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4.7 out of 5 stars43
4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 6 July 2007
This black and white film was made just after the end of WWII, and so it might be expected to be very gung ho, but that is far from the case. It is a contemplative film about US servicemen and women living a desperate situation in the Philippines during the Japanese invasion in 1941, scripted by Frank 'Spig' Wead, himself a serving naval officer during the war.

The story surrounds Motor Torpedo Squadron 3, led by Lieutenants Brickley and Ryan (Montgomery and Wayne), and is loosely based on the real-life Lieutenants Bulkeley and Kelly. The squadron with just a handful of plywood boats was virtually the only US naval force available to fight the entire Japanese invasion fleet, and the sense of hopelessness allied to a desire to fight pervades the entire film. We follow them as they get forced back from one base to another, always looking to the horizon in the hope that the US fleet will steam in to save the day. At the time, few on the islands were aware of the magnitude of the Pearl Harbor disaster, and so it only gradually dawns on the characters that there is not going to be any help.

Certainly the squadron portrayed in the film sinks rather more ships than it did in real life, and the way the boats go about attacking ships is chosen for its screen impact rather than its realism (that's Hollywood I suppose, but it does make for some very exciting scenes). However, the essentials of the story are very well portrayed - the acting and screenplay are both first class. John Wayne plays second fiddle to Robert Montgomery, with the result that his feet are kept fairly firmly on deck and his heroics remain in check. Fine performances from Donna Reed, Ward Bond and several others help to create a very convincing atmosphere.

To my knowledge, it is the only feature film to focus exclusively on the smaller elements of WWII navies (PTs, MTBs, MGBs, Coastal Forces, etc.). I can think of none at all which feature the Royal Navy's Coastal Forces (please add a comment if you can put me straight on this). So for that reason alone it has its attractions for anyone with an interest in naval warfare. But in my view its thoughtful and fairly realistic portrayal of the events makes it worthy to stand alongside the other three great films about WWII at sea: The Cruel Sea, Tora Tora Tora and Das Boot.

Incidentally, without giving the plot away, the ending may seem like an improbable Hollywood twist, but it did in fact happen to Bulkeley and Kelly.
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on 24 September 2014
Universally recognised as one of the greatest classics to come out of World War Two, this understated and deeply affecting portayal of PT Boat Squadron 3 and the evacuation of the Philippines was scripted by Spig Wead, a former naval officer, and directed by John Ford, who acted as cameraman at several major battles during the war, including Midway and D-Day. Their contribution lends a remarkable authenticity to the production.

This is not your run of the mill gung-ho American action movie. Immensely atmospheric in its scenes, dialogue and musical score - constantly repeated snatches of patriotic melodies in hauntingly muted and dying cadences - it captures all the pathos and despair of troops awaiting the imminent invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese with no means to prevent it, and the likelihood of capture and inhuman treatment. Contrasted with such gloom, however, are the valiant sorties by Wayne, Montgomery and co. in their fragile torpedo boats against the Japanese fleet. Wayne, always a great star, is here at his best and most unusual, more restrained and contemplative, the true professional soldier doing his duty in impossible circumstances.

Depicted is the famous episode when General Macarthur is taken to safety in Australia to continue directing the war. His promise: I shall return, precedes the end credits on screen.

The film's ending is especially poignant, when the lucky few are flown out to safety, while the rest are abandoned to captivity and possible death.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 May 2014
During WW II Hollywood produced countless dozens of patriotic "flag-wavers" and quite naturally most of those films were very bad. Some however, like "Destination Tokyo", "Flying Tigers", "Lifeboat", "Sahara", "Thirty seconds over Tokyo", "The fighting Sullivans", "God is my co-pilot" and "Purple Heart" were quite good and some others, like "Guadalcanal Diary", "So proudly we hail" and "Action in the North Atlantic" were actually VERY good. Only one however can be considered as a masterpiece - and it is this one.

This film tells the story of American officers and sailors serving on board of PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boats during the campaign of Philippines in 1941-42. Together with submarines those small crafts were the only support US Navy was able to provide in those times to the defenders of Luzon and Mindanao. Although small, the PT Boats fought bravely and from that time on the Japanese, who never managed to deploy similar units, called them "Devil Boats".

The two main characters, John Brickley (played by Robert Montgomery) and Rusty Ryan (played by John Wayne), are based on two real US Navy officers: John Duncan Bulkeley and Robert Kelly, who indeed served in this campaign (the former earning the Medal of Honour for his deeds). To enjoy this movie more I would advise you to NOT research on internet what happened to the real characters... Donna Reed plays the secondary character of a nurse who serves in the military hospital, first on Corregidor, then closer to front lines, on Bataan. John Wayne is of course nowadays considered the main star of the film, but Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth Montgomery of "Bewitched" fame), who actually really served in US Navy during WWII and took part in real fighting, is actually even BETTER than the "Duke".

