They Were Expendable: A Critique of John Ford's 1945 War Film

by David M. Cross

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is a story of defeat. Defeat of the Americans by the Japanese in the early days of World War ll and the disintegration of Motor Torpedo Squadron Three (MTB-3). The film focuses on the demise of MTB-3 and its men, headed by Lieutenants Brickley and Ryan, who expend themselves trying to slow the Japanese advance in the Philippines. It is perhaps this dour subject and its release just after the end of the war that resulted in the critical and popular failure of the film. However, They Were Expendable was important to the development of the World War ll combat film genre, as it's historical authenticity and realistic presentation helped show audiences the sacrifices and hardships endured by the fighting men of the United States. The World War ll combat film began as a genre coincidental to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans, torn between involvement and isolationism, suddenly found themselves at war. The attack at Pearl Harbor helped unify the American people. (1) It also sent them to theaters in huge numbers.(2) These people wanted to be a part of the war effort, and the World War II combat film helped them to know about the sacrifices and duty faced by soldiers in combat. BATAAN has been called a seminal work in this genre because of the films popularity and because it formalized the genre.(3) BATAAN is the story of a small group of Americans fighting to delay the Japanese advance on the Bataan peninsula in 1942. This small group, trapped and isolated, sacrifice themselves to slow the methodical march of the Japanese to victory. This film ends in defeat, for the Americans are all killed. But in defeat they succeed by delaying the Japanese Army. The final scene shows the hero (Robert Taylor) firing his weapon at the enemy soldiers. "Come on, you suckers," he says just before dying. "Come and get me. Didn't think we were still here? We'll always be here." His death, symbolic of the death and capture of many Americans in the Philippines, is a patriotic reminder to Americans back home of the reasons they are fighting and sacrificing. By 1945, Americans were ready to see changes in the war film genre. America and her allies were winning on all fronts and most agreed that it was only a matter of time before victory would be reached. Although sacrifice continued to be a major theme in the genre, victory was more tangible. The films themselves also began to change. They became more realistic and more representative of the excitement, danger, sadness and pain experienced by combat troops. The war film genre also attracted more experienced and honored directors and producers, like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, and as a result the quality of the films improved. Some examples of this improved, more realistic film include THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, A WALK IN THE SUN, THE STORY OF G.L. JOE, and OBJECTIVE BURMA. These four films are not only examples of the improved, more realistic war film, but also became the benchmarks to measure other combat films. Their release reshaped the genre to fit their mold. No longer could war films lack realism, just as they could no longer lack the complexity and tension present in these four films.(4) Based on stories of actual fighting, they were often produced by veterans who knew the face of combat. The war film genre would later change again as the war concludes, the Korean war begins and the genre narrative is expanded to include various subplots which are not necessarily combat-related. However, the realism, complexity and tension forged in 1945 would continue to be prevalent in the genre. BATTLEGROUND, THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA AND TO HELL AND BACK are examples of the revised genre that includes additional subplots and story lines. In the 1960's the genre once again changed. The films of this period changed their focus from the individual or small group to look at large scale warfare. Epics such as TORA! TORA! TORA!, THE LONGEST DAY and BATTLE OF THE BULGE mix documentary footage, realistic combat scenes and a narrative storyline to tell of America at war. However, even these epics base their foundations in the realism, tension and complexity of earlier films such as THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. The realism and tension displayed in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is due in part to the basis of the story.

