They Were Expendable (1945)

I read that John Ford’s They Were Expendable was liked by the critics but not by the public when it was released. The public thought it was too patriotic and since people were tired of the war, they didn’t care for the movie all that much.

While I often share the critics’ view, I must say, not in this case. It isn’t a bad movie, it has quite a few scenes that are good but it didn’t work for me as a whole.

At the center of the story are Commander Lt Brickley (Robert Motgomery) and his friend and second in command Lt Ryan Rusty (John Wayne). Brickley is the squadron leader of a crew of PT Boats who are to defend the Philippines just after the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.

Although Brickley is the commanding officer, Rusty is still the main character, he is also the one with a love interest (Donna Reed). For once I didn’t mind John Wayne, I would even say this is one of his better movies. Maybe because he isn’t the commanding officer.

There is a lot of emphasis on duty and honor and “getting the job done” no matter whether you will come back or not. All that is rather on the annoying side of things but what I truly liked is the battle with the speed boats. These are such neat little boats. Although it is said by an Admiral at the beginning of the movie that these boats were not likely to achieve much, their speed and agility makes them a dangerous opponent for the Japanese fleet and they manage to sink a few very big boats.  Their losses are high anyway as they are not only attacked by the Japanese boats but by their planes as well.

They Were Expendable was very important for John Ford who was one of those directors (like Capra, Huston and Wyler) who had served during WWII where he also filmed the documentary on the Battle of Midway (1942). He was chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the US Navy and also present during the Normandy invasion in 44 where he met the man who served as model for Lt. Brickley.

Funny enough what works best in this movie, apart from the speed boats, is the love story as it underlines how much the people fighting in the Pacific are in danger. The scenes with Donna Reed are quite languorous, I particularly liked the many shots with light falling through blinds. That always creates a nice atmosphere.

Something else that I appreciated is the fact that the Japanese are not demonized. They are only present through their planes and boats, we don’t see them.

While this is certainly not one of my favourites, I think it is worth watching for those who are interested in the development of the war movie genre. Despite its flaws, John Ford manages to tell the story in a very unique way with a lot of emphasis on all the individual people involved. Last but not least, I think it is a must-see for John Wayne fans as he is more interesting when he gets to play second in command.

Movies on Pearl Harbor: Pearl Harbor, Tora!Tora!Tora!, In Harm´s Way, From Here to Eternity

Any nation´s traumatic experiences have led to numerous attempts to capture the event in a movie. Pearl Harbor is no exception. There are a great many Pearl Harbor movies. Some are very well-known, others hardly at all. Some are very good, others rather not.

I would like to present four of those I have seen. Three of them are also romances, one is a pure war movie. Each and every one of them might very well get an extensive review in the future, but here, as teasers, four short glimpses at four special movies.

The one that generally everybody will immediately think of is the Jerry Bruckheimer production Pearl Harbor (2001) . The main theme is the love story of two men (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) with the same woman (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse. They are both fighter pilots and at the time when Pearl Harbor is attacked, they are stationed there. The movie starts slightly before the attack and ends shortly afterwards. It doesn’t try to show the other side. The Japanese are just plain bad. Period. As corny as this movie may be (although I think it works as a romance), it still shows an impressive re-enactment of the attack. For that and for a few exciting aviation scenes it is worth watching.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) is really different. This US/Japanese co production is an incredible attempt at showing both sides. And it does manage to do so. The Japanese are shown in all their tragic complexity and their fear, as Admiral Yamamoto states, that all they have done is to “awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”,  is quite moving. This is the best movie if you really want to get a feel for what was happening and why the involved parties acted and reacted like they did. It is filmed as well in  English as in Japanese which heightens the authenticity. A must-see. An eye-opener. A truly good movie.

Of course there had to be a Pearl Harbor movie with John Wayne in it. Otto Preminger´s In Harm´s Way (1963) starts just shortly before the attack, shows it from the perspective of a naval ship and later follows the main characters into battle in the Pacific. It is one of those black and white all-star casts that really works (Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Dana Andrews). The acting is superb. Pictures are nice, the background story, also a love story, is convincing, and the score is very good. An enjoyable watch. Not very heavy on history but still a good movie and a fine example of a film dedicated to this disastrous event.

Don´t we all know this picture? It is one of the most famous movie stills ever. From Here to Eternity (1953) is a movie I totally love. It is my favourite of the four, even though I must admit Tora! Tora! Tora! is way more informative. The story that is based on the novel of James Jones is  intense and dramatic.  The acting is fabulous. Go and try to find this nowadays.  From Here to Eternity is also an all-star cast, with Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed. This movie is one of the very great classics, right up there with Casablanca. Yes, that’s what I think. A movie to watch and re-watch. It has won multiple Oscars. You can see Monty in one of his best roles ever. Pearl Harbor is not the movie´s main theme but it does end with the attack on Pearl Harbor. It tells the stories and love stories  of different army soldiers on the eve of the attack  and somehow seems to juxtapose the tales of the people, their sorrows and woes with this national catastrophe.

One thing is for sure, pick any of them and you will not regret it. Even Pearl Harbor is at least good  old escapist entertainment.