Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond, Marshall Thompson, Paul Langton, Leon Ames, Arthur Walsh, Donald Curtis, Cameron Mitchell, Jeff York, Murray Alper, Harry Tenbrook, Jack Pennick, Alex Havier, Charles Trowbridge, Robert Barrat, Bruce Kellogg, Tim Murdock, Louis Jean Heydt, Russell Simpson, Vernon Steele
Written by: Frank Wead, based on a book by William L. White
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 135
Date: 12/19/1945
IMDB

They Were Expendable (1945)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Get Out the Boats

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anyone who makes a war movie these days should stop and watch John Ford's They Were Expendable as a prerequisite. At its core, it tells the story of how the Navy's then-new PT boats became a major part of WWII, but that's arguably the least interesting part. Ford shot the film at the tail end of the war, and it may have been the first film to capture the alternating thrills and horrors of combat.

More often than not, the heroes Lieutenant "Brick" Brickley (Robert Montgomery, himself recently returned from the war) and Lieutenant "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne), look bedraggled, exhausted, unshaven and utterly beaten. At one point, Rusty simply collapses by the side of a road. Many triumphs feel anticlimactic. (Rather than closing on a booming victory, the film's final few minutes is another perfect example of this.) But when they're fighting for a chance to use their fast, maneuverable boats for actual missions, their very pride is on the line.

Ford re-visits his "family" theme by crossing the seasoned war veterans with images of fresh-faced boys who barely look 18 (one of them drinks milk at the cantina). Donna Reed appears prominently in the promo materials and in a few great scenes as Wayne's love interest, but in keeping with the mixed-message theme of the film, the romance does not go where expected. The real star of the film is the gorgeous, luminous, mostly outdoor black-and-white cinematography (shot by Joseph H. August). It's the equal of Gregg Toland's work on The Grapes of Wrath (1940), luxuriating in air and sun and water, but almost always cast in shadows. (Screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead died in 1947 and became the subject of another Ford film, The Wings of Eagles, years later.)

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