To see a film like John Ford's great "They Were Expendable" on the big screen at the Senator, where it is playing through Saturday as a tribute to Pearl Harbor, is both exhilarating and depressing.
It's exhilarating to realize that once upon a time, this is what American movies were; and depressing, because this is what American movies never will be again.
"They Were Expendable" is probably the best of a now-vanished breed called the unit tribute. The unit it celebrates is a PT boat squadron caught in the Philippines in December 1941. And the movie, in subtle and languid ways, becomes more than a gung-ho version of anti-Japanese agitprop or a brainless RTC celebration of our plucky lads on the firing line; it is unit tribute raised to masterpiece level.
Fundamentally, it's an homage to a spirit of quiet, almost anti-charismatic professionalism of the career military that won the second world war. Its most telling moment comes when a young ensign informs the men of the boat that they're to be awarded the Silver Star for having gotten General MacArthur to his secret airfield. They don't even listen to the kid; they've given themselves totally to their mission.
"They Were Expendable" is a mature, majestic and dignified film, flawed only by its enthusiasm for General MacArthur, whom it treats as almost a religious figure, and a pace that will seem to lag by "Die Hard" standards.
It's a typical late-war film, characterized by exhaustion and lack of rancor. It almost never bothers to characterize the enemy, or even personalize him: There's no moment of Japanese perfidy and no personal payback. Along these lines, the war isn't a crusade, it's an ordeal; it doesn't ennoble its warriors, it wises them up. Or, it kills them.
It took four authentic veterans of the conflict, director Ford, star Robert Montgomery, writer Frank Wead and photographer Joseph H. August (all Navy guys) to create the movie, which is one reason why it feels so authentic. It also captures not only the terror of combat but also its grind.
As for John Wayne, who'd spent the war in a Navy fighter plane a yard above the ground on the back lot at Culver City, how nice it would be to report that he's hopelessly miscast and out of his league. No such luck. He may not have been a professional naval officer, but he was a professional actor, the very best. He's great.
("They Were Expendable" is playing on a double bill with another great World War II film, Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity.")
'They Were Expendable'
Starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne.
Directed by John Ford.
Released by MGM.