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They Were Expendable
Slowly but surely I find myself winding my way through the work of director John Ford and his frequent star player John Wayne. The two started working together in 1939's Stagecoach and worked together until 1963's Donovan's Reef, with some memorable films in between. 1945's They Were Expendable found itself at a somewhat unique point in both men's careers..
The film was the last of Ford's wartime period, when he was making movies while serving in the US Naval Reserve. It tells the story of Lieutenant John Brickley (Robert Montgomery, Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and Lieutenant Rusty Ryan (Wayne), who are part of a leadership team of a PT Boat Squadron. Rusty finds himself frustrated that his role in the service is patronized, but soon he finds his squadron in a position of trying to defend the Philippines from a Japanese invasion after the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. The squadron tries to hold the Japanese off but the overrun is inevitable.
Admittedly not having a familiarity with Ford (and Wayne) films other than what I've seen thus far, what's first surprising about the film is that it doesn't appear to fit the mold of other films of the era that showed an uplifting ending. What it did show was the effort in the service that was hard to ignore, and it was additionally illustrated by numerous playing of "Anchors Aweigh" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic, among other songs of the era. It also helped show to a perhaps unknowing public that most everyone in the service had some sort of role and that perceptions of that role could change. The film found the squadron mocked but, at one point, they had a high-profile assignment that they carried out as flawlessly as they could.
Wayne and Montgomery individually and together put in very good performances. For me, the film is reminiscent of From Here to Eternity in a sense; both films had a co-star who was a little cynical about his place in the military, and yet puts this aside to serve his country as best he can. The latter film having a little more cynicism (and striking a more personal note as a Schofield Barracks alum) and awareness of the area being a little better in this regard. Both films also have Donna Reed (she plays a nurse who tends to an injury Rusty suffers and the two eventually develop a relationship), so goodness knows that helps.
While watching They Were Expendable, what stood out for me was that the film was of two minds to some degree; on the one hand, the chance to dive into a huge effort that ultimately was unsuccessful for the PT boat squadron could have made for very intriguing viewing. The other hand was because of the Navy's ample cooperation for the film, perhaps Ford, Wayne and co-writer Frank Wead weren't able to get as dark as they wanted to, for fear of losing this cooperation. Don't get me wrong, Ford shows the duty and celebrates those who lost their lives during the defense, but it feels slightly sanitized, and there would seem to be reasons for it.
Seeing this different facet of the John Ford-John Wayne collaboration continues to be interesting for me, and it's enough for me to see how the other films of the era to gain a better understanding of that time for the director. And They Were Expendable is a good film to see this somewhat unheralded part of the war see some attention paid upon it.The Blu-ray:
The AVC encode which graces this Warner Archive release of They Were Expendable is presented in 1.37:1 and looks excellent. The image clarity in scenes between Wayne and Montgomery is surprisingly clear, and in the third act battle sequences, expositions of artillery have an ink-like tone of black to them as the boats pierce through them, and the image remains sharp through the viewing. It's a pleasant surprise, considering the age of the material.The Sound:
The film gets a two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track and is not too bad. The explosions sound robust in the front of the theater, the din of the boats in the water make it sound as if there is some low-end fidelity in some moments of surprising dynamic range for the soundtrack. Dialogue sounds clear and consistent and all in all was a better than expected sonic experience.Extras:
The trailer is the only thing to speak of.Final Thoughts:
They Were Expendable gives you John Wayne, John Ford in a World War II movie, so in and of itself it should be something on your watch list. But it goes a little deeper and a little more nuanced in the component of the war that they tell the story about and it becomes a fascinating if incomplete production. Technically, the disc looks and sounds gorgeous, and it should be seen by movie aficionados.
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