This film shows the greatest military defeat United States ever suffered in their whole history - therefore, even if it is obviously very patriotic, it is also VERY TRAGIC. Instead of being jingoistic the tone is dark, very dark indeed, as Americans fight with grim determination but without much illusion about the ultimate issue... The butcher bill is very heavy and few people we see in the beginning will make it all the way to the final credits. A good decision of the director was to make some characters actually disappear in the fog of war and keep their fate a total mystery until the end - that actually reinforced the feeling of tragedy and made this film more realistic...

John Ford, himself a US Navy Reserve officer, enjoyed a lot filming the PT Boats which, with their speed and aggressive lines, were indeed the "sexiest" warships of their times and the camera loved them. There is a lot of action scenes in this film and they were all very well done - even if almost every major exploit attributed to those PT Boats in Philippines Campaign is fictitious (not all however...).

Sorry for a mini SPOILER here but in fact NO heavy cruiser of "Mogami" class was ever even damaged by a PT Boat. If all the four ships of this class were indeed sunk by Americans during World War II, it was due to air attacks ("Suzuya", at battle of Samar), collision followed by air attacks ("Mikuma" at battle of Midway), cruisers fire, air attacks and collision ("Mogami" at battle of Surigao Strait) and a succession of destroyer torpedo attack, air attacks, submarine torpedo attack and more air attacks ("Kumano", the only Japanese ship Admiral Halsey admitted feeling sorry for, during Philippines Campaign in 1944).

A very skilful thing used by John Ford in this film was to make the enemy visible only through his war machines. We cannot see even one Japanese during this film, even if we see plenty of the planes and warships - and also see the incoming bombs, shells and lines of tracers rounds... This absence of human face of the enemy reinforces again the feeling of heavy threat...

A very impressive thing in this film is the iron discipline amongst US servicemen - even if nobody really enforces it! I believe that it is a mostly accurate description of feelings which prevailed amongst American soldiers and sailors in their fights for Luzon, Bataan, Corregidor and Mindanao, as it was clear that they had to "keep the line straight" if they wanted to even have a chance to survive - and also when taken in consideration that the enemy was cruel, dangerous and unanimously hated... The final scenes show in a purely magnificent way this display of strong, self-imposed discipline and also of a great, impressive dignity, in a situation in which people could be very much excused if they rebelled or despaired...

Ever since I saw it in my childhood in communist Poland I always liked this film a lot and it always moved me a lot - and I was delighted to discover that even today, in Year of Grace 2014, it didn't age. NOT A BIT! A magnificent masterpiece to buy, watch and keep! Enjoy!
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on 25 September 2012
It's WW2 and the seemingly unstoppable Nipponese juggernaut is sweeping across the Pacific theatre. Pearl Harbour is bombed and the consequences are soon to be visited on the various US outposts throughout the region.

This movie centres principally upon a PT boat squadron based in the Philippines.

Robert Montgomery heads a cast of familiar, seasoned stalwarts, co-starring a rapidly-ascending John Wayne with Donna Anderson as his love interest. This is what I'm apt to call a `classic' war movie. There is thoughtful development of story that includes combat, romance, strategic chaos, shortages of supply and confusion. it's definitely not just a gung-ho shoot-em-up. Indeed, the thoughtful and slightly discursive interludes help to provide pacing for the military collapse that's going on elsewhere, and rapidly closing-in on our heroes & heroines.

Acting is on the money, the script likewise, other technical issues are all up to snuff. Combat scenes engaging the PT boats - especially during a run-in with fighter-bombers - are very dramatic, and if I have any real complaint it is that we don't see enough of them. However. That aside, I found myself induced to care about the characters, and that is what a good story is supposed to do.

Remember; this is a 1945 movie, and was subject to the cinematic mores and censorship rules of the time. Ghastly wounds, blood-n-guts, burning alive, bad language and explicit sex were no-no's. Live with that and it's a very entertaining watch for a couple of hours. The B&W photography, stiff upperlips and understated acting remind me of a vintage British work, and I can't say fairer than that.

These movies have a unique and endearing fidelity that emphasises story and character. They need no propping-up with pyrotechnics and special-effects. I love 'em.

