#11 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford went to war. He joined the OSS, was given the rank of commander, and made documentary films for the navy. The height of his excitement was being present at the Battle of Midway where he made the Academy Award winning Documentary The Battle of Midway, along with several others. With the war winding down, he was allowed to go to Florida and film an adaptation of the book of the same name by William Lindsay White about a real squadron of PT boats, fictionalized a bit for dramatic effect. There’s obviously a lot of love in this film for the men that served in the navy and an implicit understanding of the temporary nature of life in a war zone that creates a deep sense of melancholy that’s really affecting.
The film starts just before the outbreak of war with Japan in the Philippines with Lieutenant John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) leading his outfit of wooden PT boats on a demonstration for his general. His second in command, Lieutenant Rusty Ryan (John Wayne), is unsatisfied with the work, feeling like it’s a stymie on his career rather than a boon. When war is declared after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a sense of duty fills the men, including Rusty, who decide that they will do everything they can with their unproven boats in the fight against Imperial Japan. And yet, the PT boats’ unproven nature keeps it to smaller duties like the passing of messages. Through a Japanese bombing run where the boats prove their worth in battle, they start getting missions to attack the enemy head on, starting with a destroyer in dock, losing a boat in the process.
There’s a real cost to this action, and the victories never feel jingoistic or overly positive. They lose people all the time, and the characters feel the loses. It’s these small details, especially in a half hour section towards the middle of the film, where the movie really feels special. Rusty gets hurt on his hand, leading to blood poisoning that he must go to the infirmary to treat. There he meets the nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), and she proves her worth during an air raid and surgery. The lights are flickering, but she’s steady as bombs drop a few hundred feet away. The scene is filmed so simply, focusing on the faces of those involved, and there’s this wonderful sense of duty, bravery, and resolve in the face of danger with everyone.
The romance that develops between Rusty and Sandy is made all the more poignant by the fact that it’s executed on the backdrop of the fall of the Philippines. It’s a steadily degrading loss as time goes on with the superior Japanese forces making further gains despite everyone’s best efforts, and in the middle of all of this life has to continue on in some form and fashion. Romances will bloom and may never come to anything, but it makes the emotions felt none the less real. I think my single favorite scene in all of John Ford’s body of work is here. Rusty invites Sandy to dinner with the officers. Sandy takes a moment to make herself up when she arrives as best as she can by taking off her hat, brushing her hair, and placing a pearl neckless around her neck, peeking out from under her coveralls. The dinner is quiet as the men marvel at this picture of feminine beauty (Donna Reed really was quite pretty), and they exchange pleasantries that always seem to be hiding the real emotions underneath. When dinner is done, Sandy begins to cry because all of the men are such nice boys, and she knows that they are likely to all die. The love and sadness for the men who gave their lives in the war is palpable, and it’s some of the most emotionally affecting stuff Ford ever put to screen.
The rest of the movie after that is more typical stuff. It’s never bad by any means, but the efforts to evacuate MacArthur and get back into the fight when they run aground one of the remaining boats while getting separated crews back together is never that kind of emotionally resonant as what came before. It’s solid stuff with Rusty trudging through the jungle alone and finding Brickley working hard to get his boat back in the water. There’s a nice moment with Russell Simpson as “Dad”, an old man on the island who helps refit the boats, remaining behind on his porch with a gun in his lap and a bottle between his knees, ready to fight his last fight against the Japanese invaders.
The film ends with the remaining officers having to fly out on the last plane from the Philippines after the fall of Bataan, and it becomes their duty to leave. They have to leave to build more PT boats, to show Washington how it’s done, and their duty is not to stay behind and fight. They have to put aside their desire for action to do the greater thing to help win the war.
I was reminded of Howard Hawks’ Air Force pretty consistently as this played out. Air Force was made during the war and had a similar feeling of being in the opening of a long fight. It dovetailed, though, when a propaganda ending got pasted on that showed the men winning a great battle. It didn’t fit. Made towards the end of the war, with victory becoming more certain, American movie makers were more open to making films that reflected the reality of the fight they had just been through. They could end a film without the need for a big victory to help drive young men to enlist. They could more fully follow where the stories needed to go, and John Ford, having seen direct combat as a filmmaker for the OSS, was an ideal choice for the project. It was a box office bomb, though, since Americans were tired of war pictures when the film was released after the surrender of Japan, but I think it stands the test of time quite well.