May 25, 2010

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“This isn’t going to be some goddamned two-bit propaganda flick.”

-John Ford to Vice Admiral John Bulkeley, USN

John Ford put off making They Were Expendable for over two years. He was busy with his Field Photo Unit making war documentaries, and he wasn’t eager to to go off active service. He was completing post-production on The Battle of Midway (1942), and dealing with the negative reaction to December 7th (directed by Gregg Toland), a Pearl Harbor re-enactment whose depiction of a less than prepared Navy led to its shelving, and to the future censoring of the Photo Unit’s output. Joseph McBride, in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford, writes that “the navy reacted to the long version of December 7th ‘by confiscating the print and ordering Ford to lock up the negative.”

MGM was developing They Were Expendable this whole time, hiring Sidney Franklin to polish Frank “Spig” Wead’s script and assigning Ford associate James Kevin McGuiness as the executive to oversee the project. Wead was a former Navy aviator who turned to writing about flyboys after a tragic fall down the stairs broke his neck (he wrote Hawks’ great Ceiling Zero, and Ford filmed his life story in the underrated The Wings of Eagles (1957)). The raw material for the story was the exploits of John D. Bulkeley, a lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, based in the Philippines, as reported in a best-selling book by W.L. White, and then an essay in Life magazine. With a skeleton crew and no lines of support, Bulkeley took down multiple Japanese planes and ships, and famously spirited General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao (from where he escaped to Australia) over 620 miles of open water.

McBride opines that another reason for Ford delaying production until ’45 was that he couldn’t film such a downbeat subject in an appropriate manner while the war was still raging. For Bulkeley’s story ultimately ends in defeat, as the U.S. is forced to retreat, and the majority of Bulkeley’s crew is killed. McBride quotes Bulkeley:

I was very bitter about the thing. …We went over there with 111 men and only 9 men came back alive. [The War Department] put 80,000 soldiers over there, and that was a political decision on the part of the president and [Secretary of War Henry L.] Stimson that we were going to show the Asiatic race that we supported them, that we did not back off the Japanese. But the war plan was totally, utterly hopeless. You could not send a battle fleet out there and defeat the Japs and bring aid and so forth to the Philippines. We were not only too far away, we weren’t ready. To try to defend the Philippines was stupid, we couldn’t do it. But we had to put up a fight.

To film a realistic portrait of this event would be impossible in ’42, but in ’45 he pulled it off – and it’s one of the most mournful, moving, and static war films ever made. Very little happens. Men leap on and off PT Boats, rag on a callow ensign, and occasionally exchange fire with Japanese planes and battleships (I now realize I’ve inadvertently copied James Agee, who said: “all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT Boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel one foot of the film was wasted.”) The love interest, Donna Reed, glows incandescently for a few scenes with John Wayne, and is then re-located by command. She does not return. The narrative is jagged, with dead-end detours followed by long sinuous set-pieces, lensed by cinematographer Joseph August. The action scenes are evenly-lit in razor sharp deep focus, while the interiors are sepulchral and shadowed – both the harrowing surgery sequence (held on Reed’s clenched, disbelieving face), and the staff dinner (again centered on a Reed close-up, adjusting her necklace for a reminder of normalcy), are shot in heavy chiaroscuro, as if the characters didn’t want to see the world outside their doors.

On the surface Robert Montgomery was an offbeat casting choice to take on the Bulkeley role (here named Brickley), as he rose to stardom as a light comedian. But in his naval service he was assigned to Bulkeley as executive officer during PT boat combat in the Southwest Pacific in 1943, earning a bronze star. His performance is of implacable good humor, a stalwart, impenetrable veneer that quickly compartmentalizes disappointment to do the job at hand. John Wayne plays the blustery, self-destructive Rusty Ryan, whom Brickley keeps together through force of will. When Ryan, hiding a blood disease contracted after a hand injury, is about to lunge into battle (and begin, one expects, a major subplot surrounding the disease), Brickley sees the hand, and forces him into a hospital. Professionalism trumps drama here at every turn. Aware that they are cannon fodder, they enter the breach again and again, trying to give their side just a few more seconds to turn the tide. It is an insane kind of dignity, which perhaps makes it even more admirable. So when Rusty places his hand on Brickley’s shoulders, and squeezes, right before they are to take their leave for Australia, it speaks for all the men they lost, and the few they might have saved. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.