They Were Expendable is a 1945 war film directed by John Ford. Filmed just weeks after the end of the war, it tells a fictionalized version of the story of US Navy Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the Philippines in the early months of World War II. The movie stars Robert Montgomery as the Squadron’s commander, Lieutenant John “Brick” Brickley, John Wayne as his executive officer, Lieutenant JG Rusty Ryan, and Ward Bond as Chief Bosun’s Mate “Boats” Mulcahey.
The story begins at Cavite Naval Station late on the evening of December 7th, 1941 (across the International Date Line from Hawaii and the continental United States). MTBron-3 is throwing a retirement party for Doc, the squadron’s Chief Pharmacist’s Mate, when the attack on Pearl Harbor is announced shortly after midnight.
The following morning, the PT Boat squadron is awaiting orders to sortie when Japanese bombers hit Cavite. Despite Brickley’s protests, the Asiatic Fleet only wants to use the PTs as courier speedboats around Manila Bay.
They are soon forced to evacuate from Cavite to the Bataan Peninsula, where Brick is finally able to convince his superiors to give them a handful of combat missions, which meet with mixed results. Meanwhile, Rusty strikes up a romance with Army nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). As the situation deteriorates, Brickley is ordered to take his four remaining operational boats and evacuate General MacArthur and his family and staff from Corregidor to the southern island of Mindanao. With the limited space on the boats, the rest of the crews have to be left behind, and are assembled into a scratch infantry platoon to assist the Soldiers and Marines on the line.
Brick and Rusty reach Mindanao, but lose a boat on the way. Another breaks down and has to be towed in. With the MacArthurs safely delivered, Brickley learns of a Japanese cruiser in the vicinity and decides to use their last torpedoes in an attempt to sink it. The attack is successful, but Rusty’s boat is badly damaged and has to be beached. He gets his crew off moments before the boat is destroyed by Japanese bombers. Rusty and his crew soon reunite with Brick and his, but find that the Army, which is preparing for a guerilla campaign, has commandeered Brick’s boat, which is out of torpedoes, for use on an inland lake. They can’t find their third crew.
The local Army commander notifies Brickley that he, Ryan, and two of their junior officers have been ordered to fly home to train new PT crews. Their men will have to stay on Mindanao and join the Army’s guerilla war. Rusty tries to stay with the men, but Brick orders him to get on the plane. The movie ends with Chief Mulcahey marching the remaining PT Sailors alongside an Army column.
Robert Montgomery did some of the directing after John Ford broke his leg, but Montgomery didn't receive a credit.
They Were Expendable contains examples of:
- Abandon Ship: Heard from one of the PT boats after Brickley's attack force is hit by Japanese artillery.
- Artistic License – History: The folks at Cavite are shown hearing about Pearl Harbor in the evening—the officers while at the officer's club having dinner, the enlisted men while at the bar having a retirement party for an old chief. The Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor at 8 am Hawaii time and the Philippines is 18 hours ahead of Pearl Harbor, so in Real Life the Philippines would have found out at 2 am on Monday December 8 local time, after the This Is Not a Drill telegram was sent from Pearl. Anyone not woken up with the news would have found out when reveille sounded and they got up for breakfast.
- Bittersweet Ending: Brickley, Rusty, and two of the ensigns get seats on the last plane out of Mindanao. The rest are left behind. The war will be won and the Philippines will be liberated, but anyone who knows a little bit of history knows that those left behind have a very low chance of survival, and those who do make it will probably wish they hadn’t.
- Camp Cook: “Squarehead” Larsen runs the kitchen when ashore, and is often good for comic relief.
- The Captain: Lieutenant Brickley commands both the PT Boat squadron and the lead boat. Rusty and the other senior officers each command their own boat within the squadron.
- Cool Old Guy: “Dad” Knowland, owner of the boatyard on Mindanao where Brick and Rusty get some badly-needed repairs.
- Dances and Balls: The personnel of the Army field hospital in Corregidor take a little time out of the war to have one.
