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They Were Expendable

Ring a Ding Ding

They Were Expendable (1945)

     I am typically not a huge fan of war pictures but am always willing to sit through a good one, especially if it stars Robert Montgomery. A friend recently commented on this site that his favorite Montgomery pictures include this one, and I happened to have in on my DVR from TCM, so here we are.

     When I think of director John Ford, I envision truly American  and realistic films, and They Were Expendable fits that assumption. The plot line seems like something adapted from a soldier’s diary. It is an extremely linear plot following PT boat crews in the Philippines in the time following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story follows two lieutenants – Montgomery and John Wayne – as their team endures various battles, operations and plenty of losses. The characters refer to losing “34 boat” and others rather than losing men. The emotional toll of the war cannot be found in these men but rather in the faces of young soldiers depicted in the movie. Wayne and Montgomery know their role in the war – to do what they can be endure many losses, hence the “expendable” title.

     Also included in the story is a romance between Wayne and Donna Reed, a nurse who cares for the man’s wounded hand. Reed puts on quite a good show by doing very little. The woman emits nearly no emotion while assisting in a surgical operation during an air raid. Through seemingly doing nothing, she conveys so much. At one point she almost imperceptibly bites her lower lip, saying it all. It was her role in Expendable that led director Frank Capra to select Reed as his wife character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Although the romance pops up throughout the middle of the film, it leaves the plot almost completely as the PT crews are sent on a mission from which they are not expected to return.

     Although the war effects – complete with explosions, fires, and diving planes – add immensely to the flick’s realism, what possibly makes Expendable most believable is the ending. Neither happy nor sad, the conclusion is left hanging with the viewer uncertain of what will become of our protagonists or the remainder of their troops. Expendable is not an uplifting movie but it is very well acted and visually executed.

Source: Robert Osborne


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