Entry from June 27, 2013

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of Why We Fight: War Movies and War, Then and Now. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Wednesday, June 26th with a screening of They Were Expendable (1945) by John Ford, starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, Ward Bond, Jack Holt, Murray Alper, Marshall Thompson, Paul Langton, Harry Tenbrook, Louis Jean Heydt, Charles Trowbridge and Cameron Mitchell. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Like In Which We Serve, which we saw last week, John Ford’s They Were Expendable, adapted by Frank Wead from a book of the same name by W.L. White, is a story of military defeat which is made to look like a human triumph. Also like In Which We Serve, it is based on a true story and begins on the eve of war in order to provide a brief point of contrast with the main subject to follow, a story of struggle and loss and hardship. The tragedy and the pathos of what we are about to see can only gain force and momentum by beginning with a look backward to easier times, though not sentimentalized or romanticized ones, now vanished. Yet neither film wallows in the pre-war idyll. Instead, both concentrate less on the contrast between the war and what came before it than they do on that between those who could see and wanted to prepare for what lay ahead of them and those who couldn’t and didn’t.

In Noel Coward’s picture, this meant the contrast between appeasers like Beaverbrook and those, like Churchill, who had long warned of what was to come. Although the state of American military readiness for war against Japan must have offered an equally inviting target, Ford seems to have wanted to leave politics out of it. He was more interested in the struggle between traditionalists and modernizers in the American forces themselves. And it is true that, in America, the court martial in 1925 of General Billy Mitchell, an early advocate for air power, had nearly as much retrospective impact on the public imagination as Munich did on the British, and for the same reason: in both cases what we might call “the establishment” or “the ruling class” had insisted on its rights of precedence over brilliant and insubordinate outsiders only in order to persist in terrible errors of judgment that were in both cases swiftly exposed as such.

We should bear this bit of history in mind when watching the opening scene of They Were Expendable, which consists of a parade of the new motor torpedo boats in Manila Bay. Their senior officer is, Lt. John Brickley, based on the historical Lt. John Bulkeley and played here by Robert Montgomery, who actually served during the war in PT boats under Bulkeley, a Medal of Honor winner. Brickley or “Brick” says to his men: “Make it look good. This is the first time they” — meaning the admirals and other top brass — have seen PT boats.” Having successfully carried out their demonstration, his executive officer, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne) says: “That ought to show them,” but of course it doesn’t. The admiral played by Charles Trowbridge says to him that the little boats “maneuver beautifully, but in wartime, I prefer something more substantial.” Once again, a brilliant and far-seeing underling with new ideas about modern warfare is squelched by hide-bound traditionalists up the chain of command. Once again, too, the traditionalists swiftly learn how wrong they have been.

The story arc seems to be already in place, as it certainly would be in today’s movie culture with its reflexive suspicion of rank and authority, but Ford soon takes things in a different direction. The essence or heart of the movie isn’t here but comes a bit later, after the war has broken out with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now the admiral himself is over-ruled by those still higher up, and he gives “Brick” Brickley a lesson in how to deal with it. “You and I are professionals,” he says to the eager Lieutenant. “If the manager says, ‘Lay down a sacrifice,’ we bunt, and let somebody else hit the home runs.” It is not clear that either man, at this point, can foresee just what this “sacrifice” will entail, though in the book by W.L. White on which the movie was based, the explanation of the title is given up front:

Well, it’s like this. Suppose you’re a sergeant machine-gunner, and your army is retreating and the enemy advancing. The captain takes you to a machine gun covering the road. ‘You’re to stay here and hold this position,’ he tells you. ‘For how long?’ you ask. ‘Never mind,’ he answers, ‘just hold it.’ Then you know you’re expendable. In a war, anything can be expendable — money or gasoline or equipment or most usually men. They are expending you and that machine gun to get time. They don’t expect to see either one again. They expect you to stay there and spray that road with steel until you’re killed or captured, holding up the enemy for a few minutes or even a precious quarter of an hour.

At this point in the movie, Brickley appears to think his sacrifice consists merely in having to use his wonderful new weapons, the PT boats, to run messages between the real fighters rather than to fight themselves, and he isn’t happy about it. His second in command, Lt. Ryan, a character based on White’s main source for the book, Lt. Robert Kelly, is even less so. But their eagerness to get into the fight is a foreshadowing here of the grace with which they will in due course have to accept the other sort of sacrifice during what White calls “America’s little Dunkirk.”

And soon they will have some real fighting to do, as the powers that be begin to understand how valuable the PT boats really are. But for the rest of the movie that initial imperative of submission to higher authority, to the needs of the whole American military presence or, indeed, the whole country, over even the most laudable desires of the individual men remains in force. In the movie’s final scene, the ever-impetuous Rusty tries to give up his place on the plane evacuating the most valuable remaining personnel in the Philippines to Australia ahead of the advancing Japanese. “Brick” has to issue a sharp reminder: “Who are you working for?” he asks. “Yourself?” And Rusty again subsides. He now understands why their laudable and honorable desire to engage the enemy, like lesser personal considerations, has to be subordinated to higher purposes. “We’re going home to do a job,” the skipper reminds Rusty, “and that job is to get ready to come back.”

