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They Were Expendable (1945)

by on 2010/11/18

In the gathering of November war titles, it soon became apparent that the vast majority in my collection focused on World War Two.  For some reason, other prominent conflicts like the Vietnam War went underrepresented.  Furthermore, within the WWII videos themselves, a disproportionate number featured Clint Eastwood as an actor or director.  These discoveries were a bit of a surprise.  Why would I gravitate toward that particular war?  And where was John Wayne?  Although he is far and away best known for his western roles, wouldn’t his war efforts come in second place at least?

I did find some eventually, in a John Wayne compilation.  I did a quick check online, and the reviews were most positive for They Were Expendable.  Most laud it as an accurate, well-acted, and well-directed piece (by auteur John Ford no less).  It does right by those who served, no doubt because many of the cast and crew held military ranks.  All of which made my viewing decision straightforward.

So last night I slid in the disc, gave it a go, and took a page and half of notes.  But as the end credits faded, and I penned the last of my impressions, I realized there was little point in my typing them, sorting them, distilling them, expanding them, and revising them.  I already knew exactly what I thought.  I hadn’t enjoyed it much.

To be fair it chronicles an unenjoyable stretch of an unenjoyable era.  Lieutenant John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) is trying to sell the navy on smaller, more agile Patrol Torpedo sea-craft.  No one is interested and, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Brick’s team (including John Wayne as Lieutenant JG “Rusty” Ryan) is left behind on a Philippine island.  Fully three-quarters of the running time passes before Brick and Rusty get a chance to prove their PT boats in combat.

Made before the end of its war, this story leaves room for hope, but the reality is clearly more bleak.  The situation feels as I’ve sometimes heard it described:  long stretches of boredom marked by chaos, panic, or terror.  The experience of the movie, presumably true to reality, reminds me of that artistic question, “Does a work need to bore its audience to convey boredom?”  I’d hope not, but Ford may disagree.

Certainly it has its moments.  It would be difficult to run over two hours and not have something happen, even by accident.  The pyrotechnics in later scenes are amazing.  While spectacular — hopefully not an illusion caused by their much duller context — they also look realistic in a way that modern effects do not, perhaps because they weren’t effects at all.

Yet for every rare impressiveness, there are other things that grate.  Ironically, given the effects, this movie features what may be the least convincing death scene I have ever witnessed outside a comedy.  Other “grace note” moments also ring false, play too cute, or are simply irrelevant:  the repeated cutting in at a dance; the “dishwater soup” sampling; the raisin cupcakes rejoinder; the crotchety old holdout with his rocking chair, shotgun, and moonshine.

Topping them all, however, is John Wayne himself.  He’s rarely successful in playing a role since his own personality trounces that of his character.  Couple that reason with his own military service — or lack thereof — and his speech about being a soldier strikes me as both disingenuous and disrespectful.  It also sounds unlikely given Rusty’s perpetual cynicism.  In fact his character demonstrates a phenomenon I hadn’t thought about before.  Obnoxiousness in a leader may be roguish and compelling, but the same trait in an underling is annoying.

In short, They Were Expendable was no victory for me.  As director John Ford sought hope in despair, I wanted something more from this endeavour.  While I learned a bit, I didn’t enjoy it.  Often described as “elegiac”, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  It squeaks by on education, despite being drier than any documentary I can recall.  Consider mine a qualified recommendation.  It’s more “important” than “entertaining”.  I really want to like it, but I don’t.

* * *

Rated PG

135 minutes

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