for Ford: the director, most of the production crew and many cast members were Navy men.

Ford, who set up his production in the steamy inlets and waterways South Florida, had the complete cooperation of the Navy, mounting his cameras on the stern and bow of a half dozen PT boats. Cinematographer Joseph H. August ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), a lieutenant commander, painted stark black and white imagery in a semi-documentary style. Filming mostly with a wide-angle lens and deep focus photography, a technique that Orson Welles perfected in "Citizen Kane," he framed the action and horror like someone who witnessed it.

Montgomery, as the convincing squadron leader Lt. John Brickley, is at the helm of PT Boat 41. At his side is Ward Bond, one of Ford's favorite character actors, as "Boats" Mulcahey. For Montgomery, the role was personal and powerful: His last command was a PT boat in the South Pacific. The movie then cuts to Wayne as Lt. "Rusty" Ryan. He's on PT Boat 34 but would rather be stationed on a destroyer, especially after the admiral says, "Those boats of yours maneuver beautifully. But in wartime, I'm afraid I prefer something more substantial."

At first relegated to message duty, Brickley's squadron is called into action to pick off a Japanese cruiser with 8-inch guns and to provide an escape route for the admiral and general. With his khaki uniform and corncob pipe, the general couldn't be based on anyone but MacArthur.

Donna Reed ("It's a Wonderful Life") plays the stern and likable Lt. Sandy Davyss, an Army nurse who develops a brief romance with Ryan before the war sends them off on different paths.

Hats off to the Warner Bros. preservation team for keeping this underrated film intact. It hadn't been touched since being released on DVD in the late 1990s. The original camera negative had to be the source -- the sharpness is impeccable and the gray scale is perfectly balanced with deep black levels in the shadows and controlled highlights. I didn't spot a single imperfection.

By the time "They Were Expendable" opened in late 1945, the guns had gone silent. But the forward that Gen. Douglas MacArthur wrote for the film resonated:

"A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won … I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way."

― Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer



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