‘They Were Expendable’ – defending the Pacific in World War II on Max

John Ford was called back from service in World War II (where he was making documentaries for the armed services) to direct They Were Expendable (1945), a somber classic about the devastating early Pacific campaign after the declaration of war in 1941.

John Wayne, a popular actor but not yet the superstar of American cinema, plays Rusty Ryan, second-in-command to the tough Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery), an aloof, no-nonsense commander of a PT boat squadron stationed in the peacetime Pacific when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Rusty is hot-headed and emotional where Brick is calm and clear-thinking, and he is constantly reminded that his duty is to the unit, not his own frustrated sense of helplessness in the face of repeated defeats. It also had the authenticity of experience: actor Montgomery had served as a Naval officer in the Pacific and screenwriter Frank Wead was a retired Naval Commander.

Ford’s reverence for the military its traditions comes through every frame. While it can veer into sentimentality, it is heartfelt and poignant, from the rousing display of patriotism upon hearing the news of the Pearl Harbor bombing to the military manners when Rusty brings his girl (Donna Reed as a determined nurse) to the officer’s hut for dinner to the mythic treatment of General Douglas MacArthur. His name is spoken in hushed tones by the worshipping enlisted men. Ford too had his heroes.

It’s also one of Ford’s most beautiful films, directed with a rich mix of documentary realism, bold expressionism, and the poetic delicacy of The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. It all adds to the poignancy and power of a film which ends not on victory but defeat.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s reminder to the American public that victory in the Pacific was reached at a tremendous cost in human life. It remains one of the most powerful war dramas ever made.

Ward Bond, a Ford favorite and a part of his stock company, costars with Jack Holt, Leon Ames, Cameron Mitchell, and Ford regulars Jack Pennick and Russell Simpson.

It was nominated for Oscars for sound and visual effects

In black and white

Streams for a limited time on Max

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
They Were Expendable [Blu-ray]
They Were Expendable [DVD]

Don’t miss a single recommendation. Subscribe to the Stream On Demand weekly newsletter (your E-mail address will not be shared) and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

Related posts