That of course gives us a nice segue to the words “We shall return,” which appear on the screen at the end in big letters and between quotation marks over their attribution to General Douglas MacArthur. This, apart from a similar screen card at the beginning, is the only time in the film that the name of the American commander in the Philippines and later in the Pacific Theatre appears — even though the central event in it and what made Bulkeley a national hero is the evacuation of MacArthur and his family from the besieged and doomed American garrison on the Bataan peninsula. Brickley’s/Bulkeley’s PT Boats take them through 600 miles of dangerous waters to Mindanao, the southernmost island in the Philippine archipelago, from where they are picked up by an airplane that takes them to Australia. We see MacArthur, impersonated by the non-speaking actor Robert Barrat, with his trademark pipe and trenchcoat, but he is referred to by Brickley only as “the army personnel.” That doesn’t stop the whole crew from breaking into wide grins as the General and his family come on board, or one of them from asking him — to the exasperation of Ward Bond’s “Boats” Mulcahey — to autograph his hat.

And here I hope you will permit me a brief excursus about this most minor character in the movie who was such a major character in the history of America and its wars. Up until William Manchester’s biography, American Caesar, which came out in 1978, or even the third volume of Clayton James’s Years of MacArthur six years later, his reputation as one of the greatest of American generals remained largely intact, even after his firing, allegedly for insubordination, by Harry Truman from the command of United Nations forces in Korea in 1951. Since then, however, and partly on account of the Truman revival of the 1970s, it has hardly been possible to find a historian who has a good word to say about MacArthur. One reason is that he was rather a vain man with a grandiose prose style — he had, of course, said “I shall return,” not “We shall return” as Ford has it — and a generally uncongenial figure to an age like ours which values egalitarian chumminess in its public figures and finds the remoteness of majesty or heroism off-putting. And MacArthur was a hero, himself a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War — although another recent historian has also attempted to cast doubt on his part in the action for which he received it.

Being as he was well aware of his own greatness, MacArthur also had a tendency to trust too much in his own judgment, which could be faulty. The most signal example was when his misplaced confidence that the Chinese would not enter the Korean War in large numbers led to many losses in a fighting retreat from North Korea in November-December of 1950. But in 1945, when Ford — himself a naval reservist who ended his career as an admiral — made They Were Expendable, the whispers against MacArthur had to do with his having lost virtually the whole of his air force (not that there was much of it to begin with), destroyed on the ground at Clark Field in the opening hours of Japan’s invasion of the Philippines on the day after Pearl Harbor. The scene in the movie where, on seeing the Japanese planes approaching, “Brick” orders his PT boats to sea, may be an oblique reference to this incident and a criticism of it. Although his base was destroyed, the boats themselves survived to fight another day — and, ironically, to carry the general and his family to safety.

Yet there is no reason to suppose that Ford did not hold the general opinion of MacArthur at the time as a great man and a brilliant general, or that the smiles on the faces of the sailors when they see him were meant to be ironic, or strike a false note in the film, as some have claimed. Apart from anything else, MacArthur could himself claim at least an associate membership in that club of brilliant outsiders, like Bulkeley or Billy Mitchell, and, as a member of the jury at Mitchell’s court martial, he had been the only member to vote for acquittal. It may be assumed that Brickley and Ryan, like their real life counterparts Bulkeley and Kelly, were fans of MacArthur because they saw him as an ally against the hidebound military establishment that had yet to be persuaded as to the worth of their little boats. Bulkeley records that MacArthur had told him after he had taken him and his family off Bataan and to safety that he would never forget it. “‘I’m going to try to get out all your officers and key men,’ he had said. ‘I’m not going to let you die in a fox hole with a rifle.’ I knew [says Bulkeley] he had believed the MTB’s had a great future in the war.”

More important even than this, respect for the Supreme Allied Commander — as for the powers that be back in Washington who could more justly have been faulted for America’s lack of preparedness for war — goes with the grain of this movie, as it does with that of White’s book and of the American culture of the time. You may remember that I mentioned in connection with In Which We Serve last week the continuity between the hierarchical military structure and the hierarchical class structure, such as it still was, in Britain at the time, which made it natural both for the men under him and the movie’s first audience to see Captain Kinross as a hero. Therefore, Coward’s movie-making also goes with the cultural grain. In America there was a very different social structure, but a similar bias towards the heroic — though based on accomplishment rather than class, as it was beginning to be also in Britain. Kinross has to earn the respect he receives from his men, not rely on it as of right, and we can see in Powell and Pressburger’s Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, only a year later, a portrait of a sympathetic old buffer who has to be eased out of his position of authority by younger, more ruthless men who better know the way the world is supposed to work now.

