As the Japanese invade the Philippines, Lt John Brickley and Lt Rusty Ryan try to convince the US Navy of the efficacy of small, manoeuverable torpedo boats against heavier craft.
One of John Ford's most personal movies (though star Robert Montgomery stepped in to direct some scenes when the Master fell ill), this is an account of the early, losing days of America's war in the Pacific. Based on the career of Lieutenants John Bulkely and Robert Kelly, the spioneer of torpedo boats represented here as Robert Montgomery’s John Brickhill and John Wayne’s Rusty Ryan, the film sets out to be a semi-documentary account of a very minor tactical turning point – the big victory, almost unnoticed in the last reel, is not against the Japanese but that the Navy finally listens to the heroes – but is actually a deeply romantic vision of the heroism of ordinary servicemen.
The war film has been called ‘the male weepie’, and this, more than any other film, bears that out. If you didn't understand why The Dirty Dozen makes Tom Hanks cry in Sleepless in Seattle, take a look at the understated, male emotion on view in the finale of They Were Expendable as two stragglers (Louis Jean Heydt, Leon Ames) get places on the last transport plane out before the Japanese overwhelm an island because the junior officers who are supposed to take the spots are delayed, but then get bumped when the kids turn up after all. Perhaps the finest Hollywood war film made during WWII. Instead of an end title, it quotes Douglas MacArthur’s ‘We Shall Return’ – of course, by the time the film was out, the tide of war had turned, giving this study of a losing campaign and a humiliating retreat an elegiac, noble-but-doomed, sacrifice-in-the-short-term-for-the-good-of-all feel that’s entirely Fordian.
A war movie with enough honour and heroism to make a grown man weep.