Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Before setting sail for The Finest Hours, check out these classics set mostly at sea.
Though he has a reputation as a hard-drinking man’s man, patriot, war hero, and fashioner of classic Westerns, the reality of filmmaker John Ford’s work is more nuanced. There’s a disarming sense of delicacy and wounded vulnerability in his films. How many American filmmakers would stop their visceral war narrative cold for a poignant reverie in which a naval officer takes his girlfriend to dinner on his base, while men serenade her? This scene from Ford’s They Were Expendable casually allows the serving men and women of a World War II-era PT squadron their humanity, particularly Lt. J.G. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne) and his brief acquaintance, nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed).
The interlude serves a structural purpose, of course: It heightens the audience’s emotional investment in the men when they’re in the water, battling the Japanese for control of the Philippines. But Ford never appears to be marking time for the fireworks ahead. He’s a reveler who understands that people reveal themselves at dinners, parties, binges, and the like. Gatherings aren’t simply a means of offering exposition for Ford; they instead represent the communal life force of his films.
Take, for instance, a moment at the beginning of They Were Expendable. Rusty’s ready to transfer out of his squadron because PT boats aren’t taken seriously by the American military as a means for directly combating the enemy. Rusty yearns to prove himself as an officer, while his superior and surrogate older brother figure, Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery), disapproves of such naked self-interest. At a party, Rusty hastily fills in his transfer application at a bar. Then, the Pearl Harbor bombing is announced over the radio, and Brick tosses his papers over the bar into the service area. He’s finally forgot himself.
Ford grounds this preachy bit of honor and duty in character detail. Writing something at a bar so urgently, among celebrating officers, underlines Rusty’s uncertainties as a man seeking actualization. The dinner date sequence is another example of Ford wanting us to understand the men’s selflessness while allowing the characters’ needs and fears, particularly their loneliness, to arise on their own apart from the film’s obvious purpose as a recruiting piece for the war. They Were Expendable is a deft blend of art and propaganda—the work of a significant artist, not an ideological promoter.
Availability: They Were Expendable is available on DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.