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"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32
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Author:  Nicholas Stix
Bio: Nicholas Stix
Date:  October 7, 2021
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Topic category:  Other/General

John Ford’s WWII Classic, They were Expendable (1945)

On December 7, 1941, a date that shall live in infamy, the Japanese launched the biggest sneak attack in history against our naval base in Pearl Harbor. Japanese fighter planes and bombers killed thousands of our men, and laid waste to our Pacific fleet and fighter groups. For months, the carnage continued in a Japanese Blitzkrieg throughout the South Pacific. It remained for sailors on unarmored, 70' x 20' plywood Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats to make themselves "expendable," in order to slow down the Jap offensive. William L. White interviewed some returning PT boat officers for what became the bestselling book, They were Expendable in early 1942, in order to explain the dire situation to the civilians back home. Director John Ford, serving in the OSS Field Photographic Unit, making documentary movies about the war, almost immediately planned on filming the book, and after some delays, did so, finishing it in August 1945. The movie was released on December 7, 1945.

[Previously: “Indispensable: The Book (1942), Movie (1945), and Back Story to They were Expendable; and

“They were Expendable: The Book, Part II.”]

The Movie

Whereas a book is a torrent of words (in some cases with illustrations), a talkie is based on images and sounds.

John Ford, who had served most of the war in the Pacific Theater of Operations, making documentary films, began making this picture during the last days of the war, and finished it shortly after the Japanese surrender.

The picture starred an actual P.T. boat commander, Lt. Commander Robert Montgomery (1904-1981), who had fought the Japs in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and who then piloted a landing craft against the Nazis at Normandy in the European Theater of Operations on D-Day.

The second banana, billed right under Montgomery, was John Wayne, who had not served.

The opening credits listed every war veteran and his rank:

Second Units Directed by
Captain U.S.M.C.R.

Director of Photography
Lt. Cmdr. U.S.N.R.

Screen Play by
Frank Wead
Comdr. U.S.N. (Ret)

Directed by
John Ford
Captain U.S.N.R.

The opening music is a brassy medley of patriotic music: a little Sousa, a little “Let Freedom Ring,” a little “Anchors Aweigh,” all packaged with some original sounds, courtesy of Herbert Stothart, the Oscar-winning composer of The Wizard of Oz (1939), and MGM’s longtime music director.

“To the end of the end of the world we’ll go,
And to the end of the end of the fight you’ll know,
That we’re the men that are sending them down below,
Sentries of the Navy.

“And to the end of the end of your days at sea,
You’ll find us fighting for right and for liberty....
Anchors Aweigh”

Now Herb Stothart’s music becomes somber, with swirling strings suggesting the ocean’s waves, and we are treated to words from General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (five stars), or his ghostwriter, who had a touch of the poet.

“Today the guns are silent. A great victory has been won…

“I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way.”

We will be treated to countless variations of Stothart’s music, which will serve as the theme, the leitmotif, of the boats and of battle.

Manila Bay

In the Year of Our Lord

Nineteen hundred and Forty-One

(“In the Year of Our Lord” on the screen; imagine that? MGM, Hollywood’s biggest studio, was run by an immigrant Jew, L.B. Mayer, but L.B., who was born in today’s Ukraine and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, was a Robert Taft conservative who, like the other studio chiefs, Jew and gentile alike, loved America.)

In the opening scene, to Herb Stothart’s music and Douglas MacArthur’s words, the men manning the six PT boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 are giving a pre-Pearl Harbor demonstration of the Navy’s first PT boats for the brass.

The brass didn’t believe in those fast, lightweight, 70’ x 20’ plywood boats, lacking all armor, but each with three Packard motors, two .50 caliber machine guns and four torpedoes. However, once the Japs attacked, they had to rely on them. When the Germans started World War II, they called their furious strikes against Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France a "Blitzkrieg"--"lightning war." However, if anything the Japanese opening of the Pacific War was even more lightning-like.

The PT boats did not disappoint—they and their men were expended, slowing down the Japs, and conveying the escaping MacArthur to Australia, who swore, “I shall return,” and who made good on his oath.

The picture uses four leitmotifs: Herb Stothart’s theme of the boats and battle; Sandy Dayviss’ theme, Victor Schertzinger’s “the Marcheta”; Dad Knowland’s (real name, Dad Cleeland) theme, “Red River Valley”; and MacArthur’s theme, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Jack Ford (1894-1973) was unable to make use of any actual PT boats from the period. The ones the Japs didn’t sink, our boys had to destroy, so that they wouldn’t fall into the Japs’ hands. But he was given some plywood 80-footers, which filled the bill.

Screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead (1895-1947), a naval aviation pioneer, who had walked away from death-defying airplane crashes without a scratch, only to break his neck in a fluke household accident, became a “friend” of John Ford’s (friendships with the old man required scare quotes and asterisks), and an accomplished screenwriter. However, Wead went “Hollywood.” (There was also uncredited work on the script by Norman Corwin, George Froeschel, and Jan Lustig.)

