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Warner Home Video presents
They Were Expendable (1945)

"Look son... we're going home to do a job. And that job is to get ready to come back."
- Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: June 12, 2006

Stars: Robert Montgomery, John Wayne
Other Stars: Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond, Marshall Thompson, Paul Langton, Leon Ames, Arthur Walsh, Donald Curtis, Jack Pennick
Director: John Ford

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (scenes of warfare)
Run Time: 02h:14m:47s
Release Date: June 06, 2006
UPC: 012569767003
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B D-

DVD Review

John Wayne easily stands as the iconic movie image of American GIs during World War II. With such work as Sands of Iwo Jima and In Harm's Way among countless others, the Duke appears to have essentially won every battle in the both theaters of the war. Leave it to John Ford, however, to place America's A-number-one hero on the losing side of Bataan.

On the surface, They Were Expendable is the typical 1940s war propaganda movie. Its subtext, on the other hand, is an unflinching portrait of war's tragic loss. Lt. John "Brick" Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and Lt. "Rusty" Ryan (Wayne) are prepping PT-boats in Manila Bay on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Rusty is sick of Brick's patient demeanor and wants to serve on a destroyer. Along with their fellow Navy officers, including "Boats" Mulcahey (Ward Bond), the two men are simply stuck working dead-end jobs until the Japanese attack. Now, under the leadership of General Martin (Jack Holt), each man is stuck between a rock and a hard placeónot equipped to deal with the oncoming Japanese attack, but unable to abandon the Philippines just yet for strategic purposes.

The vast majority of Frank Wead's script looks at the bureaucratic machinations of the Navy, as Brickley and Rusty attempt to get their boats out to sea in a sacrificial attempt to stall the Japanese advance. There are many earnest scenes depicting the officers talking to enlisted men, motivating them despite the fear of death. Rusty is held up by an infection, which places him in the care of Nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), while Brickley leads his men into combat. Ford wisely chooses to show the blooming relationship between Rusty and Sandy, because it helps underscore the film's themes. This is a war film about losing, not glory. Whether it is the loss of shipmates or a chance at a new life, war closes many doors. Yet, this is not an angry diatribe against war. Each man finds a purpose during the film's 135 minutes that has an unquestionably positive impact on his life.

It is fashionable now to attack Wayne's WWII movies, but even the most ardent critic will have a hard time assaulting They Were Expendable. The jingoistic storytelling of his other films is decidedly absent here, replaced by Ford's sharp take on war. The battle scenes aren't rally cries, but an honest attempt to show the horror of armed conflict. As Japanese planes fly over the PT-boats, one gets a real sense of how random and uncontrollable much of battle is. Wayne's typical heroics never emerge here. Instead he delivers a muted performance of a man who enters into battle not as a superhero, but merely a Navy officer. Robert Montgomery brings his real life PT-boat experience to the screen convincingly and, it pains me to say, actually upstaged the Duke. While the supporting cast tends to fall prey to the typical 1940s wartime clichés, the cast still makes it compelling.

They Were Expendable, as the title indicates, isn't the typical 1940s war movie. Ford's film was ahead of its time when released in 1945 and its images ring true in today's contemporary world of war. Neither pro- nor anti-war, the film simply presents the sacrifice of men and women in uniform. And while it realizes some are expendable, the tone laments that fact.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.33:1 black-and-white cinematography looks about as good as one could expect. Shadow detail is impressive and contrast is sharp. Detail is somewhat underwhelming, however, but it is a minor complaint.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original English monaural mix gives a nice presentation of the original theatrical experience. Sound effects are quite distinct and dialogue is always audible. While nothing fancy, it is a nice mono track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 44 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:23m:07s

Extras Review: The original theatrical trailer stands as the sole extra for this release. Taken on its own, the lack of supplemental material makes it more worthy of a rental than a purchase. However, as part of the John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection, They Were Expendable is a fitting conclusion to the set.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

They Were Expendable is a stirring World War II film that merits a look by today's audiences. The image and sound transfers give an adequate presentation of the movie, making this barebones DVD worth at least a rental.


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