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They Were Expendable
MGM Home Entertainment
1945 / B&W / 1.37 flat full frame / min. / Street Date May 13, 2000 / 19.95
Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond, Marshall Thompson, Cameron Mitchell
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Production Designer
Film Editor Douglass Biggs, Frank E. Hull
Original Music Earl K. Brent, Herbert Stothart, Eric Zeisl
Writing credits Frank Wead, Comdr. U.S.N. (Ret.),
Based on the book by
William L. White
Produced and Directed by John Ford, Captain U.S.N.R.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

By 1945 Hollywood was already rushing its last 'We're at War!' movies out the gate and gearing up for production in a post-war world. Practically a pet project of legendary director John Ford, They Were Expendable is his personal tribute to the Navy. Typical for Ford, he chose for his subject not some glorious victory or idealized combat, but instead, a thankless and losing struggle against an invader whose strength seemed at the time to be almost un-opposable.

They Were Expendable starts at Pearl Harbor and traces the true story of an experimental Torpedo Boat unit run by Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), his ambitious second in command Lt. Ryan (John Wayne) and their five boat crews. The ambience is pure Ford family casting: the everpresent Ward Bond and Jack Pennick are there, along with youthful MGM newcomers Marshall Thompson (Daktari; It! The Terror from Beyond Space) and Cameron Mitchell (Garden of Evil; Blood and Black Lace) being treated as new members of the Ford acting family. Along the way Ryan meets nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). Despite their battle successes, the PT Boat unit suffers casualties and loses boats as the Philippine campaign slowly collapses around them. Indicative of the unusual level of realism is the Wayne/Reed romance, which falls victim to the events in a very un-glamorous way.

There's nothing second-rate about this Ford picture. It is by far his best war film and is as deeply felt as his strongest Westerns. His emotional attachment to American History here seems even more immediate with the events portrayed being only a few years past. The pace is fast but Expendable takes its time to lingeron telling character details. A Japanese entertainer responds to the war announcement by singing 'My Country 'tis of Thee'; she's given an unusually sensitive closeup at a time when all Hollywood references to the Japanese were negative, or worse. The image of civilian boat builder Russell Simpson awaiting invasion alone with only a rifle and a jug of moonshine, is an example of the richness of Ford's films when taken as an interconnected body of work. Simpson played an Oakie in Ford's earlier The Grapes of Wrath; Ford invokes the association when 'Red River Valley' is heard on the soundtrack. Simpson's suicidal refusal to be put off his property by the Japanese invaders is equated with the Oakies' stubborn, primal resistance to Wrath's bank bulldozers. Ford effortlessly lends a salt-of-the-earth nobility to America's losing battle in the Philippines.

Equally moving is the face of Jack Holt's jut-jawed Army officer. He'd been doing basically the same role for twenty years; because audiences had never seen him in a 'losing' role the actor makes the defeat seem all the more serious. The irony of this is that in real life, immediately after Pearl Harbor, Holt was so panicked by invasion fears that he sold his Malibu beach home at a fraction of its value. Who bought it? According to Joel Siegel in his book The Reality of Terror, it was RKO producer Val Lewton.

John Wayne is particularly good in this film by virtue of not being its star. His character turn as an impatient but tough Lieutenant stuck in a career dead-end is one of his best. The real star of the film is Robert Montgomery, known mostly for light comedies like the delightful Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Montgomery's Brickley is a man of dignity and sincere dedication trying to do a decent job no matter how hopeless or frustrating his situation gets. Unlike so many Hollywood films made about soldiers, Montgomery looks like the genuine article: The scene where he is told his unit will be the one to lay down the sacrifice is a quiet study of honorable men at war, doing their best in the face of disaster.

MGM's DVD will be one of the last Turner-originated MGM titles to go through MGM Home Entertainment and bears a Warner's logo instead of the MGM DVD logo before the feature. Technically, the presentation is splendid. The mono sound is clear and the picture sharp and clean. At the beginning there is a little instability for a minute or two (film shrinkage?) but this passes quickly. The B&W cinematography has some of the most stylized visuals in a war film. Emphasizing gloom and expressing the lack of security, many scenes are played in silhouette or with very low-keyed illumination. Donna Reed appears to wear almost no makeup but only seems more naturally beautiful in the un-glamorous but ennobling lighting schemes. These the DVD captures perfectly.

The trailer is the only extra. Subtitles appear in English and French. The disc is closed-captioned. The foldout booklet has the usual quota of trivia bits culled from publicity documents. Unlike the animated menu pages of the UA titles in this batch of MGM war movies, the menus here are strictly plain-wrap functional. As Warner's will presumably be distributing this title from now on, future releases will probably substitute a snapper case, and dispense with the foldout booklet.

Perhaps the Warners-MGM library confusion is responsible for a rather glaring error in both the booklet and the menu graphics, which feature a still from the wrong movie showing actor Dan Dailey, who is not in Expendable. Every John Wayne fan will recognize the still as being from the 1957 John Ford film The Wings of Eagles. There Wayne portrays Frank 'Spig' Wead, a Navy veteran-turned screenwriter who happened to have been the writer of They Were Expendable. Confused?

One of the finest WWII films ever made, They Were Expendable is a quality DVD and a solid introduction to classic John Ford movies.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, They Were Expendable rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: fair
Packaging: Keep Case
Reviewed: June 26, 1999

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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