They Were Expendable has a gradual pace. Not knowing the film’s subject matter–just genre–going in, it all unfolded quite deliberately in front of me. The opening is a PT boat exercise. The film’s special effects are spectacular; it’s impossible to tell what’s an effect and what’s an actual boat in the water. These scenes–there are only a handful of them in the film–are breathtaking. There’s an attack on John Wayne’s boat from multiple bombers, which is the final action sequence, but earlier there’s the PT boats shooting at bombers, with only one visible composite shot. It’s stunning work–and one could easily let it overshadow the rest of the film.
Robert Montgomery and Wayne share the spotlight. It oscillates from man to man, but they’re great together and those scenes, with their concise dialogue, do a lot of work for the film. Montgomery’s performance is amazing–the best in the film and the best I’ve seen from him. He’s already weary trying to convince his superiors the PT boat is a valuable asset and following the start of the war and the subsequent losses, his stress becomes visible. Montgomery looks with tired but determined eyes–he has an amazing scene with a fatally injured sailor, probably the film’s most powerful scene….
Well, maybe not. That scene has a lot of dialogue (Frank Wead writes some great dialogue–something I was worried about when the titles rolled), so maybe the scene where there isn’t a lot of dialogue is more powerful. Wayne’s story arc has him romancing nurse Donna Reed–their scenes together and the whole handling of the romance is singular–and invites her to dinner with his fellow officers. It’s an almost silent scene with the men inexpressibly grateful for the female company. It reminded me of The Grand Illusion.
Wayne’s arc isn’t just the romance, he’s also dissatisfied with being in the PT boat squadron (not for any good reason, just because he wants the glory assignments). Wayne develops through the picture, softening first due to a friendship with Louis Jean Heydt and then with the Reed romance. The film doesn’t spend any time discussing Montgomery and Wayne’s lives before the Navy, which is an interesting move. It makes everything about how they act and react to the situations around them.
The script’s got a lot of humor in it, mostly from Ward Bond (whose expression following the kid asking Macarthur to sign his hat is fabulous), but also from Montgomery and Wayne. The film establishes their characters as friends who are amusing watch right off, so whenever they get together, there’s going to be something good.
Ford’s composition is flawless here. There are his early indoor shots, but when he gets outside, he really flourishes. He shoots low to high a lot here, creating a substantive mood. It ties the battle scenes together with the romance scenes and so on.
In some ways, though, They Were Expendable isn’t exciting. Going into it, I thought Ford was going to do a great job with a war picture and he does. He might do a little better than I expected….
It’s a fine film, full of quiet beauty. Ford doesn’t engage with this beauty, but like the swaying palm trees, he’s certainly aware of it. The film takes a step back from its content, allowing the viewer to fill the space in between.