Thus, Wead concocted any number of dramatic contrivances not in the book, while eliminating, reducing, or changing much that was in it. (Note that Wead changed John D. Bulkeley’s name to John Brickley; he was played by Robert Montgomery. Robert B. Kelly’s name was changed to “Rusty” Ryan; he was played by John Wayne (1907-1979). And “Peggy’s” name was changed to Sandy Dayviss; she was played by Donna Reed (1921-1986). Somewhere, I read that the Navy did not permit servicemen to be depicted in pictures under their own names.)

Thus, Wead conjures up a conflict not in the book between Montgomery and Wayne’s characters, whereby Kelly/Ryan is a glory hound more concerned with his own career than with serving.

Right after the Navy brass leaves the maneuvers, the following exchange takes place.

Lt. j.g. “Rusty” Ryan [As they watch the brass drive away]: “Wonderful, the way people believe in those high-powered canoes of yours.

Lt. John Brickley: “Don’t you believe in them, Rusty?

Lt. j.g. “Rusty” Ryan: “And I let you sell me that stuff about a command of my own.

Lt. John Brickley: “You’re skipper of the 34 boat, aren’t you?

Lt. j.g. “Rusty” Ryan: “I used to skipper a cake of soap in the bathtub, too.”

[He walks off.]

Brickley then walks over to his boat, the 41, and looks at it lovingly, like a father gazing at his new-born child.

However, Wead and Ford create a bookend scene, weeks later, when a Jap dive bomber destroys Ryan’s 34 boat, while he’s standing on a beach 20 feet away. He takes off his cap, and grimaces, as if he were watching a loved one die.

Also, while in the book (i.e., in reality), Lt. Robert B. Kelly had at one point gone missing in action, been given up for dead, and a Catholic priest had held a funeral service for him and another man, in the picture, it is Kelly who speaks at the funeral for two men, reading a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, “Requiem.”

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill

The battle scenes, all ably photographed by second unit director, James C. Havens, are stirring, but they are not the most moving scenes in the picture.

Ford has been likened to a painter, which should hardly be surprising for a great movie director. However, no director had a better grasp of the role of music, and gave more exquisite care to its use. The viewer may think he is moved to tears by what he sees, but it is typically the accompanying music that wrings those tears from him.

Three exhausted nurses in oversized uniforms (“all uglied up in those potato bags”) are photographed from behind, wearily leaving the operating room, on a shiny cement floor.

When, with the Japs approaching, Ryan offers to escort “Dad” Knowland (real name, “Dad” Cleeland; played by professional rustic, Russell Simpson) away from his shipyard, the older man refuses, saying, “I worked forty years for this, son. If I leave it, they’ll have to carry me out,” and stoically sits down on the wooden steps of his house, a jug of whiskey by his side, and a rifle across his knees.

Ford has “Red River Valley,” from circa 1831, play in the background.

Chords of mystic memory.

(According to the theory, a leitmotif provides a memory within a picture of what transpired earlier in it, but this is a John Ford picture we’re talking about.)

While in the book, Robert Kelly and Peggy got to constantly spend time together for three months, Ford has them see very little of each other in the picture. And yet, she looms large. How do you do that? You do it with music.

Ford used Victor Schertzinger’s slow, haunting, 1913 waltz, “Marcheta: A Love Song of Old Mexico” as Peggy’s leitmotif.

The nurses throw a party, to which Peggy invites Ryan. Ford and Wead contrive a conflict before the party, in which Ryan haughtily lectures Peggy, “I don’t dance, and I don’t have time to learn!”

But he does show up at the party. And they dance on a crowded floor, to Schertzinger’s waltz. He’s an officer and a gentleman; of course, he can dance! And this is when they fall in love.

After dancing, Peggy and Ryan make small talk about their respective backgrounds, sitting alone on a hammock in a secluded area at the party, Ryan with his arm around her, with the “Marcheta” playing softly in the background—and the earlier arrogant Kelly can only manage a goofy grin.

(In a nice touch, Ford had one of his screenwriters insert among the small talk that Sandy is from Iowa. Donna Reed actually was an Iowa farm girl, born and bred. Wead has Rusty Ryan be from upstate New York. In reality, Kelly and Bulkeley were both from New York City.)

Except for the dance scene, during every scene Sandy appears in, whether she’s coming to a special dinner the officers throw for her, or talking to Ryan on a field telephone, the “Marcheta” plays in the background. Even when she’s not in the scene, but Ryan is talking about her, or even just thinking about her, we hear the “Marcheta.”

The typical viewer is only consciously aware of the Schertzinger waltz twice—when the future lovers dance, and in a scene in which the music is playing on the radio, is interrupted for the alert that Bataan, where Peggy is stationed with 36,000 American soldiers, has just fallen to a force of 200,000 Japanese, and then returns.

However, viewers are subconsciously affected by Schertzinger’s waltz throughout the picture.

[To be continued.]

Nicholas Stix
Nicholas Stix, Uncensored

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Biography - Nicholas Stix

Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.

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