Like BATAAN, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is set in the Philippines at the beginning of World War II. The film covers a period of time from approximately December 1941 through April 1942 and is based entirely on the exploits of Lieutenants John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly, as told to author W. L. White. White's book, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, became a best seller in 1942 and was the basis of the film. By being based on actual events, the film was able to draw on the historical memory of the audience. There was no need to include the situation as part of the narrative. Merely telling the audience when and where the action takes place was sufficient. All Americans at the time knew that the Japanese had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and had also invaded the Philippines and captured U.S. soldiers on the Bataan peninsula and Corregidor. Little known to the audience were the efforts of Lieutenants Bulkeley and Kelly. Lieutenant Bulkeley was the Commanding Officer of MTB-3 which had arrived in Manila Bay on September 28, 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the six-boat squadron is used to run messages from Corregidor to the Navy Headquarters. After the U.S. Asiatic Fleet left the area, the Patrol Boats (PT Boats) were the last vestiges of a fighting naval force in the Philippines. They were finally sent into battle and sunk several Japanese ships as well as shooting down a number of aircraft. However, the deterioration of the boats was taking as much a toll as the enemy. All of the craft experienced numerous breakdowns and two were destroyed by their crews because they could not repair them. As the boats were lost, the men from the squadron were sent to work for the Army in defense of the peninsula. MTB-3 did conduct several operations which were significant. On December 17,1941 they rescued over 300 survivors from the SS Corregidor, which had run into an American minefield and sunk. PT-32, with Bulkeley embarked, rescued 196 of the survivors. In January 1942, the boats conducted an attack on a group of transports and sank a 5,000-ton freighter. Most significant, however, was the operation conducted from 11 to 13 March 1942. Under the cover of darkness, General MacArthur and much of his staff were evacuated from Corregidor by the remaining boats of MTB-3. They were taken on a voyage of 560 miles to an island away from the omnipresent Japanese air cover, where the General could be picked up by a U.S. Army airplane and flown to Australia. Following the MacArthur rescue mission, the squadron conducted an attack on a group of Japanese ships, including several destroyers, on April 8,1942. After they launched their torpedoes, men from the torpedo boats reported seeing several explosions and thought the ship sunk. After their last PT Boat was scuttled because of non-repairable engine problems, Bulkeley, Kelly and two other officers were flown from the Philippines at the request of General MacArthur. Bulkeley was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and Kelly the Navy Cross for their heroic actions. Although the film THEY WERE EXPENDABLE is a recounting of the story of Bulkeley and Kelly as told to W. L. White, there were several historical inaccuracies. These, however, could not be verified or disproved until the conclusion of the war, and had no effect on the film itself. On January 18th, the squadron reported sinking a 5,000-ton Japanese freighter. U.S. Army soldiers nearby reported seeing explosions, but reported that the ship had not sunk. Later, following the April attack on the convoy and destroyers, the crews reported sinking a Japanese ship. Once the war ended Japanese record showed that no ships were lost or damaged in that area on that date. Ships were attacked, but none lost.(5) The film does label these "destroyers" as cruisers, but when Whites book was written, the ships identity was in doubt and verification was not available. One other cinematic inaccuracy arose after the release of the film. Lieutenant Kelly and U.S. Army Nurse "Peggy", sued MGM, John Wayne and Donna Reed for their portrayal of them in the film.(6) Although the film follows the book fairly closely, it does portray Lieutenant Kelly as impetuous and "hell bound for glory." Nurse Smith is shown romantically involved with Lieutenant Kelly. Wayne, Reed and MGM settled out of court for a nominal sum (less than $5,000.00). Despite these minor inaccuracies, the film's realism stands out foremost. In addition to its basis in historical actions of real people, much of the crew and cast were veterans. John Ford had joined the U.S. Navy to document action and to act as a propagandist in the war effort. He was at Midway Island during that crucial battle and was responsible for filming much of the Japanese attack on the island. He also directed and produced a docudrama entitled DECEMBER 7TH, which earned him an Academy Award. He was at Normandy on D-Day, where he rode with Lieutenant Bulkeley on a PT Boat during the invasion. Ford held the rank of Captain at the time They Were Expendable was filmed and was later promoted to Rear Admiral. Other veterans included cinematographer Joseph August (a Navy Lieutenant Commander), screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead (a Navy Commander), second unit director James Havens (a Navy Captain) and the leading actor, Robert Montgomery (a Navy Commander who had served on destroyers during D-Day). The film was shot on location in the Florida Keys using U.S. Navy PT Boats. These veterans, the setting and authentic equipment produced a film which had a realistic feel not seen in earlier films. The film starts out with a dedication. The words of General MacArthur provide a solemn opening:

Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been wonÉI speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and in the deep waters of the Pacific, which marked the way.

