This be the verse you ‘grave for me: / Here he lies where he long’d to be; / Home is the sailor, home from the sea, / And the hunter home from the hill.
— “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson, recited by John Wayne in the film
Well, this went immediately onto my nonexistent lists of Top 5 John Ford Films and Top 5 Combat Films.
This is the story of a Navy squadron of PT (patrol torpedo) boats left to fight and survive in the Philippines after the Japanese invasion. As the film begins, sailors at Subic Bay are celebrating the retirement of a 30-year colleague. Lt. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) feels like he has taken himself out of the running for advancement by sticking with buddy Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his faith in the PT boat for combat. Rusty is busy filling out the papers for transfer to a destroyer when the announcement of Pearl Harbor is made. He unhesitatingly reports for duty with his friend.
Trouble is no one in the Navy has any respect for the PT boats either. When things get a bit more organized they are singled out for delivering messages. Then the dire situation in the Philippines presses every available asset into combat. The maneuverable PT boats prove themselves effective in sinking much larger vessels. Unfortunately, outnumbered and ill-supplied, they usually come back to port at least one boat short.
Eventually the squadron is evacuated to Bataan and Rusty is sent to Corregidor for treatment for blood poisoning. In the hospital, he meets and falls in love with nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). She volunteers for transfer to Bataan to be near him. But Rusty, Brickley, and the crew of one boat are soon off to ferry honchos to Mindanao, leaving most of their comrades and Sandy behind on Bataan. As the situation deteriorates more painful goodbyes follow.
This film is exquisitely composed and shot. As usual, Ford does best with the wordless moments: the Filipina singing “My Country Tis of Thee” to the emptying bar after the attack on Pearl Harbor; Donna Reed’s brave face as she assists at an operation by flashlight; Wayne putting his arm around Montgomery at the end. There is some corn and propaganda, but large swathes of this are almost unbearably poignant. The themes of the film are duty; honor; stoicism; and sacrifice. Particularly sacrifice. We can only imagine the fates that awaited those that were left behind as our heroes moved on to greater glory. Ford does not enlighten us. This is a fairly bleak effort probably made bearable only because it was made after victory in the Pacific was assured.
John Wayne and Donna Reed may never have been better. I really should watch this again sometime soon and see if my first impression holds up. Highly recommended.
They Were Expendable was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound, Recording and Best Effects, Special Effects.