52 Code Films – Week #18: “They Were Expendable” from 1945

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Today is Sunday, so it is time for another 52 Code Films article. This series is a weekly one which I am featuring this year. Every week in 2019, I watch at least one movie from the American Breen Era (1934-1954) which I have never seen before. I created this series to expand my knowledge of Code films by discovering new movies, watching them, and reviewing them at the end of the week. Thus, I am discovering new favorite classic films and sharing them with my readers. I hope that you have enjoyed learning about new Code films with me.

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Today’s topic is They Were Expendable from 1945. This World War II drama tells the story of major South Pacific fighting in the early days of the war. I watched this film on Monday. We bought this DVD at Barnes and Noble a few months ago, having been impressed by the cast with John Wayne, Robert Montgomery, and Donna Reed. This week’s article is my first in May. Since it is the fifth, happy Cinco de Mayo!

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A Navy lieutenant in the South Pacific is trying to convince his superiors that his Patrol Torpedo boat unit, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, is a valuable asset to the service. However, one of his main officers, who is also his best friend, wants to be transferred to a large, successful ship. However, all plans are changed when news reaches the base that Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese. The PT boat squadron is disheartened to learn that their only assignment is messenger duties, but they know that they must wait to join the fighting. When the Japanese attack the base where they are stationed, they must intricately maneuver to save their boats and take down an enemy plane. However, the base has been completely destroyed by the attacking planes, so they have to move to another base. Eventually, the admiral tells them that he has a mission for them to perform. They must destroy an enemy cruiser, using only two of their six ships. The captain assigns his boat and that of his friend to the mission, not knowing that the latter has blood poisoning from a gunshot wound in his hand which he received in the first air raid. When the unit’s leader personally checks his friend’s wound, he realizes that he is badly infected. He takes him off the mission and orders him to the hospital, despite his friend’s protests. While the two patrol boats are in harm’s way, the restless patient is forced to rest in the hospital. He is disagreeable and eager to leave, but he receives careful attention from a beautiful nurse. The sailor is initially grouchy about being in the hospital and displeased by the nurses’ clinical appearances. However, at a hospital dance, he sees his nurse looking very beautiful, and they bond while dancing and talking. Through her special care, he is soon back in action. The pretty nurse manages to get transferred to the island where the PT boat squadron is located, so she and the officer enjoy visiting and calling each other as a romance blossoms between them. However, war comes first, and the PT boats are now doing more than just delivering messages. The brave sailors risk their lives time and again to torpedo Japanese ships, even as they lose PT boats and men. The cost is great, and many still do not see the importance and effectiveness of the PTs. However, the men who command them are more interested in fighting for the United States than anything, and they will stick to that cause even if it costs them all their lives.

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The leader of the PT boat unit is Lt. John “Brick” Brickley, played by Robert Montgomery. His friend and fellow PT boat commander is Lt. J. G. Rusty Ryan, played by John Wayne. The nurse who tends to and falls in love with Rusty is Lt. Sandy Davyss, played by Donna Reed. The admiral is Admiral Blackwell, played by Charles Trowbridge.

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Production Notes

This film was directed by John Ford, who received uncredited directorial assistance from Robert Montgomery. It was produced by John Ford with associate producer Cliff Reid. The production company was MGM. The screenplay was written by Frank Wead, based on a book by William L. White. They Were Expendable was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Sound Recording for Douglas Shearer and Best Special Effects for A. Arnold Gillespie, Donald Jahraus, R. A. MacDonald, and Michael Steinore.

