I have very strong feelings about this film. As a baby boomer, I have always felt that mine and future generations owe an eternal debt to those who didn’t come back.
One way of acknowledging this debt is the way we watch war films, not as bloody spectacles but as tributes and reminders.
And what kind of tribute and reminder is “They Were Expendable”? Consider the rueful irony of the title. Such a sentiment is quite uncharacteristic of director John Ford’s other work, especially his westerns (possibly excepting “Fort Apache”), which border on jingoism. Yes, there’s a scene that’s pretty hard to take: When the boats are detailed to take MacArthur out of harm’s way, Ford tries to make out like they’re rescuing Lincoln, complete with “Battle Hymn of the Republic” soundtrack. Today we know MacArthur as an overrated blow-hard, but 1945 was too early to see past the hype. And yes, there’s some of the usual Ford corn-ball and the familiar Ford players, with John Wayne and Ward Bond doing their thing. But then, there’s the great Robert Montgomery, who did active duty (unlike Wayne), and I truly believe he was playing this film, both as actor and co-director, straight from the heart. You can see it in a scene in which he realizes his duty means his death. Much of that scene is shot in shadow, but paradoxically the darkness serves to enhance Montgomery’s underplayed emotions. The emotions are similar when Montgomery and Wayne are later confronted with an order that saves their lives but dooms their men.