Although a work of fiction, the movie was based on the real-life exploits of Lt. John Bulkeley, (renamed Brickley for the film), a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.
Except for one or two sequences it relies on believable, non-heroic characters involved in acts of concentrated heroism under intensely stressful and suspenseful conditions. Its use of many actors who themselves were recent combatants give the move a near documentary feel.. Robert Montgomery had been a real-life PT skipper in the war and he helped direct some of the PT sequences for the film when John Ford broke his leg three weeks into filming. Montgomery actually finished the film for Ford but took no screen credit.
By the time the film was completed the Japanese had surrendered, so MGM pushed the release date back to December 1945. With the war over, the film opened to enthusiastic reviews but low turnout at the box office due to 'war saturation' in the public.
PlotThe story is first and foremost about some very desperate American armed forces who after Pearl Harbor were at the Japanese mercy. Pearl Harbor had destroyed the US Pacific fleet and no supplies could get through.
The movie action takes place in 1941 in Manila in the Philippines where a squadron of agile fast-attack Patrol Torpedo boats have been sent to avert a possible Japanese invasion. Their commander is Lt. John "Brick" Brickley played by Robert Montgomery. He and his second-in-command, Lieutenant "Rusty" Ryan, played by John Wayne, desperately try to prove the newly-founded naval unit's worth. The enemy launches a devastating all-out attack--and despite some undeniable success--the considerably outnumbered and outgunned PT boats appear to be fighting a losing battle. The troops fight on bravely but ironically, they were in fact by geography expendable.
Wayne's character has no desire to be there. Nevertheless, he gradually changes his mind and he also gets to have a romance with Navy nurse Sandy Davyss, played by Donna Reed.
Wayne and Montgomery give good but subdued performances. No do or die heroics here, just a sobering reminder of a terrible beginning for the Americans in the Pacific theater of World War II.
ProductionThe filming location was Key Biscayne, Florida, which represented the Philippines after a lot of design and set work.
Actual PT boats were supplied to the studio by the US Navy.
Like Wayne, Ward Bond had been accused of being a draft dodger, although by 1941 he had secretly developed epilepsy as a result of his alcoholism.
Robert Montgomery gets top billing in the movie because in 1945 when the film was made, he was the bigger star--Wayne's rise to the top in Hollywood was still to come.
In the credits, the rank and service of every cast and crew member who served during the war is listed. This was a not so subtle dig by John Ford at John Wayne, who Ford thought should have enlisted after Pearl Harbor.
Main CastRobert Montgomery ... Lieutenant John Brickley
John Wayne ... Lieutenant (junior grade) "Rusty" Ryan
Donna Reed ... 2nd Lieutenant Sandy Davyss
Jack Holt ... General Martin
Ward Bond ... BMC "Boats" Mulcahey
Marshall Thompson ... Ensign "Snake" Gardner
Paul Langton ... Ensign "Andy" Andrews
Leon Ames ... Major James Morton
Arthur Walsh ... Seaman Jones
Donald Curtis ... Lieutenant (J.G.) "Shorty" Long/Radio Announcer
Cameron Mitchell ... Ensign George Cross
Jeff York ... Ensign Tony Aiken
Murray Alper ... TM1c "Slug" Mahan
Harry Tenbrook ... SC2c "Squarehead" Larsen
Jack Pennick ... "Doc"
Alex Havier ... ST3c "Benny" Lecoco
Charles Trowbridge ... Admiral Blackwell
Robert Barrat ... The General
Bruce Kellogg ... Elder Tompkins
Tim Murdock ... Ensign Brant
Louis Jean Heydt ... "Ohio"
Russell Simpson ... "Dad" Knowland
Vernon Steele ... Army Doctor
CreditsDirector ... John Ford
Producer ... John Ford
Screenplay ... Frank Wead, Jan Lustig (uncredited)
Basd on ... 'They Were Expendable', 1942 book by William Lindsay White Musical Direction ... Herbert Stothart
Productiion Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Distributed by ... Loew's Inc.
Release date ... December 19, 1945
Running time ... 135 minutes
Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
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