They Were Expendable (1945)

John Ford was still a Navy captain when he made his first post-war film, an elegiac account of the development of the PT boat during World War II. His affection for the men with whom he had shot wartime documentaries led him to donate his salary for the rehabilitation of injured military filmmakers. It also suffused the film with a deep respect for the enlisted men and women who risked and often lost their lives fighting the Axis. Based on a bestselling historical account of the early years of the war in the Pacific, the film features real life events like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the evacuation of the Philippines. Through those historical moments, Ford keeps the focus on the human side of the struggle. Robert Montgomery, who had piloted a PT boat during the war, captures his character’s frustration when senior officers refuse to see the PT boats’ potential for battle, while John Wayne gets to play the hot headed lieutenant eager to get into battle. Ford refused to give the film a clichéd happy ending, which may account for its poor box-office performance on its initial release. Later critics, however, have embraced it as one of his most poetic and personal films.

(d. John Ford, 135m, 35mm)