They Were Expendable

They Were Expendable is a 1945 American war film directed by John Ford and starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne and featuring Donna Reed. The film is based on the 1942 book by William L. 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.

They Were Expendable
original theatrical poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced byJohn Ford
Screenplay byFrank Wead
Jan Lustig (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]

While a work of fiction, the book was based on actual events and people.[1] The characters of 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 which was excerpted in Reader's Digest and Life[4]  depict actions which did not occur, but were believed to be real during the war; the film is noted for its verisimilitude.


In December 1941, a squadron of U.S. Navy PT Boats under the command of Lt. John "Brick" Brickley (Robert Montgomery) is sent to Manila to help defend the Philippines against a potential Japanese invasion. However, upon their arrival, instead of a welcome, they are ridiculed by the local military commanders. One of Brick's men, Lt., J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne) becomes disgusted when his superiors refuse to see the small boats as viable naval craft and is in the process of writing his request for a transfer to destroyers when news arrives of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which makes transfer at that time impossible.

Ryan and Brickley's demands for combat assignments for their squadron are frustrated for a time as they are assigned to messenger duty, but when the Japanese launch a surprise attack with warplanes, they are hastily pressed into combat duty. They are again subjected to messenger duty, infuriating Ryan who continually requests transfer to a destroyer. Eventually, the local command recognizes the effectiveness of the small boats and use them for intercepting and sinking larger Japanese vessels. As they are about to leave on a mission to sink a Japanese cruiser, Brick orders Rusty to the hospital, where it is discovered that he has blood poisoning. While in the hospital, Rusty begins a romance with Army nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). Brick's boats sink the cruiser, after which the squadron meets with more and more success, even as they suffer the loss of both boats and men. During this time, "Dad" Knowland repairs the boats in order that they can continue the fight; though when American forces withdraw, his fate is unclear as he decides to stay behind to fight the Japanese. However, the American forces are vastly outgunned and outnumbered by the Japanese forces, and it is only a matter of time before the islands are lost.

With the mounting Japanese onslaught against the doomed American garrisons at Bataan and Corregidor, the squadron is sent to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and a party of VIPs. This done, they resume their attacks against the Japanese, who gradually whittle down the squadron. As boats are lost, their crews are sent to fight as infantry. Finally, the last boat is turned over to the Army for messenger duty. Brickley, Ryan and two ensigns are airlifted out on the last plane because the PT boats have proved their worth and they are needed stateside to train replacement PT boat officers and crews. The remaining enlisted men, led by Chief Mulcahey, are left behind to continue the fight with 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 Lt Robert Montgomery on D-Day[7].

According to Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, during filming, director John 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 on location in Key Biscayne, Florida[8] and the Florida Keys. This region most closely approximated the South West Pacific Theater. Actual U.S. Navy 80-foot Elco PT boats were used throughout the filming, albeit re-marked with false hull numbers that would have been 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 were used to simulate Japanese aircraft in the film.

John 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"; Robert Montgomery's onscreen credit reads: "Robert Montgomery Comdr. U.S.N.R."[8]

Awards and honors

The film earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Sound Recording, for Douglas Shearer, and for Best Effects.[9] It was also named to the "10 Best Films of 1945" list by The New York Times.[10]

See also


  1. 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. "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

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