Quite clearly then this film is designed to honor those men and women who served the country as its first line of defense. The following scene introduces the Motor Torpedo Squadron, conducting peacetime maneuvers, and the main characters, Lieutenant John Brickley (portrayed by Robert Montgomery) and Lieutenant Rusty Ryan (portrayed by John Wayne).(7) After moving precisely through their maneuvers, the boats move into pierside in harmony with each other. The men form into ranks and stand by for inspection. This peacetime order, training and harmony will soon fall away to confusion and disorder, but it is this early scene which providea a contrast to the upcoming disorder. The audience then meets the main characters who are at cocktails that evening, Brickley and Ryan. Ryan is requesting a transfer from MTB-3 because he can't make a name for himself "floating around in plywood boats." Brickley chastises Ryan for not being a team player. This becomes a secondary theme which runs throughout the film. Strength comes from the traditions and formalities of society, from being a team player. As war is announced by the club manager, all leave in an orderly fashion. The band plays "God Bless America" (sung by a Japanese woman), which seems to strengthen the men departing to their assignments. Lieutenant Brickley goes to the Admirals office for orders. While waiting in the outer office, the room is dark and crowded, men stand around in confusion, seeking direction. Inside the brightly lit Admirals office, order prevails. Men are seen moving and taking action with certainty and deliberation. Brickley enters and receives his orders, "Stand by." As he leaves through the still darkened outer office, now empty, he is alone, surrounded by discordant shadows. This scene marks the transition from peacetime to wartime. The viewer transitions from boats moving in harmony during at sea maneuvers, to a jovial social setting where the principal concerns were to take care of yourself. Following the announcement of war, confusion abounds. No one except the Admiral seems to know what is happening. After receiving his orders, Brickley moves from the orderliness of the Admirals office, to the loneliness, darkness and confusion of wartime. After a brief battle between the PT boats and some Japanese airplanes, MTB-3 returns to its base to find it destroyed. All of their torpedoes, spare parts and gasoline have been damaged. The crews are angry at not being able to strike back at the invaders. MTB-3 gets word that an enemy convoy has been sighted and Brickley is summoned to the Admirals office. The following scene is one of the films most important, as it provides a motivating force for the main characters. Brickley arrives at the Admirals bomb damaged office, with rafters and other portions of the structure now laying at odd angles throughout the once-orderly office. The orderliness of peacetime now destroyed forever, there is no going back. Brickley wants orders to attack. But the Admiral sends the boats on messenger duty, carrying mail back and forth to Corregidor. As Brickley protests, the Admiral tells him:

You and I are professionals. If the manager says sacrifice, we lay down the bunt and let somebody else hit the home run. That's what we were trained for and that's what we'll do.

