Saturday, May 27, 2023

Stories Behind John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945)

By Nicholas Stix

David had to know that the mere mention of this classic, made just as The War was ending, would get me going.

The Shirker: John Wayne should have served his country, like millions of other men. His apologists have for years trotted out one shameless rationalization after another. ‘Oh, he was 34.’ ‘Oh, he already had three kids.’ ‘Oh, Republic Pictures got him exempted, wouldn’t let him go, and would have sued him.’

Older men served. At 40, Clark Gable was ineligible, yet somehow found a way to serve as an aerial photographer. At 6’3” and a mere 143 pounds, Jimmy Stewart had to get a doctor’s note attesting that there was nothing wrong with him, after he was initially rejected for being underweight. He would ultimately be one of Hollywood’s great heroes. If Republic studio chief Herbert Yates had dared to sue Wayne, in order to keep him out of uniform, the public would have boycotted the studio, and put it out of business.

Wayne saw the main chance. With his rivals off in uniform, he starred in not one, or two, but seven feature films in the first year America was at war. John Wayne’s career as the brightest star in the heavens was unthinkable without his dereliction of duty. Everyone in America had a family member (e.g., Captain “Barney O’Goodman”) or friend who died in military service, or himself died in service to his country. But Wayne had no intention of risking that.

As a teenager, my friend John Knox saw Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), assumed he’d served, and upped for Korea, where he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a machine gunner. Later, after learning of Wayne’s opportunistic non-service, if anyone mentioned Wayne’s name around John, he was ready to spit.

While making Expendable, John Ford made a point of humiliating Wayne, by saying of Bob Montgomery, in front of the assembled cast and crew, “He’s a real war hero!”

Granted, Ford loved humiliating Wayne—that’s how he treated the men he loved the most—but someone had to do it. Note, too, that Ford had served in uniform, as head of the Field Photographic Service for “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (the future CIA) through the Navy, in which service he lost 13 men who had served him as reconnaissance photographers.

Those men—the lost, as well as the survivors—meant so much to Ford that he donated his entire director’s fee for making Expendable to the creation of Field Photographic Farm, an R&R installation where veterans of Ford’s unit (and later, disabled veterans who had not served under him) could relax and celebrate holidays with their families. Field Farm was a huge part of Ford’s postwar life for over 20 years, and a project to which he devoted millions of dollars, adjusted for inflation.

It’s a black mark on the millions of Americans who idolized John Wayne that they ignored his refusal to serve his country.

The Slut: Donna Reed’s character, like the others, was based on a real person. However, Reed’s character, 2nd lt. Sandy Davyss, was extremely idealized by Ford.

As portrayed merely as “Peggy” by W.L. White in the book, They were Expendable, in the picture, her name was changed to Second Lieutenant Sandy Dayviss. Lord only knows why Wead would give the role such a peculiar spelling. (Her real name was U.S. Army Lieutenant Beulah Greenwalt Walcher, though I’m guessing that as of the Japs’ sneak attack, her rank was second lieutenant.)

In both genres, the nurse has wonderful qualities. However, the real Peggy also had not-so-wonderful qualities.

The real Peggy was simultaneously juggling two lovers: a medical officer (doctor?) by night, and Lt. j.g. Robert Kelly (“Rusty Ryan” in the movie, as played by Wayne) by day.

Ford had Frank “Spig” Wead and his collaborators change Peggy from a slut to a saint. She and John Wayne did not so much as share a kiss on the cheek, and only touched each other while dancing, and while sitting on a hammock after dancing, as Wayne puts his arm around her.

Ford had Wead change her by eliminating the medical doctor who was her first and continuing nighttime lover, and by eliminating most of the time Sandy and Rusty spent together.

When the Japs took Corregidor, they took the real Peggy prisoner, just as the picture suggested they might have, and held her in a POW camp for 33 months.

After being liberated, she fell in love again, and married in 1946. She also found out that she’d been immortalized by White and Ford. So, how did she show her gratitude? By launching a shameless money-grab, a frivolous lawsuit against MGM for “invasion of privacy,” asserting the picture had “cheapened” her! She sought $400,000 but still cleaned up, to the tune of $290,000 in 1948 ($3,650,426.14 today, adjusted for inflation).

Later, she would claim that her character was “just Hollywood,” but what was that supposed to mean? Hollywood cleaned her up, and never even used her real name (nor had White). Wherein was the “invasion of privacy”? How does being idealized “cheapen” someone?

If she had been offended by being “cheapened” and by some imaginary “invasion of privacy,” she would have sued W.L. White’s publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company. But her lawyer realized that MGM had deeper pockets than Harcourt. She was just greedy.

The Opportunist (II): John Bulkeley (Brickley in the picture, as played by Montgomery) was a great war hero, the man who rescued MacArthur from Corregidor, and got him to Mindanao. But he was also a man who always knew which side his bread was buttered on.

MacArthur was Bulkeley’s “rabbi.” He got him medal after medal after medal, all for the same mission. W.L. White was careful to break up mentions of the medals in different parts of his book, so casual readers wouldn’t see that something was amiss:

Navy Cross
Silver Star (everyone who served on the mission to get MacArthur to Mindinao was supposed to get this.)
Distinguished Service Cross
Congressional Medal of Honor

Bulkeley told someone that Bob Montgomery didn’t know the first thing about PT boats. Well, all someone has to do is badmouth Bob Montgomery, in order to make an enemy of me. Bulkeley would later claim that the first time he crossed paths with Montgomery, in 1944, the actor was sizing him up to play him in the movie. He forgot to mention that he had met Montgomery in 1942. The occasion was for propaganda purposes. Bulkeley was our first big hero of the war, and was the center of a national campaign. Back then, we had something called “Proud to be an American Day” (imagine that!), and Bulkeley was shown around New York’s swankiest clubs, with a retinue of worshipful reporters. His hosts? Jimmy Cagney and Robert Montgomery, before the latter entered the service.