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This is a perfect Code film. Movies like this make citizens of the United States realize what it truly means to be an American. The Americans in this film are so selflessly brave. The men are desperate to fight, even though they know that their lives will be at risk as they undertake these dangerous but vital missions. The women are also immensely brave as they risk their own safety during bombings and attacks while using their nursing skills to help wounded heroes. The trials, ideals, and camaraderie of the soldiers during the second World War are brought to life by this remarkable film, but they are all shown without gruesomeness. Although this film is in the throes of war, there are no corpses, no blood, and no grotesqueness. The violence is all implied or shown from a distance. The language is completely decent, despite the intensity of the situations. Even in the height of war, the Code managed to keep film conduct at a high, dignified level. I noticed that John Wayne called another sailor “ya big mick” as he was bidding him a fond farewell. Technically, the italicized word is a forbidden racial expression for an Irishman. However, it was sometimes allowed when used by one Irishman to another, usually in an amicable manner. Obviously, Rusty’s line is jocular and strictly affectionate. This movie is wonderful. It is so inspiring. Although seventy-five years have passed since the height of World War II, classic films bring the Allies’ struggle to life for me. I sympathize with the people who fought for our country’s freedom against tyrants on two fronts. The trials of that war have passed, but the spirit behind those who fought it should never leave our country. This is a brilliant example of a Code war film. Although it depicts the trenches of combat, it is so delicately depicted that sensitive women like my mother, my sister, and myself were not offended or disgusted at all. However, it is just as dramatic and impacting as it would have been with realistic gore. With the brilliant writing, directing, and acting which resulted from the Code, that wasn’t necessary.


My Opinion

This is a wonderful movie. It has brilliant acting. This is only the second film in which I have seen Robert Montgomery, and I really liked him in this role. He is so serious and driven as the leader of the squadron. He will stop at nothing to achieve his plans for the PT boats’ potential. I haven’t seen much of John Wayne, and he has never been my favorite actor up to this point. However, I loved his performance in this film. As a high-strung, spirited officer, he is extremely endearing, putting aside personal health and welfare to fight. Only his beloved Sandy can make him forget his duties. Speaking of Sandy, Donna Reed is lovely as the lead nurse. She is courageous and selfless yet extremely sweet and feminine. I really like the scene in which she has dinner with Brick, Rusty, and several other members of the squadron. In the dimly-lit room with poor provisions on a remote island, the men scramble to be gentlemen, reveling in the presence of the beautiful lady. Etiquette flourishes even during war. The rest of the cast is excellent, as well. I recognized many of the supporting actors, all of whom gave exceptional performances. I was very impressed by the direction of the famous John Ford. I have found some of his films which I have seen to be riding the border of acceptability. However, in this film, he lived up to his responsibility as a friend and ally of Joseph Breen. I was impressed by the scene in which the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced in an officer’s club, since I have never seen a reaction to that catastrophic event so clearly depicted. Although some of the timing was not entirely accurate, it was extremely impacting. There are some very moving shots of natives, many of whom look suspiciously Asian. It made me ponder the difficult position which Japanese-Americans had during the war. I found it very moving when the exotic band began playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with steel guitars. The war footage, while being extremely tasteful and delicate, is very realistic and convincing. It really transported me to the South Pacific.

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I highly recommend this film to my readers. It is a masterpiece. All classic film lovers will enjoy it. Specifically, those who enjoy war films will love it. However, I think that it would be equally enjoyable to people who don’t necessarily like combat pictures as a rule. Fans of Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed will love seeing them in this movie. This movie has great realism because of the involvement which members of its crew had in the war. Director John Ford, credited as Captain U.S.N.R., commanded a naval photographic unit during the war, and Robert Montgomery, credited as Comdr. U.S.N.R., was actually a commander of a PT boat, as was James Curtis Havens, a second unit director and explosive expert. If someone I knew wanted to learn all about World War II, I would assign Code films to him rather than history books. The three war films I have reviewed so far in this series, Since You Went AwayWinged Victory, and They Were Expendable, show the true spirit of Americans overseas and on the home-front during those turbulent times. These perfect Code films tell the story more completely than any textbook or dry documentary could, since they use art and the protection of the Code to bring the American fight for freedom to life!

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This week, I only watched this one new Code film.

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