They Were Expendable (1945)

Genres - War  |   Sub-Genres - War Drama, Combat Films  |   Run Time - 135 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nick Sambides, Jr.

A major work in the career of John Ford, They Were Expendable reflects the great director's love of the U.S. Navy and admiration of the men and women who fought the Second World War. It's a product of wartime, meant to be stirringly patriotic and occasionally saccharine. It almost qualifies as a U.S. Navy product: Star Robert Montgomery was a PT boat captain and Ford and screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead were high-ranking Navy men. Yet They Were Expendable is nevertheless an admirably restrained and somber work, especially compared to other jingoistic films of the period. As befits its subject, the Navy's post-Pearl Harbor losses, Ford's deep-focus camerawork is an often gorgeous collection of grays and blacks. Ford had just finished an Oscar-winning documentary, Battle of Midway, when he started this movie, and it shows. Wead's script is an appealingly nuts-and-bolts look at Navy men that mostly avoids obligatory flag-waving; even the subplot romance between John Wayne's Lt. "Rusty" Ryan and Donna Reed's Lt. Sandy Davyss is un-melodramatic. Ford uses realistic Florida locations and sprinkles documentary-like close-ups throughout the film. The close-ups get somewhat precious by film's end, but they're effective. Ford blessedly leaves out his banana-peel humor, and in Montgomery has an actor who centers the movie with an interestingly lean and modulated performance despite having no backstory and almost no emotional outpourings -- he scarcely raises his voice. They Were Expendable offers glimmers of the psychological complexity that marks later Ford films like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's a classic that hasn't received its proper recognition.