There’s nothing very intriguing about a film entitled They Were Expendable. In essence, we already know what the conclusion of the film is, however it is important to understand the context of when this John Ford World War II docudrama was coming out. In 1945 the Nazis and Japanese had finally been quelled, and the Allies could look back at the sacrifices that had been made.
One such example was in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor. Despite being undermanned and without much support, the brave men in the navy wreaked havoc against the enemy trying to hold onto their strongholds as long as possible before being forced to evacuate. It is far from a glamorous moment in the war, because the war seemed to favor Japan and our forces were made to flee. However, in those moments of distress and tragedy, bravery seemed to flourish and our resolve only greatened. General Douglas MacArthur summed up the sentiments of every man when he promised, “I shall return.”
That being said, John Ford’s They Were Expendable is not always easy to follow; it can feel slow and deliberate, however it exudes a gritty realism that is hard not to appreciate. It certainly is patriotic, but it does not often over sentimentalize war with high drama. We see it for what it often is. It means smoke, explosions, ship wrecks, death. It means breaking apart friends, crews, and men and women who care about each other.
Part of that realism is probably helped by Ford’s work filming a documentary of the Battle of Midway and lead Robert Montgomery (who plays Lt. Brickley) also fought on a P.T. boat during the war. Although he was not ever in the military, John Wayne always has a knack for reflecting American ideals of grit and determination. That’s why he was made for westerns as well as war films. This time around playing the fiery but loyal Lt. Rusty Ryan. Donna Reed on her part, has a rather small role, and yet it is an integral part, because she represents the brave nurses who support the military. She is the lifter of morale, the girl next door, all these ideals that fit this pretty young lady from Iowa. It’s hard to know if she’s just playing herself or not.
At times it’s a hard film to follow, because it often seems to jump or skip events. Maybe it happens in an attempt to cover more story or maybe Ford did not want to hold his viewer’s hand, I’m not sure. I do know that I am far less of an informed viewer about this time period or this moment in World War II history. It often seems like most of the limelight is given to mainland Europe and not the Pacific.
As much as I was drawing connections and finding similarities, this film is far from McHale’s Navy. The story is far more somber, more realistic, and at times depressing to watch. It’s the kind of film that could only be made after we had won. It affirms our American resolve and honors those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. That and the film’s beautiful low lit images make it worth watching. The cinematography makes numerous scenes far more interesting by layering characters in darkness and accentuating the shadows in a hospital corridor for instance. Rather than making everything feel stylized, it only helps to augment the realism that makes They Were Expendable a worthy testament of WWII.