FF91 - They Were Expendable

Intro by Ben Harrison

You get the sense with some war movies that the war itself isn't a good enough motivation for some soldiers. They are there for the adrenaline or the camaraderie or to avoid something back at home. But a different, no less strong, motivation comes to the fore in They Were Expendable: Being underestimated!

It is easy to forget that there was a time when PT boats weren't inextricably linked to the image of John Fitzgerald Kennedy ripping through the coastal waters while wearing his Ray Bans and singlehandedly sinking a line of Japanese cruisers. There was a time when the PT boat was maligned. I mean, look at those things! Are you kidding me? And this film is chock-full of sailors who are absolutely champing at the bid to go to war, except they are saddled with what their leadership sees as glorified pontoon party boats.

John Wayne's character Rusty Ryan can't deal with this derision, so he prepares his papers to transfer elsewhere. Trouble is: When your request is dated December 7th 1941, a person can assume it is not going to be a priority for those in charge. Everyone in this Philippines-based PT boat squadron assumes that now, this will be their time to prove their worth, but after being relegated to messenger-duty morale crashes and their hopes of their craft being used in combat fade.

Just as they are about to be deployed to destroy some Japanese vessels, Rusty is ordered to the hospital: It is blood poisoning. Missing what he sees as his best shot at action he is understandably devastated. Rusty is the crankiest patient in the hospital before nurse Sandy gets through to him, as Donna Reed has the power to do, and the rest of the film is spent absorbing the constant losses of boats and men under Robert Montgomery's command. American forces are pushed back constantly, outgunned and outnumbered, retreating island to island.

For a film of its era it contains much more defeat than you would expect. By the end no one is underestimating the PT boat or the sailors who command them, but maybe Rusty's biggest mistake was underestimating how much danger Nurse Sandy was in. Today on Friendly Fire: We will skipper a cake of soap in the bathtub of our show, as we discuss the 1944 John Ford classic They Were Expendable.

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