They Were Expendable

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They Were Expendable
They Were Expendable poster.jpg
original theatrical poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced byJohn Ford
Screenplay byFrank Wead
Jan Lustig [de] (uncredited)
Based onThey Were Expendable
1942 book
by William Lindsay White
StarringRobert Montgomery
John Wayne
Donna Reed
Music byHerbert Stothart
CinematographyJoseph H. August
Edited byDouglass Biggs
Frank E. Hull
Distributed byLoew's Inc
Release date
  • December 19, 1945 (1945-12-19)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,250,000 (US rentals)[2]

They Were Expendable is a 1945 American war film directed by John Ford, starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, and featuring Donna Reed. The film is based on the 1942 book by William Lindsay White, relating the story of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, a PT boat unit defending the Philippines against Japanese invasion during the Battle of the Philippines (1941–42) in World War II.

While a work of fiction, the book was based on actual events and people.[1] The characters John Brickley (Montgomery) and Rusty Ryan (Wayne) are fictionalizations of the actual subjects, John D. Bulkeley (Medal of Honor recipient) and Robert Kelly, respectively.[3] Both the film and the book, which was a best-seller and excerpted in Reader's Digest and Life,[4] depict events that did not occur, but were believed to be real during the war; the film is noted for its verisimilitude.


In December 1941, Lt. John "Brick" Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a squadron of U.S. Navy PT boats, based at Cavite in the Philippines, in a demonstration of its capabilities, but the admiral in charge is unimpressed. Lt. J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne), Brick's executive officer and friend, becomes disgusted and is writing his request for a transfer when news arrives of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Brick, Ryan and the rest of the squadron are frustrated for a time, as they are assigned non-combat duties, mostly messenger runs. Eventually, their superior has no choice but to order them to attack a large Japanese cruiser. But Brick orders Rusty to the hospital before they sortie when it is discovered that he has blood poisoning. There, Rusty begins a romance with Army nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). Brick's boats sink the cruiser, after which the squadron is unleashed, achieving increasing success, though at the cost of both boats and men. But it is only a matter of time before the Philippines fall.

With the mounting Japanese onslaught against the doomed American defenders at Bataan and on Corregidor, the squadron is assigned to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and others to Mindanao, where an airplane will take them to Australia. This done, they resume their attacks against the Japanese, who gradually whittle down the squadron. Crews without boats are sent to fight as infantry. Finally, the last boat is turned over to the Army for messenger duty. Brick, Ryan and two ensigns are airlifted out on the last airplane because the PT boats have proved their worth, and the officers are needed stateside as trainers. The surviving enlisted men, led by Chief Mulcahey, are left behind to continue the fight with the remnants of the U.S. Army and Filipino guerrillas.



Since the acquisition of the film rights of William L. White's They Were Expendable MGM sought Ford to direct a film based on the book; Ford continually refused due to his serving in the Navy Field Photographic Unit. During this time Ford met Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley during the preparation of the Normandy Invasion[6] and later sighted Bulkeley's former executive officer Robert Montgomery on D-Day.[7]

According to Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, Ford, a notoriously hard taskmaster, was especially hard on Wayne, who did not serve in the armed forces. During production, Ford fell from a scaffolding and broke his leg. He turned to Montgomery, who had actually commanded a PT boat, to temporarily take over for him as director. Montgomery did so well that within a few years he began directing films.

The film, which received extensive support from the Navy Department, was shot in Key Biscayne, Florida[8] and the Florida Keys. This region closely approximated the South West Pacific Theater. Actual U.S. Navy 80-foot Elco PT boats were used throughout filming, albeit re-marked with false hull numbers in use in late 1941 and early 1942. Additional U.S. naval aircraft from nearby naval air stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West were temporarily remarked and used to simulate Japanese aircraft in the film.

Ford's onscreen directing credit reads, "Directed by John Ford, Captain U.S.N.R."; Frank Wead's onscreen credit reads: "Screenplay by Frank Wead Comdr. U.S.N., Ret"; Montgomery's onscreen credit reads: "Robert Montgomery Comdr. U.S.N.R."[8]

Awards and honors[edit]

Douglas Shearer was nominated for the Oscar for Best Sound Recording, while A. Arnold Gillespie, Donald Jahraus, R. A. MacDonald and Michael Steinore were nominated for Best Effects.[9] It was also named to the "10 Best Films of 1945" list by The New York Times.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b They Were Expendable at the TCM Movie Database
  2. ^ "60 Top Grossers of 1946", Variety 8 January 1947 p8
  3. ^ "Empire Magazine".
  4. ^ White, W. L. (October 26, 1942). "They Were Expendable". Life. p. 114. Retrieved November 22, 2011.
  5. ^ Hood, Nathanael (December 28, 2012). "They Were Expendable". Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. Retrieved August 1, 2017.
  6. ^ ""John Ford's Navy": A Filmmaker in the OSS".
  7. ^ p. 406 McBride, Joseph Searching for John Ford; Univ. Press of Mississippi, 11 Feb. 2011
  8. ^ a b "They Were Expendable (1945) - Notes -". Turner Classic Movies.
  9. ^ "The 18th Academy Awards (1946) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved August 16, 2011.
  10. ^ "Moviefone". Archived from the original on December 24, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Blank, Joan Gill. Key Biscayne. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1996. ISBN 1-56164-096-4.

External links[edit]