There is just such a figure in the White book, a good man whom the times have left behind and who must pay the price for it — a much heavier price than Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp figure. Ford leaves this man out of his movie, but he captures the respectfulness towards those in authority and sense of obligation among those lower down in the hierarchy to those higher up, even when they screw up. These things are instantly recognizable features of wartime or just post-war films and make a sharp contrast with what we will begin to see more and more in the movies — sometimes even in good movies — as we get further and further away from the experience of war as anything more than images on the television screen. There is a cheap grace to be had for those of the post-Vietnam era in portraying ordinary soldiers as victims and their superior officers as at best uncaring and at worst criminal psychopaths. But that kind of movie — of which there have been many examples since the prototype, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now of 1979 — depends on the assumption that war itself is irrational, even psychopathic behavior, an assumption utterly foreign and repugnant to those of what we now hypocritically call “the greatest generation.”

Because we have taught ourselves to see Vietnam as a misguided moral crusade, we may allow ourselves to think of “the good war” as a justified moral crusade. But that isn’t how most people saw it at the time. If you start, as they did, from the assumption that war is a matter of national survival, it gives you a natural context in which to see the sacrifice of any individual. It’s not as if these people had any good choices. In that sense, of course, they were victims, and of a kind that we find it particularly horrible to contemplate. Not quite two years before They Were Expendable was released but after White’s book was published, the American people were informed about the Bataan Death March that had ensued upon the fall of the garrison there. Everyone in its audience would thus have known what was the fate awaiting most of the film’s characters, along with thousands of others left behind who did not die in battle. Yet Ford never mentions this, remaining content to let the understated pathos of Bulkeley’s and Kelly’s accounts of the fall of the Philippines, which only speak of their comrades as being “killed or captured,” serve for the movie as well. Some might say that this only increases the pathos, as does the fact that so many of them are seen as having chosen their fate in an act of courage and self-sacrifice.

To those who were still thinking in such terms, anything more critical of the country’s leaders than They Were Expendable is — that is, not very — would be tantamount to self-criticism. From the vantage point of our very different cinematic language today, for a movie to convey this feeling of honor and duty and patriotic devotion among ordinary people is almost as extraordinary as the feeling itself. We have come to expect movies, as a hyper-realistic medium, to be much more at home with the critical stuff, especially when they come with the kind of technicolor gore we have grown used to — and rather blasé about — in the last 45 or 50 years. There’s none of that here, of course, but not because the audiences of 1945 were in the dark about the horrors of war. On the contrary, they knew them far better than we do. But they were also used to suppressing feelings that we, with nothing at stake, prefer to cultivate. The frisson of horror we get from graphic depictions of what bombs and bullets can do to human flesh depends absolutely on the remoteness of our movie experience from that of real life. Ford, by contrast, like Coward, for all the exoticism of his settings (the movie was filmed in the Florida Keys), always takes care to keep us close to real life, by which I mean a life recognizable to most people as being much like their own — something which, with the best will in the world, nobody could say about Quentin Tarantino.

The same thing is true, as we shall see in weeks to come, of heroism — such as is almost a matter of routine in movies like these first two in the series — versus super-heroism, which has become the common currency of movies over the last thirty years or so. Perhaps, like me, some of you will think of a certain popular movie of today on hearing the words of the San Francisco announcer on the short wave radio about the fall of Bataan: “Men who fight for one unshakeable faith are more than flesh, but they’re not steel. Flesh must yield at last. Endurance melts away. The end must come.” There’s something a little over the top, a little MacArthuresque about such a formulation, but it unquestionably belongs to our world, the world of everyday life. Nowadays, even when movies try to show us everyday heroes, they have to struggle (mostly unsuccessfully, in my view) to keep them from turning into unreal super-heroes before our eyes, as remote from us as the phantasmagorical visual worlds they mostly inhabit.

The quotidian amusements and diversions from the grim business of war that we saw in In Which We Serve are present here too — in the romance between “Rusty” Ryan and Donna Reed’s Sandy Davyss or the boyish pranks and hijinks that go along with the rivalry between the boat crews, or the services. This kind of ordinariness — what some short-sighted critics would call the clichés of both cinema and ordinary life in the 1940s — is necessary to make real to us the extraordinary heroism that is the true subject of both movies. It was a time when, as Admiral Nimitz said of the marines on Iwo Jima, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Both Coward and Ford found a way to make that paradox come alive on the big screen with an art and an artfulness that has since been lost, perhaps because we no longer value that virtue, or think we need to. To understand and appreciate their movies, you have to make the imaginative effort to put yourself in the place of people — and there really were such people — who not only valued valor but for whom everything depended on it.

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