This scene subtley lays down the motivating force for the remainder of the film. The sailors sacrifice themselves because it's their duty and responsibility, not because of some need to preserve the nation or defend the homeland. It is this message that Ford is telling us, and it is to men such as Brickley and Ryan, who lay down the bunt, that Ford has dedicated this film. Not only does this scene provide a motivating force, it also provides an example of the difference between earlier World War II genre films and later versions. Gone are the blatantly patriotic speeches telling the audience why we fight. Overt speeches to sacrifice for God and country, with many references to "back home," are replaced by subtleness. A good writer, director, producer team can convey a message without having to resort to overt speeches. Symbology and subtlety can convey the same message within the narrative if done correctly. A later conversation between Ryan and Nurse Davis intones some thoughts of home, but this is done casually, rather than a direct exhortation. Gone also are the derogatory references to the enemy. Bataan included numerous references to "tail-less monkeys," "buck-toothed sons of Nippon" and "cross-eyed devils," as did the W. L. White book. These have been replaced with a begrudging respect common between foes who have met and fought. This is one of the direct results of having veterans in the cast and crew. The hatred and dislike for the Japanese may still be felt by the men, but a respect has grown for the enemy because they have proven themselves in battle. As a result the fervent hatred and childlike name calling has no place in the work of men such as these. They Were Expendable does not show the enemy at all, although Japanese ships are depicted. The enemy is instead treated like an ever~resent force, unseen, slowly moving forward. No matter the efforts of the Americans, their equipment fails them and the Japanese victory is close at hand. The bravery and dedication of the men and women is shown throughout the film. Doctors and nurses working around the clock, through enemy air raids, to operate on wounded men. Boats and crews attacking larger, more powerful ships in an attempt to stem the oncoming juggernaut. And men performing duties they would rather not perform, such as mail and message runs or sailors going to fight for the army, all in an effort to do their duty. Despite the efforts of these people, the inevitable defeat seems to press in all around. The honored dead are carried away for burial, wrapped in flags. Boats are destroyed in combat, or scuttled because they cannot be repaired. Men without boats are transferred to the Army to help in the defense of the peninsula. These images of defeated men give the audience the sense that these are the men who were expended, and the lonely beaches and jungles only add to the attitude of defeat. Through all the defeat, the rituals of society and military traditions continue to keep the survivors vibrant and sustained. Two scenes bring this forth most ably. The first is when Nurse Davis visits the officers for dinner in their "mess." Her presence and the ritual of a formal dinner seems to pump life into the weary men and women. despite the grueling routine they have been facing, they leave the dining room rejuvenated and ready to face the next test. The second is as the film nears its end. Brickley and Ryan have been ordered to return to the United States, their boats destroyed, the remaining crew ready to become soldiers. Weary and despondent, Brickley orders them to fall into formation. His last order is for "Boots" Mulcahey to take care of the young men. This last semblance of military discipline seems to give the men a burst of energy, as they march down the road to face the enemy once again. The final scene brings this film of dedication to its close. Ryan tries to get off the plane to remain with his men, but is reminded by Brickley that he is a team player now, and must follow his duty rather than doing what he wants. As the plane carrying Ryan and Brickley flies away, the marching remnants of the squadron are shown moving along the beach. Two groups of men, moving to do their duty, one on the Bataan peninsula, the other in the United States. There is no pretension about the fate of the men left behind, the audience knows that they will be killed or captured in the coming days and weeks of war. Back lit on the horizon is a lighthouse, a symbol of the hope of a coming victory by the United States. Superimposed on the screen are the words "We Shall Return," another symbol of the hope that all in the audience know is coming. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE provides the audience with entertainment and a message. It depicts the dedication to duty and sacrifice of the men who served, fought and died in the early days of Worid War ll. The film also tells the audience that the United States must remain strong and ready to fight. At the conclusion of World War ll the United States was the most powerful country in the world. But remaining so would require the same dedication and sacrifice that the men of MTB-3 had given. Additionally, the films realism, tension and complexity were instrumental to the changing genre of the World War ll combat film.


(1) See Geoffrey Perrett, DAYS OF SADNESS. YEARS OF TRIUMPH, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI 1973, pages 203-215 for the unifying impact of the Pearl Harbor attack.

(2) See Douglass Gomery, MOVIE HISTORY: A SURVEY, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont CA 1991, pages 186-187 for the impact of the war on Hollywood.

(3) Ibid, page 203

(4) Jeanine Basinger, THE WORLD WAR II COMBAT FILM, Columbia University Press, New York NY 1986, pages 133 and 134 has an excellent description of how these four films changed the war film genre.

(5) Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr, AT CLOSE QUARTERS. PT BOATS IN THE U.S. NAVY, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 1962, is the official report of PT Boat action during World War ll. He notes the discrepancy between Lt Bulkeley's report and the official version. He states the cause was the near explosion of a faulty torpedo (so prevelant in the Navy inventory at that time) and the PT Boat's haste to leave the area before being sunk by the Japanese ships.

(6) In the film her character name is Sandy Davis played by Donna Reed. W. L. White's book only listed her as Peggy and I was unable to track down her actual name.

(7) For a complete filmography, see Appendix A.


THEY WERE EXPENDABLE Released by MGM on December 7,1945,136 minutes long.

