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 Panavision biographical war film depicting the actions of John F. Kennedy as an officer of the United States Navy in command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 in the Pacific theater 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 Richard L. Breen. Cliff Robertson stars as Kennedy, and the film features performances by Ty Hardin, James Gregory, Robert Culp and Grant Williams.

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


In August 1942, the American forces are fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. U.S. Navy Lieutenant, junior grade John F. Kennedy uses his family's influence to get himself assigned to the fighting in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He lobbies for command of a PT boat and is given the badly damaged 109. Initially, Commander C. R. Ritchie, the base boat maintenance officer on Tulagi, is unimpressed with the young, untested Kennedy, but the lieutenant is undaunted and restores the 109 to operational status. His crew includes the executive officer, Ensign Leonard J. Thom, and initially skeptical sailors "Bucky" Harris and Edmund Drewitch.

The PT 109 is sent to evacuate paramarines pinned down after the Raid on Choiseul. Kennedy 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. Another PT boat arrives just in time to tow the 109 to safety.

While on patrol one dark, moonless night in August 1943, the 109 encounters a Japanese destroyer that appears suddenly out of the darkness, rams and slices her in two, killing two of the 13 crewmen (Marney and Kirksey). Kennedy leads the survivors to Plum Pudding Island, towing a badly burned crewman. The wreckage is spotted by a reconnaissance plane, and Kennedy and his men are presumed dead. After dark, Kennedy swims out into the channel, staying out all night in the hope of signaling a passing Allied vessel, but without success. The next night, he sends out his friend, Ensign George Ross. After several days, morale drops and several of the men are ready to surrender. However, two natives show up in a canoe. They do not understand English, so Kennedy carves a message on a coconut and gives it to them. They take it to Australian coastwatcher Lieutenant Reginald Evans. Evans notifies the U.S. Navy, and the men are picked up. According to standard policy, Kennedy and his men are eligible to transfer back to the U.S., but he elects to stay.



Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, had been a Hollywood producer and head of the RKO studio at one point, 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 President Kennedy,[3] who was also his former commanding officer, as well as a PT boat commander, to act as a liaison between Warner Bros. and the White House.

The White House had full approval over casting and other aspects of the film. Among other actors considered for the lead were Peter Fonda, who objected to having to deliver his screen test using an impersonation of Kennedy'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 set three conditions on the film: that it be historically accurate, that profits go to the survivors of the PT 109 and their families and that he would have the final choice of lead actor. He selected and then met with Robertson after viewing the screen tests.[6]

Though Robertson bore little physical resemblance to Kennedy and was nearly 40 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 wrote that he was told, "President John F. Kennedy didn't want to be played by 'Kookie'."

Kennedy also vetoed Raoul Walsh as director 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.[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 construction of the sets and the presence 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 surviving 80-foot Elco PT boats 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, as almost all had been destroyed at the end of World War II. Former World War II-era United States Army Air Forces 85-foot crash boats were converted to resemble Elcos. These crash boats were designed by Dair N. Long in 1944, and their use as movie props was ideal because they possessed performance and profiles similar to the Elcos.[citation needed] American AT-6 Texan training planes stood in for Japanese Zeros.[1]

U.S. Navy support also included a tank landing ship LST 758 USS Duvall County (one of 1,051 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 two 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 painted in the same standard gray paint scheme used by larger warships of the U.S. Navy. Although many Higgins and Elco PT boats were likely delivered from the manufacturer with such a paint scheme, all historical records indicate that the real PT 109 and the other boats in its squadron were painted in dark green 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]

The film also depicts PT 109 as 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 are 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 later claimed to have suggested the idea and to have sent 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 September 2020, Rotten Tomatoes rates the film at 64% 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 was nominated for the 2006 American Film Institute list AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers.[14]

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]

Warner Home Video released the film on VHS on February 9, 1983 as part of its "A Night At the Movies" series, featuring a Hearst Metrotone Newsreel, a Warner Bros. animated short and a coming-attractions trailer of films from 1963.[16] Warner Archives released the film on DVD in the United States on May 10, 2011.[17]

The film has occasionally aired on Turner Classic Movies and has also periodically aired in letterbox format on the Military Channel in the United States.[citation needed]

According to Oliver Stone during a 2013 Nerdist, PT 109 would be included in his Untold History documentary miniseries box set.[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. ^ "Warner Home Vid Adds New Titles". Daily Variety. December 28, 1982. p. 2.
  17. ^ entry for the film PT-109
  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 (archived from the original)

External links[edit]