Sunday, December 20, 2020

Flashback, December 1945: ‘They Were Expendable,’ Ford Tribute to Naval Courage, Premieres

They Were Expendable, MGM’s somber, stirring tribute to the American PT-boat sailors who first battled skeptical military brass about their craft, then Japanese invaders in the Philippines in the first desperate days of WWII, opened at Loew’s Capitol Theater in Washington, DC, in December 1945, with an audience including many in the military it honored, such as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Navy personnel also helped create the film, including screenwriter Frank Wead, a retired WWI pilot; director John Ford, a captain in the Navy Photographic Field Unit; and one of the two male leads, Robert Montgomery, a real-life PT skipper in the recently concluded war.

One key cast and crew member, however, was not involved in the war: the second male lead, John Wayne, who nevertheless used the movie to recast his image successfully as a towering American hero.

Ford and Wayne made 20 films over 35 years, but in certain ways this may have been the most pivotal. It certainly was the one that tested the most the boundaries of their working relationship and friendship.

Ford, who had enlisted in the Navy even before Pearl Harbor, had spent much of the prior four years in a documentary crew filming battles, including Midway (where he continued shooting even after being wounded, earning a Purple Heart for his gallantry). Throughout that time, he had been after Wayne to “get into” the fight.

But Wayne—34 and able-bodied at the outbreak of hostilities at Pearl Harbor—kept finding one reason after another not to join up. He had suffered an injury during college that continually hampered his function (though it hadn’t bothered him much while performing his own stunts several years before). He was the sole support of his family (though that status would change, as he was about to enter divorce proceedings). He couldn’t get out of a contract with Republic Pictures without triggering a lawsuit (though he didn’t test to see whether Republic head Herbert J. Yates was bluffing). He wrote Ford about joining his photographic unit but kept postponing joining until after his next picture.

In the end, Wayne was exempted from service due to his age and family status. That didn’t sit well with, for instance, Pacific Theater vets who, upon encountering Wayne on a USO tour, booed him raucously (an incident recalled in William Manchester’s WWII memoir, Goodbye, Darkness).

While not a draft dodger, Wayne had not pressed his case as vigorously as other stars had done. That rankled Ford, who before long was ridiculing him repeatedly in front of the entire crew.

The baiting was in keeping with the longtime on-set behavior of Ford, an alcoholic bully who would often pick one person on each film to abuse. The director had, in prior movies, taken Wayne to task for, among other things, “walking like a pansy.” 

Now, almost as soon as shooting began on Ford’s birthday in February—with co-star Montgomery serving inadvertently as a model of doing one’s military duty—Wayne found himself subjected to abuse on a subject that would haunt him for the rest of his life: the not-so-subtle imputation that he was a "shirker."

Ford may have reached his zenith in sadism when he asked why Wayne couldn’t even salute properly. Watching his co-star reduced to what another actor in the production called “a quivering pulp,” Montgomery had had enough. If Ford was subjecting Wayne to this treatment on his behalf, the director should stop the treatment right now, Montgomery said.

Ford eased up—but only on this movie. More than a decade and a half later, while shooting The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford asked James Stewart, a decorated pilot, what he had done in the war. Then he turned to Wayne to ask what he had done.

One has to ask why Wayne continued to endure this abuse—particularly by the early 1960s, the time of production on Liberty Valance, when he was a box-office institution. Gratitude to Ford for rescuing him from “B” Westerns with Stagecoach can only account for some of his forbearance.

True, there was also the possibility that Ford would offer Wayne the chance to play increasingly psychologically complex variations on the ideal of American manhood. But I think something else was involved, the same dynamic behind Montgomery’s work on this movie: the chance to learn from a master of movie-making.

By the mid-1940s, Montgomery—more famous these days, as I indicated in a prior post, as the father of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery—was a highly regarded actor with his eye now trained on behind-the-camera work. A year later, he would finally have the chance to direct his first film, an unusual adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel The Lady in the Lake.  

But as he was playing the lead in They Were Expendable, Lt. John Brickley (based on the real-life war hero Lt. John Bulkeley), the actor—a bit nervous about not being in front of the camera for three years during the war—was thinking about the next turn in his career. He didn’t protest when Ford, after filming a scene according to his suggestion, then told him to take the reel home with him, as they wouldn’t be using it.

Weeks later, after Ford suffered an injury while on location in Florida, he had Montgomery film action sequences while he was recuperating. In what must have thrilled the actor, Ford later claimed that he couldn’t tell the differences between these scenes and those he had filmed.

As for Wayne: Playing Brickley’s second-in-command, Lieutenant "Rusty" Ryan, was not only a chance for a high-profile role in something besides a western, or even for making sizable elements of the public forget his less-than-glorious part in the war, but also an opportunity to learn lessons in directing from the universally acknowledged master of the art.

By this time, a project of his own was germinating in Wayne’s mind: making a film about the Alamo. Over the next 15 years, he would hire researchers and put much of his own money behind this account of the legendary last-ditch stand against Santa Ana. Even now, he was absorbing by osmosis how to frame shots and other aspects of film.

The Alamo was similar to They Were Expendable as a study of sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. But, if film could be likened to song, Wayne had learned the words but not the music that would make the experience indelible.

Over the course of his long career, Ford assembled a de facto stock company of actors who, for better or worse, were willing to endure his on-set dictatorship. He knew their talents and fit roles to them, and had learned to work even more smoothly with screenwriters such as Wead and Frank Nugent (a former movie critic who would write the script for The Searchers and other classic Ford westerns).

Wayne could not count on the same assets in making The Alamo. He could not secure actors he had hoped for principal roles (Clark Gable, Charlton Heston), so he had to hope that the ones he did secure (Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey) would mesh well with each other under his direction—a hope unfulfilled in the final product. 

More fatally, for all his interest in recreating the Alamo with almost documentary exactness, Wayne lacked Ford’s intense psychological identification with his material. From Midway to D-Day, Ford had not just filmed men under fire but also, as one himself shooting amid the roar of battle, he had imbibed their attitude toward war as a matter of stoic grace under pressure rather than an exercise in jingoism.

Some of the best moments in They Were Expendable are of men suddenly facing awesome odds with silent, grim but certain resolution: being told, one by one, at a social gathering that Pearl Harbor has been attacked, or, through a fluke of fate, losing one’s place on the plane taking select sailors to the comparative safety of Australia. The Alamo exhibits none of this fatalistic attitude. It is more committed to waving the flag than in honoring the qualities that led men to carry it in the face of death.

The result: while They Were Expendable did not lure a war-weary public to the box office, it has increasingly won critical acclaim as one of the best WWII movies, while The Alamo is a long epic that, for all its admirable intentions, lacks the psychological insight, pacing or extraction of actors' best talents so characteristic of Ford classics.

No comments: