PT 109 (film)

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PT 109
Directed byLeslie H. Martinson
Lewis Milestone
Produced byBryan Foy
Written byScreenplay:
Richard L. Breen
Vincent X. Flaherty
Howard Sheehan
Based onJohn F. Kennedy in World War II
by Robert J. Donovan
StarringCliff Robertson
Narrated byAndrew Duggan (uncredited)
Music byDavid Buttolph
William Lava
CinematographyRobert Surtees
Edited byFolmar Blangsted
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • June 19, 1963 (1963-06-19) (U.S.)
Running time
140 minutes
Budget$4 million[1]
Box officeest. $3.5 million[2]

PT 109 is a 1963 American Technicolor biographical war film, filmed in Panavision, which depicts the actions of John F. Kennedy (JFK) as an officer of the United States Navy in command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during the Pacific War of World War II. The film was adapted by Vincent Flaherty and Howard Sheehan from the book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II by Robert J. Donovan, and the screenplay was written by Robert L. Breen. Cliff Robertson stars as Kennedy, with featured performances by Ty Hardin, James Gregory, Robert Culp, and Grant Williams.

PT 109 was the first commercial theatrical film about a sitting United States President released while he was still in office. It was released in the United States on June 19, 1963, five months before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.[1]


In August 1942, the American forces are fighting the Japanese across the Pacific. U.S. Navy Lieutenant, junior grade John F. Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) uses his family's influence to get himself assigned to the fighting in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Theater during World War II, much to the surprise of Commander C.R. Ritchie (James Gregory). Kennedy lobbies for command of a PT boat and is assigned to the "109", a badly damaged boat in dire need of repair and overhaul. Initially, Ritchie seems to regard the young, inexperienced Kennedy as something of a lightweight, but his enthusiasm to build a crew and refurbish the "109" to operational status eventually earns Ritchie's grudging respect. The crew includes Kennedy's executive officer, Ensign Leonard J. Thom (Ty Hardin), and sailors "Bucky" Harris (Robert Blake) and Edmund Drewitch (Norman Fell).

On one mission, the PT 109 is sent to evacuate paramarines after their Raid on Choiseul. Kennedy successfully takes aboard the survivors, but barely gets out of range of Japanese mortars before running out of fuel. The tide starts to carry the boat back toward the island. Kennedy, his crew, and the rescued Marines face the prospect of a desperate fight for their lives, but in the nick of time, another PT boat arrives and tows the 109 to safety.

Another sortie is less successful. While on patrol one, dark, moonless night in August 1943, a Japanese destroyer appears suddenly out of the darkness, rams and slices the 109 in two, killing two of the thirteen crew (Marney and Kirksey). Kennedy survives the collision and searches for survivors, despite injuring his back. When Kennedy and his men are presumed dead by nearby allies, Kennedy leads the survivors in swimming to a deserted island, while himself towing a badly burned crewman. Morale drops and several of the men appear ready to give up/surrender but Kennedy remains determined and swims out into the channel the next night hoping another PT boat will come by. No PT boats come by that night or the next night, but after a few days, Kennedy encounters two natives and gives them a carved message on a coconut. Fortunately for the sailors, they take it to an Australian coastwatcher instead of the Japanese. The coastwatcher sends more natives to the island, they take Kennedy with them, and the coastwatcher arranges for a rescue. Afterward, Kennedy is eligible to transfer back to the U.S., but is assigned command of another PT boat that has been modified as a gunboat, PT 59, and elects to stay in the fight.



JFK's father, Joseph Kennedy, had been a Hollywood producer and head of the RKO studio at one point in his career, and he used his influence to negotiate the film rights to Donovan's biography of his son.[1] The film was made under the "personal supervision" of Warner's head of production, Jack L. Warner.[1] The White House sent Alvin Cluster, a wartime buddy of JFK,[3] who was also his former commanding officer, as well as a PT boat commander to act as a liaison between Warners and the White House for the film.

The White House had full approval of casting and other aspects of the film. Among other actors considered for the lead were Peter Fonda, who objected to having to do his screen test with an impersonation of JFK's voice;[4] Warren Beatty (Jacqueline Kennedy's choice);[1] Jeffrey Hunter,[5] who had just finished playing Jesus Christ in King of Kings; and Warner Bros Television contract stars Edd Byrnes, Peter Brown, Chad Everett, and Roger Smith. Kennedy selected Robertson after viewing the screen tests. Robertson met with President Kennedy, who set three conditions on the film: that it be historically accurate, that profits go to the survivors of PT 109 and their families, and President Kennedy had the final choice of lead actor.[6]

Though Robertson bore little physical resemblance to JFK and was nearly forty years old at the time the film was made, Alvin Cluster told Robertson "The President picked you not only because you were a fine actor but because you're young looking, yet mature enough so that the world won't get the idea the President was being played by a parking lot attendant or something".[7] In his autobiography Kookie, No More Edd Byrnes said he was told "President John F. Kennedy didn't want to be played by "Kookie".

