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A Different Perspective on War
by Jon Schuller

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Before and during World War II, despite the darkest days and the victorious ones, the movies entertained, informed and showed all of the many aspects of one of man's oldest activities. Whether the films were frivolous or serious; whether they foretold events to come; or, they dealt head-on with real horrors and tragedies all of the pictures were there to help audiences understand what was happening. Even as World War II drew to a close in 1945, with the Allies victorious on all fronts, movies were there to celebrate the victories and show the astronomical losses in life and property. Some famous Hollywood actors had become members of the Armed Forces and served with distinction. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Robert Montgomery, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Ronald Reagan, Neville Brand and Humphrey Bogart were among the millions who served. Some of Hollywood's finest served throughout the war and many others helped with making films about their and others' experiences. Robert Montgomery served in the Navy and took his real experiences (he had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander) to star in (and partially direct scenes) in They Were Expendable (based on the best-selling 1942 novel written by William Lindsay White). The movie premiered on December 19, 1945, dramatizing the exploits of the men who manned the PT boats
defending the Philippines as the Japanese prepared to invad those strategic islands. It was directed by the great John Ford and co-starred John Wayne and Donna Reed. The supporting players included some of Hollywood's then-best character actors: Ward Bond as "Boats" Mulcahey; Leon Ames as Major James Morton; Cameron Mitchell as Ensign George Cross; Louis Jean Heydt as "Ohio" and Russell Simpson as "Dad" Knowland.

Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, a PT Boat unit stationed in the Philippines in 1941, is sent to Manila to defend that city against an expected Japanese invasion. It is commanded by Lt. John "Brick" Brickley (Montgomery), seconded by Lt., J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (Wayne) who doesn't like the reception his unit receives by local military commanders. Many, in 1941, thought that the PT's were toys and couldn't stop larger vessels like destroyers or battleships. Rusty puts in for a transfer to destroyers, but the news of the Pearl Harbor attack puts everything on hold. Initially, the PT Boats are used for nothing but messenger duties. But that's not what they were designed for. They were powered by large diesel engines, that could propel them to upwards of 50 knots and 4 on-deck torpedo tubes, made these boats fast and deadly. Their value is finally seen as the Japanese attack Manila by air, foreshadowing a full-scale land

Brick and the squadron begin sinking Japanese freighters and warships. But Rusty has developed a serious blood infection and Brick orders him to hospital. There he meets an Army nurse, Sandy Davyss (Reed) and falls in love. He's angry about being out of action but she breaks through to him and lets him know he's needed anyway. In the meantime, the boats sink a Japanese cruiser in one of the most exciting scenes ever filmed in a war movie. The Japanese have gained a greater command of the air and the sea and will eventually force everyone to retreat. The United States cannot get a fighting force there in time as the effects of Pearl Harbor caught everyone off-guard.

Bataan and Corregidor are about to fall to the Japanese. Rusty's boats are given a secret assignment. They will take General MacArthur, his family and other VIPs away and get them to a place of safety from which they'll be flown to Australia. The honor of taking the General away is not lost on the men of the PT squadron. This incident may have actually taken place as this was the only means of transport at the time.

Eventually the boats are all lost except 1 left for messenger duty - and the men must leave, being assigned to retreating Army troops who are about to make a stand and fight the Japanese invasion. Brick and Rusty must be flown out along
with Army brass. Chief Mulcahey (Bond) will lead the remaining men as they join up with the Army troops. Rusty can barely speak to Sandy before leaving as phone lines are being lost.

I like this movie because I believe it was realistic and honest, especially about the situations the military found itself in in December, 1941 especially in places that couldn't be adequately defended. The portrayals of the people; the way they showed everyone trying to maintain a sense of normality in the face of possible doom; having a "dinner" with the men and Sandy as if they were back home; the discipline of the men as they fought and served in the face of overwhelming odds never seen before: I think it makes They Were Expendable a fine film that wasn't a WWII propaganda vehicle. The war in the Pacific was finally over only 4 months before the picture was released. It was a salute to all the military men and women who served in all theatres of war, but especially the Pacific. It was shot in the Florida Keys and real U.S. Navy 80-foot Elco PT boats were used.

Today is Veterans Day and when I watch a movie like this I realize how dangerous the war was and how fearless all of these people were in the face of so much horror and chaos. Our men and women are still serving in many places around the world, the dangers no less than they were 72 years ago.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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