Well worth its present price.
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on 19 September 2013
A film directed by John Ford ,unusually it concerns an American defeat in the Philippines.The film has a doomed feeling but the story has great pathos and some action,the character development is good and makes for a big impact at the end of the film.John Wayne is at his peak,George Montgomery is steady as the commanding officer.not a box office hit ,no one likes watching there own side lose,it has now gained classic status,i urge people who like old movies to watch this
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on 16 January 2003
It is a film which did not appeal to me on first viewing. I have since seen it many times and it just imporves like fine wine (its one of those films which needs many viewings to 'connect') It is not easily accessible, especially for the modern generation but it weaves its own beautifully elegiac and sombre melody - more so for those who understand its sad history.
It is a surprisingly intelligent film, which some may find hard to follow, since it contains a bit of strategic talk and such, but it has some heart-rendingly poignant moments, especially the scenes between Wayne and Reed - for instance the candle lit dinner, THAT beautiful shot of the both of them staring into the distance during the dance, and the last phone call.
Some may argue that it is only sporadically great. The 'lesser' moments perhaps sit a bit naked in comparison to the masterstroke scenes mentioned above. Also it may be criticised as being patriotic (dare I say it, propaganda?), but it never feels as such. The japanese are never shown in negative light, in fact they don't ever appear in the film. This was a film made by Ford to commemorate those who fought and its a fitting tribute. 'A Matter of Life and Death' was subject to the same initial criticisms - and that is a masterpiece.
Those with shorter concentration spans may be a bit bored, but make no mistake this is one of the most haunting, and poignant war films around, and captures the mood and tragedy of the time. Along with The Thin Red Line the greatest war films ever made.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 September 2005
More than 60 years ago, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. During the months which followed, the United States struggled to recover as Japanese military victories continued throughout the Pacific. This film is based on William Lindsay White's interviews of four members of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, published as They Were Expendable in 1942. John Ford and Robert Montgomery co-directed and Montgomery also stars as Lieutenant John Brickley. Throughout much of this film, Brickley's squadron only provides courier service between Bataan and Corregidor. When given the opportunity, however, Squadron Three does manage to sink several of the enemy's ships as the Japanese complete their conquest of the Philippines, eventually forcing the American forces to surrender.
With regard to the film's title, not all of those involved with resisting the Japanese were expendable. General Douglas Mac Arthur is ordered by President Roosevelt to relocate with his family and staff to Australia. Brickley's squadron makes their escape possible. As the film ends, he and Lieutenant J.G. "Rusty" Ryan (John Wayne) return to the United States on the last plane out. Their men will now be fighting on foot...at least for a while. In the final scene, as they trudge proudly down the beach and the plane carrying Brickley and Ryan rises above them, the soundtrack offers a muted choral rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." A distinctive Ford touch.
The greatness of this film is best explained in terms of (a) the generally non-verbal but nonetheless close relationships between Brickley and Ryan, and, between them and their crews; (b) the romantic feelings shared by Ryan and Lieutenant Sandy Davys (Donna Reed) which Ford never permits to deteriorate into sentimentality; (c) Montgomery's highly-effective portrayal of a soft-spoken leader; and (d) Wayne's (for me) surprisingly subtle and sensitive performance, perhaps equaled (in terms of nuance) only by his performances in The Searchers and The Shootist.
It is worth noting, also, that Ford as well as his cast and crew obviously had great respect for the men and women in the American military services. They avoid all of the pitfalls which ruin so many other war films. For example, character stereotyping (e.g. including a philosophical Jewish cab driver from Brooklyn) and using melodramatic music to manipulate a viewer's emotions during especially dramatic moments. This film has integrity in all respects, suggesting that although many of those whom it portrays may have been expendable, they are nonetheless admirable.
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John Wayne made several war movies, and some that stepped back in time to earlier conflicts, especially during that period after the USA had entered WWII.

'They Were Expendable' is perhaps one of the best and there were many others. From one movie to the next, he went from airman to soldier to marine to sea captain and yet more! His personal explanation was that he was showing his support for the various arms of the services and that they would each take their turn.

In reality, Wayne served in none! One interpretation was that he wanted to support his family and he could best do that by not risking his life or health. That sounds more like a publicist justifying Wayne's actions than Wayne himself. The probable truth was that Wayne's income from his production company, Batjac which he fully owned, was derived from him being the star of his movies and from the studio and production fees associated with those activities which would have very minimal had he not continued making and starring in his movies!.

This movie portrays the activities of the fast torpedo boats in the Pacific. The boats were themselves not armoured and constructed mostly of marine ply, fitted with very powerful engines and armed with light machine guns or small naval guns and a few torpedoes. They were very light and extremely fast vessels capable of speeds of around 40 knots, a fact that could sometimes help them escape danger. However, it did not take much to set one alight or to sink one and they were very susceptible to air attack and had no defence against heavy naval guns - hence the title.

An excellent vehicle for Wayne and probably reasonably truthful and authentic, it is a very enjoyable movie and something of a favourite.
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on 5 January 2013
A brilliant account of the fall of the Philippine Islands, seen through a squadron of torpedo boats (instrumental in the evac of General McArthur).
A stirring movie, without any theatricals. All the actors are perfect.
It stands MILES above all "average" american war movies.
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on 1 July 2014
Great movie ...
Very old fashioned, and full of 1940's style 'gung-ho' and 'we won the war all on our own' American propoganda.
But ... a really great film just the less.
Well worth having in your collection.
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