Kennedy also vetoed Raoul Walsh as the director of the film after screening Walsh's Marines Let's Go and not liking it. Original director Lewis Milestone, who had previously filmed All Quiet on the Western Front, A Walk in the Sun, and Pork Chop Hill, left the production, either because Milestone thought that the script was inadequate, or because the studio was unhappy with cost overruns during Milestone's tenure.[1] Milestone was replaced by Leslie Martinson, a television director with little experience making films.[8]

The exteriors were filmed at Little Palm Island (formerly Little Munson Island), now a resort in the Florida Keys. Power and fresh water were run out to the island for the film, allowing the resort to be built years later. The building of the sets for the film, and the bringing in of boats and other paraphernalia, gave rise to rumors of another U.S. invasion of Cuba.[1]

At the time the film was being planned it was found that the few 80 foot Elco PT Boats that existed were not in operational condition, and though a further search was conducted, it was determined that none could be located for use in the film, since almost all had been destroyed at the end of World War II. Former WW II era USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) 85' crash boats were converted to resemble the 80' Elco PT boats. These crash boats were designed by Dair N. Long in 1944 and their use as movie props were ideal because they possessed performance and profiles similar to the Elco PT boats.[citation needed] Similarly, American AT-6 Texan training planes stood in for Japanese Zeroes.[1]

U.S. Navy support also included a Landing Ship Tank (LST) (one of 1,051 LSTs built during the war), the destroyer USS Saufley, and smaller vessels such as landing craft and motor whaleboats from nearby Naval Station Key West.

After seeing the film, Kennedy called PT 109 a "good product," but worried about the 2 hour, 20-minute length. "It's just a question of whether there's too much of it".[9]


In the film, the PT 109 and all other PT boats are depicted as being painted in the same standard gray paint scheme used by larger warships of the US Navy. Although many 78' Higgins and 80' Elco PT boats were likely delivered from the manufacturer in such a paint scheme, all historical records indicate that the real PT 109 and the other boats in its squadron were painted in a dark green paint scheme in order to better blend into their daytime anchorages or moorings adjacent to island jungles at forward operating bases. The most common green color scheme of this period was designated as Design 5P and incorporated Navy Green over a base coat of Ocean Green.[10][11]

PT 109 is reported missing and a search is started. According to National Geographic and the original book, the boat explosion was observed from other PT boats in the vicinity and it was given up as lost. A memorial service was held at the motor torpedo boat squadron's forward operating base at Rendova while the crew was still marooned on the islands in the vicinity of Japanese-held Kolombagara Island.

Solomon Islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana were portrayed as random natives, when in fact they were dispatched by the coastwatcher Arthur Reginald Evans to find the sailors. The film shows Ensign Ross first suggesting the idea of using a coconut for a message, using a knife to carve it. Gasa was later interviewed as suggesting the idea and sending Kumana to pluck a fresh coconut. The actors playing Gasa and Kumana were not credited, though the senior native is mentioned by name when the large canoe arrives.

The scene showing the rescue of ambushed Marines is actually covered by the chapter in the book about PT 59, which Kennedy commanded after the PT 109. It was an older model 77 foot Elco PT boat that was converted to a gunboat with its torpedoes removed.


PT 109 was released to lukewarm critical response, although Robertson received good reviews.[1] As of June 2012, Rotten Tomatoes rates the film at 63% approval.[12] A recent review comments that "One of the screenplay's pluses ... is its concentration on the minor but still deadly activities that were undertaken by thousands of men during World War II. Not everyone was involved with the major assaults; many spent their time risking their lives in places and situations of which most people are totally unaware, and it's a nice change of pace to see this aspect of the war dramatized."[13]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Canadian release[edit]

In some Canadian cities, such as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, PT 109 premiered in theaters on November 22, 1963, the day that Kennedy was assassinated.[15]

Home media[edit]

The film is out of print on VHS. Warner Archives released the DVD in the United States on May 10, 2011.[16] Video CDs meant for sale outside the US can be found online, though the quality is not as good as VHS.

The film has occasionally aired on Turner Classic Movies,[17] and as of 2011 and 2012, the film has also periodically aired in letterbox format on the Military Channel in the United States.

According to Oliver Stone's interview on the Nerdist podcast (Nov. 20, 2013), PT 109 would be included in Stone's box set of Untold History documentary mini-series (also available on Blu-ray).[18]

Comic book adaption[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Axmaster, Sean. "PT 109" on
  2. ^ "Top Rental Films of 1963", Variety, 8 January 1964 p 37
  3. ^ Taylor, Michael (March 14, 2004). "Alvin Cluster -- close friend of JFK". SFGate. Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  4. ^ Fonda, Peter Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir Hyperion Books (1998)
  5. ^ Hoberman, J. "Lights, Camera, Exploitation" Village Voice (August 26, 2003)
  6. ^ "Career" on the official website of Cliff Robertson
  7. ^ p. 146 Smyth, J.E. Hollywood and the American Historical Film Palgrave Macmillan, 17 Jan 2012
  8. ^ Hoberman, J. "The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties" on "Coffee, coffee and more coffee" (July 23, 2007)
  9. ^ Johnson, Ted (August 16, 2013). "Making of John F. Kennedy Biopic PT 109 Was Hardly Smooth Sailing". Variety. Variety media. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  10. ^ Williams, David L. (November 1, 2001). Naval Camouflage 1914-1945: A Complete Visual Reference. US Naval Institute Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-1557504968.
  11. ^
  12. ^ "PT 109" on Rotten Tomatoes
  13. ^ "Review" on
  14. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  15. ^ Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, November 22, 1963, movie theater advertisement, pg. 4, archived at; accessed July 5, 2014
  16. ^ entry for the film PT-109
  17. ^ "Overview" on
  18. ^ Levine, Katie (November 20, 2013). "Nerdist Podcast: Oliver Stone". Retrieved May 3, 2015.
  19. ^ "Gold Key: PT 109". Grand Comics Database.
  20. ^ Gold Key: PT 109 at the Comic Book DB

External links[edit]