They Were Expendable
They Were Expendable poster.jpg
original theatrical poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Screenplay byFrank Wead
Jan Lustig [de] (uncredited)
Based onThey Were Expendable
1942 book
by William Lindsay White
Produced byJohn Ford
StarringRobert Montgomery
John Wayne
Donna Reed
Jack Holt
Ward Bond
CinematographyJoseph H. August
Edited byDouglass Biggs
Frank E. Hull
Music byHerbert Stothart
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 Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 commander John D. Bulkeley, a Medal of Honor recipient, and his executive officer 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 certain combat-related events that were believed to have occurred during the war alongside those which actually did; nonetheless, the film is noted for its verisimilitude in its depiction of naval combat.


In December 1941 Lt. John "Brick" Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a squadron of agile but small and unproven U.S. Navy PT boats based at Cavite in the Philippines. He puts on a demonstration of their maneuverability and seakeeping capabilities for the admiral in charge, who remains unimpressed. Lt. J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne), Brick's executive officer and friend, is hot on getting into combat. He becomes disgusted at the dismissal and is writing his request for a transfer when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor arrives by radio bulletin.

The Japanese navy and army descend on the Philippines and wreak havoc. Bypassed by local brass, Brick's squadron is kept out of combat and marginalized to menial mail and messenger duty. Frustration, particularly with Rusty, grows and threatens to boil over. Following a devastating attack on their base their superior finally has no choice but to order them to attack a large Japanese cruiser shelling U.S troop emplacements ashore. After initially choosing Rusty to skipper the second boat on the sortie Brick discovers that his XO has blood poisoning from a previous combat wound and orders Rusty to sick bay, selecting another boat to take his place. After accusing his CO of glory hogging and resisting evacuation to a military hospital on Corregidor, Rusty arrives there hissing and spitting, only to reluctantly let in the severity of his life-threatening condition. There he begins a romance with Army nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). He meets another patient, "Ohio" (Louis Jean Heydt), who chides him to get in line. Brick's attack sinks the cruiser, after which the squadron is unleashed, achieving increasing success, though at the cost both of boats and men. Still, it is only a matter of time before the Philippines fall. Sandy attends a dinner in her honor at the PT Base, reigniting the flame between her and Rusty.

With the mounting Japanese onslaught against the doomed American defenders at Bataan and on Corregidor, the squadron is assigned to evacuate the commanding general of the Pacific Theatre Douglas MacArthur, his family, and others to Mindanao, where they will be flown to Australia. Rusty manages to make a last phone call to Sandy, now on Bataan, to explain he has been ordered out, but before they can say goodbye the connection is cut off. The small flotilla successfully carries MacArthur to his rendezvous across spans of open ocean. They then resume their attacks against the Japanese, who gradually whittle the squadron down too small to function effectively. Crews without boats are sent to fight as infantry. The final two PTs pull into a small shipyard run by crusty "Dad" Knowland (Russell Simpson) for repairs. The Japanese troops are approaching but Dad says they will have to fight to get him. He is last seen sitting on the steps of his home with a rifle across his lap and whisky jug at his feet, grimly awaiting his fate.

In a final PT-boat attack Rusty's boat is sunk, after which the surviving craft is turned over to the US Army, once again reduced to messenger duty. Brick, Ryan and two ensigns are ordered to be airlifted out on the last plane, assigned stateside to train PT crews, the small, inexpensive wood-hulled boats having proved their worth in combat. While waiting for the plane Rusty runs into Ohio. Neither knows what happened to Sandy, trapped behind on Bataan. They speculate that she might have escaped to the hills but are not optimistic. When one of the ensigns finally arrives late Ohio is forced to give up his seat on the plane and is left behind to certain death or capture.

The surviving enlisted men, led by Chief Mulcahey Ward Bond, shoulder rifles and march off to continue the resistance with the remnants of the U.S. Army and Filipino guerrillas, as expendable in the fight as their PT boats had been before them.



Following the acquisition of the film rights to William L. White's They Were Expendable MGM asked Ford to direct a film based on the book; Ford repeatedly 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[citation needed] 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 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 of sandy islands and palm trees around 25° North latitude sufficiently approximated the Philippines between approximately 10° and 15° North where the film's action took place in the South West Pacific Theater of World War II. Actual U.S. Navy 80-foot Elco PT boats (hull numbers PT-139 and 141), and four 78-foot Huckins PT boats, (hull numbers PT-98, 100, 101, 102),[9] were used throughout filming, given hull numbers in use in late 1941 and early 1942 for the film. Additional U.S. 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

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.[10] It was also named in the "10 Best Films of 1945" list by The New York Times.[11]

In his Movie and Video Guide film critic and historian Leonard Maltin awarded They Were Expendable a four-star rating, describing it as a "moving, exquisitely detailed production" that is "one of the finest (and most underrated) of all WW2 films."

See also


  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. ^ MTB Squadron Four, War Diary, Month of March 1945, FC8-4/A12-1 Serial 12, Dated April 2, 1945, NARA Collection
  10. ^ "The 18th Academy Awards (1946) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved August 16, 2011.
  11. ^ "Moviefone". Archived from the original on December 24, 2013.

Further reading