Director-producer: John Ford Associate producer: Cliff Reid Scenarist: Frank W. Wead, from book by William L. White Photography: Joseph H. August Art directors: Cedric Gibbons, Malcomb F. Brown Set decorators: Edwin B, Willis, Ralph S. Hurst Music: Herbert Stothert Editors: Frank E. Hull, Douglass Biggs Second unit director: James C. Havens Assistant director: Edward O'Fearna Robert Montgomery: Lieutenant John Brickley John Wayne: Lieutenant Rusty Ryan Donna Reed: Lieutenant Sandy Davis Jack Holt: General Martin Ward Bond: Boots Mulcahey Louis JeanHeydt: Ohio (injured pilot) Marshall Thompson: Snake Gardner Russell Simpson: Dad (Shipyard owner) Leon Ames: Major Morton Paul Langton: Andy Andrews Arthur Walsh: Jones Donald Curtis: Shorty Long Cameron Mitchell: George Cross Jack Pennick: Doc Charlie Charles Trowbridge: Admiral Blackwell Robert Barrat: General MacArthur


Anderson, Lindsay, ABOUT JOHN FORD, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York NY, 1981.

Anderson, Lindsay, "The Method of John Ford," in THE EMERGENCE OF FILM ART, Lewis Jacobs, editor, W.W Norton & Co,New York NY, 1979.

Bassinger, Jeanine, THE WORLD WAR LL COMBAT FILM, Columbia University Press, New York NY, 1986.

Baxter, John, THE CINEMA OF JOHN FORD, A. S. Barnes & Co, New York NY, 1971.

Breuer, William, DEVIL BOATS. THE PT WAR AGAINST JAPAN, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1987.

Bulkley, Capt. Robert J., Jr, AT CLOSE QUARTERS. PT BOATS IN THE U.S. NAVY, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1962.

Cooper, Bryan, THE BATTLE OF THE TORPEDO BOATS, Stein and Day Publishers, New York NY, 1970.

Crowther, Bosley, "They Were Expendable, Seen at Capital, Called Stirring Picture of Small But Vital Aspect of War Just Ended," NEW YORK TIMES, Dec 21, 1945, page D1.

Dick, Bernard F., THE STAR SPANGLED SCREEN, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington KY, 1985.

Ford, Dan, PAPPY: THE LIFE OF JOHN FORD, Prentice-Hall Inc, Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1979.

Gallagher, Tag, JOHN FORD. THE MAN AND HIS FILMS. University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1986.

Garland, Brock, WAR MOVIES, Facts on File Publications, New York NY, 1987.

Halliwell, Leslie, editor, HALLIWELL'S FILM GUIDE, 5th edition, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York NY, 1986.

Hyams, Jay, WAR MOVIES, W. H. Smith Publishers, New York, NY, 1986.

Jeavons, Clyde, A PICTORAL HISTORY OF WAR FILMS, The Citadel Publishing Group, Secaucus NJ, 1974.

Magill, Frank N., editor, MAGILL'S SURVEY OF CINEMA, Salem Press, Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1980.

Maltin, Leonard, editor, LEONARD MALTIN'S MOVIE AND VIDEO GUIDE, Signet Books, New York NY, 1993.

Morella, Joe, Edward Z.Epstein, and John Griggs, THE FILMS OF WORLD WAR II, The Citadel Press, Secaucus NJ, 1973.

Pascall, Jeremy, FIFTY YEARS OF THE MOVIES, Exeter Books, New York NY, 1981.

Pechter, William S., TWENTY FOUR TIMES A SECOND. FILMS AND FILM-MAKERS, Harper and Row Publishers, New York NY, 1960.

Perrett, Geoffry, DAYS OF SADNESS. YEARS OF TRIUMPH, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI, 1973.

Reed, Joseph W., THREE AMERICAN ORIGINALS, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown CN, 1984.

Rubin, Steven Jay COMBAT FILMS AMERICAN REALISM: 1945-1970. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC 1981

Shindler, Colin HOLLYWOOD GOES TO WAR, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1979

Shipman, David THE STORY OF CINEMA, St. Martin's Press, New York 1982

Suid, Lawrence H. GUTS AND GLORY, Addison-Wesley Publishing, Reading, MA 1978

White, W. L. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York 1942

Zolotow, Maurice SHOOTING STAR, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY 1974


The photographs on this web page are from the Illustrated London News:
  1. John Bulkeley portrait and PT boats photo from the Feb. 20, 1943 issue, p. 206.
  2. MacArthur photo from the Aug. 2, 1941 issue

This paper was written by David M. Cross 6 December 1994 for Mass Media History 168 taught by Dr. Steven Schoenherr