Montgomery also served as Bulkeley’s executive officer during the run-up to D-Day.

When Bulkeley met Ford for the first time, shortly before D-Day, Capt. Ford was sizing him up for the planned picture, but Bulkeley couldn’t have been more deferential.

Even great military heroes are still men. Like I always say, never underestimate the role of pettiness in human affairs.

The Hero: In 1941, Robert Montgomery was a big star at MGM. He had starred that year in the fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, as a boxer who was about to get his chance at a heavyweight championship bout but who, due to a snafu in the heavenly bureaucracy, dies in a plane crash before his time had come. Heavenly bureaucratic wizard Claude Rains is called upon to fix things, by giving the boxer a new body. (This flawed, near masterpiece got an inferior re-make starring Warren Beatty, as Heaven Can Wait (1978). However, if for no other other reason, see the re-make for the sake of Jack Warden as the head coach, reprising Jimmy Gleason’s role from the original. In the original, Gleason, as Montgomery’s manager, gives the most heartbreaking double-take I’ve ever seen. Montgomery and Gleason were both up for Oscars.)

Montgomery was young and handsome and “In the pink!,” as his character always says. But in Expendable, a mere four years later, he’s paunchy and haggard. Similarly, in photos of Jimmy Stewart in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Forces early in The War, he looks boyishly handsome. But in pictures of Stewart in uniform after two years as a bomber pilot and squadron commander, he looks 20 years older. Combat duty will do that to a man.

If Bob (legal name: Henry Montgomery Jr.) Montgomery hadn’t known anything about PT boats, he’d have gotten himself and his men killed, during the four months he served as a PT Boat skipper, and for which the Bronze Star was bestowed upon him for his heroism.

Montgomery got fed up with Ford riding Wayne in front of the crew, and asked him, in private, to cut it out. Ford broke down in tears, and stopped it.

Before The War, Montgomery helped stop the mafia from taking over MGM. After The War, he stood up to the Communists’ attempted takeover.

Montgomery did a brilliant job starring in and directing the Raymond Chandler detective story, Lady in the Lake (1946), and the Dorothy B. Hughes crime story, Ride the Pink Horse (1947). Some fans of crime pictures like to call Pink Horse a “non-urban noir,” but turning it into a sub-genre within a sub-genre would cheapen it. In fact, I’m fed up with the category “film noir,” in large part due to TCM host Red Eddie Muller’s abuse of it. They’re crime movies, for cryin’ out loud.

In recent years, Muller has taken cheap shots at Montgomery, to get even with Montgomery for being a patriot, e.g., asserting Montgomery did a poor job, both as star and director of Ride the Pink Horse. In truth, Pink Horse is a heart-breaking classic.

To appreciate Muller’s standards, or lack thereof, consider that he rewarded Native Son (1951) with what he considers his highest compliment, calling it a “film noir.” The movie, based on black Communist Richard Wright’s eponymous 1940, propaganda novel, may have been the worst motion picture of the entire 1950s.

Of Related Interest

“Indispensable: The Book (1942), Movie (1945), and Back Story to They were Expendable;

They were Expendable: The Book, Part II”;

“John Ford’s They were Expendable (1945)”;

“William Lindsay White: They were Expendable: The Back Story”;

“William Lindsay White: They were Expendable: The Back Story”;

“From They Were Expendable to Queens Die Proudly—Kurtz Story”;

They were Expendable (1945): Music and Excerpts from the Classic, John Ford WWII Picture about the Men Who Served on the PT Boats in the War’s Darkest Days”; and

They were Expendable (1945): A Review by tomsview1.”


Anonymous said...

"-They’re crime movies, for cryin’ out loud-" THANK YOU for that! It's a silly marketing label that, as you said, has been way over-used, and abused! (The "Film Guide" probably lists BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA as a "Horror-Comedy-Noir!") -RM

Anonymous said...

Interesting info about the Duke's avoiding military service,maybe I should have had Jimmy Stewart give the Memorial Day speech on another posting.Still,John Wayne was a believer in America--not "America",which was my reasoning for using him in that soliloquy.


Anonymous said...

That's because Barbara Stanwyck played the gorilla.


Anonymous said...

I found out about Eddie Albert (Green Acres) a few years back. I copied and pasted what it says about him in brief.

"During World War II, Eddie Albert joined the United States Navy as a lieutenant serving in the Pacific Theater. He was involved in numerous operations and battles, including the Battle of Tarawa; his instinctive, selfless, and heroic actions saved the lives of between 50 and 70 Marines trapped in a desperate situation."

He was the pilot of a landing craft and repeatedly returned to the beach and put his craft between the enemy and the wounded Marines, while under heavy fire, to rescue them and bring them back to the ship
Now that's a Hero!

1 min 30sec video with him.
Worth checking

Anonymous said...

Eddie Albert seemed invincible,capable of defeating the enemy himself.


Anonymous said...

John Wayne said because of his age he could not join as an officer. John said he did not see himself as one cleaning latrines.