Most war films are, ultimately, about winning. In 1945, however, as World War II was ending, John Ford made probably the finest U.S. war picture, about one of America’s greatest defeats—-in the Philippines—-the title of which alone is devastating in its implications: THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (available on DVD). Ford, who had entered the Navy in 1941, at age 47, was closely involved in numerous missions and operations all through the War, serving with the O.S.S. (forerunner of the C.I.A.) and making several war documentaries, including this country’s first one, The Battle of Midway (1942), which mostly he himself shot hand-held and during which he was wounded. It received the Oscar as Best Documentary, as did another that Ford supervised, December 7th (1943). Although he rarely spoke of his war experiences, records recently have come to light that he also was there on D-Day, and shot some of the most significant color footage in various campaigns. Certainly his intimate involvement with all aspects of that terrible conflict is apparent in his sensitively unadorned, elegiac handling of They Were Expendable. “What was in my mind,” Ford told me once, “was doing it exactly as it had happened.”
The picture-—excellently adapted, from the William L. White non-fiction account, by Ford’s Navy pal, Frank “Spig” Wead (about whom the director would make the underrated 1957 biographical film, The Wings of Eagles)—-focuses on the use of PT-Boats in the Philippines, specifically through the deeds of its central pioneer John D. Bulkeley, also a good friend of Ford’s and one of the most decorated men of the war: he is played with simple dignity by Robert Montgomery, also a Naval veteran.
His fictional cohort—-who gets the brief but memorable love interest with a Navy nurse perfectly incarnated by Donna Reed—-is done in a most effectively understated performance by John Wayne. The few scenes involving the nurse, in fact, give a remarkably resonant sense of the preciousness of females in these essentially male occupations; there’s unaffected chivalry displayed and tremulous warmth without really sexual overtones. When Wayne and Reed dance silently together, lit with evocative chiaroscuro, the emotional intensity is almost palpable. When she’s the male officers’ dinner guest, and enlisted men serenade her from outside, it is unaffectedly poignant with unspoken suggestions of family, peace and the hearth fire. The last time the two speak over a long-distance phone line and their connection is prematurely severed, the break is wrenching, and there is no further resolution.
Essentially, like a good many of Ford’s pictures, They Were Expendable deals with the peculiar glory in defeat. When I pointed this out to him, Ford said it wasn’t something he had “done consciously,” though he allowed, “it may have been subconscious… Of course, they were glorious in defeat in the Philippines—-they kept on fighting.” Typically Fordian is the way he visually sums this up in the movie, as the old-timer played by Russell Simpson (a Ford regular—-Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath)—- seats himself on the front steps of his house, rifle in hand, moonshine-bottle next to him, awaiting the inevitable Japanese onslaught as a distant accordion plays “Red River Valley.”
There are numerous such illuminating and personal Ford touches throughout: After showing the destruction and casualties from one of the encounters, Ford cuts to a large close-up of an anxiously grieving Filipino mother—-her men also were expendable. Or, at a burial, the artless simplicity of Wayne’s reading, “Home is the sailor/ Home from the sea/ And the soldier/ Home from the hill.” Or, in a bar when all the doomed men raise a grave yet hopeful toast as the battle is to intensify, Ford cuts around to various groupings, but ends the sequence with a young sailor, not yet old enough for alcohol, who drinks his toast with a glass of milk. This is the kind of picture making we simply do not get anymore, reminding us why, when questioned who his favorite directors were, the very modern Orson Welles replied that he preferred “the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”