- Deadpan Snarker: Sandy - when she's treating Rusty at the hospital, and he angrily tells her to watch her language because he outranks her, she responds, "Oh, and I thought you were a motorcycle cop."
- Doomed Hometown: Cook 2nd Class “Squarehead” Larsen, AKA “Cookie,” formerly served on the battleship USS Arizona, and remembers his time aboard very fondly. After the first attack on Cavite, he tells the rest of the PT Sailors that “Any day now, Arizona's gonna come steamin' over the horizon with her fourteen-inch guns blazin'. Just you wait!” The Meaningful Look between Rusty, Brick, and the chiefs indicates that nobody can bear to tell him what happened to his old ship.
- Cookie’s fondness for Arizona is Truth in Television, as the battleship enjoyed very high morale, esprit de corps, and few disciplinary problems during her career. She was a very coveted assignment and was often described as the happiest ship in the fleet, making her ultimate fate even more of a Tear Jerker.
- Dwindling Party: MTB Squadron 3 starts with six boats (each with a crew of 15) and a shore unit for supply and maintenance. One by one the boats are lost - sunk, grounded, burned, or transferred to the Army - and the men are killed, wounded, missing, or left behind, until at the end the squadron has zero boats and only a few men. The senior officers are evacuated, while the remaining officers and enlisted men march off to join the ragtag guerilla army forming on Mindanao.
- Ensign Newbie: Ensign “Snake” Gardner
- A Father to His Men: Brickley is very close to his men and hates not being able to take them to safety.
- The Film of the Book: Adapted from a bestselling 1942 book of the same name by war correspondent William Lindsay White.
- Foregone Conclusion: Both the original audiences and modern viewers know that the Philippines will fall, and those left behind are unlikely to survive Japanese captivity.
- Fragile Speedster: The PT Boats are very fast—when the engines work—but are made of plywood and go to pieces when the enemy lands a shot. Their torpedoes also make them an example of Glass Cannon.
- From Bad to Worse: As it was in real life.
- Heroic BSoD: Rusty gets a few: having to leave their men—and Sandy—behind on Luzon, the loss of his boat and two of his crew, and when he and Brickley are ordered to leave the rest of them on Mindanao.
- Ignored Vital News Reports: The announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor comes right in the middle of the toast to the old chief, so one of the sailors turns the speaker off.
- It Has Been an Honor: Brickley gives a speech to the men when it's time to separate, with some of the boats going to Bataan and Brickley being part of the mission to take VIPs to Mindanao so they can escape.Brickley: You're a swell bunch. I'm glad to have served with you.
- Mass "Oh, Crap!": Unlike most films of the genre, news of war breaking out is received with somber silence. The old hands remember the last war, the youngsters know that the old-timers’ reaction doesn’t bode well, and everyone knows that the Asiatic Fleet is outgunned and that the Philippines are a lot closer to Japan than America, geographically speaking. Really hammered home when the Filipina lounge singer in the officers’ club performs “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” while looking like she’s trying to hold back tears.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Averted to tear-jerking effect.
- Number Two: Ryan is also the squadron XO.
- Old Shame: Invoked In-Universe when Brick and Rusty need to borrow some torpedoes from a submarine. The sub skipper is reluctant until they reveal that they have some dirt on him.
- Plucky Comic Relief: Chief Mahan and Cookie Larsen.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Lieutenant Brickley. Also Brigadier General Martin on Mindanao.
- Retirony: The movie open’s on Doc’s retirement party, though his retirement is cancelled on account of war. Doc is put in charge of the men staying behind on Bataan, along with Ensign Gardner.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: The deaths of Cook 1/c Larsen and Chief Mahan indicate that the Bittersweet Ending will be heavy on the “bitter.”
- Team Pet: Good Luck/Bad Luck, a black cat whose name varies based on current events.
- Title Drop: "If any boat breaks down, we'll have to let her go. Expendable, you know what that means."
- Trauma Conga Line: The US forces in the Philippines get handed defeat after defeat and it’s clear no help is coming. Individually, Rusty loses his girl and most of his friends, the last of them in a particularly gut-wrenching way.