Thursday, February 26, 2009
Reeling Backward: "They Were Expendable" and "Strategic Air Command"
Recently I watched a couple of old war flicks that I'd heard of but never knew much about. "Strategic Air Command" stars Jimmy Stewart as an Air Force pilot, and "They Were Expendable" has John Wayne as a PT boat captain.
The thing that struck me most about them was their bleak tone and unabashed confrontation with the unpleasant realities of military service. This is surprising, since they're both essentially propaganda films. "Expendable" was made by John Ford while serving as an auxiliary officer during WWII, and "SAC" came out in 1955 at the height of the Cold War, right as America was building up its nuclear arsenal.
In "SAC" Stewart plays a professional baseball player who is, in essence, stop-lossed and forced to return to the Air Force. Even though the country is not at war, the air command general orders all reserve officers back to active duty. This messes up Stewart's baseball career, as well as putting his new marriage on the coals. A surprising amount of the movie deals with the marital tensions between the reluctant officer and his bride.
(I should mention that Stewart was 47 when this movie came out, so he looks a bit long in the tooth to portray a pro athlete, even one who only has "a few good baseball years" left in him, as his character puts it.)
During his stint, Stewart meets other officers who were similarly forced back into service, and aren't too happy about it. Pretty bold stuff for the '50s. Eventually, of course, he sees the value in what he's doing and declines to return to baseball when his tour is up.
It's a gorgeous movie to look at, directed by Anthony Mann in widescreen with vivid Technicolor. Ultimately, it falls a bit flat because there's not much conflict to dramatize. Since there's no combat, Stewart's big dangerous missions consist of flying back and forth to Alaska and hoping the plane doesn't blow up.
I was also fascinated by the aerial footage of aircraft flying, tons and tons of it -- taking off, cruising, mid-air refueling. The movie is almost fetishistic in its portrayal of the machinery. I'm sure my father, who served in the Air Force during this period, and my father-in-law and brother-in-law, who were/are airline pilots, would probably enjoy all these flying scenes.
I knew about "They Were Expendable" but had sort of dismissed it in my mind as a typical wartime propaganda film -- sort of "The Green Berets" a generation earlier. I was surprised at how good the movie was, and gritty.
It's about the early days of the war in the Pacific, when things aren't going so well for the Navy. The film actually came out in December 1945, a few months after the war had wrapped up. I wonder what its reception would have been had such a bleak portrayal of American military failure come out while the fighting was still on.
To add to the misery, John Wayne and Robert Montgomery aren't big-time captains of destroyers or other battleships, but PT boat skippers -- tiny, fast boats that are dismissed by the Navy brass as useless toys. Most of the story has to do with the PT guys trying to prove that their boats have a role to play in the war.
The boats themselves are fascinating. They were about the size of a large speedboat; there was no belowdecks area except for the engine bay, so all the sailors stayed exposed up on the surface. PT stands for patrol torpedo, and in fact each boat carried four torpedoes in tubes attached to the top of the deck. I can only imagine how many PT boat crews got blown up when enemy fire hit their exposed torpedos.
There's a fair amount of combat scenes, and it's pretty gripping stuff, although John Ford had to resort to models and stock footage for the scenes where the big ships get blown up by the PTs.
Though it all, the PT squadron never gets any respect. They have to barter for materials and gasoline, and even blackmail a submarine captain into sharing some torpedoes with them. They get folded into the Army command, and eventually their squadron is disbanded and their boat hauled off on a truck to perform message duty.
The title of the movie itself is telling: "They were expendable." It's about the role of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers captured or killed at Bataan and Corregidor -- men whose job, in essence, was to sacrifice themselves to buy time for America to gear up for war.
Who knew ostensibly pro-military movies could offer such an honest and biting portrayal of life in a uniform? Not me, and I'm glad I learned this lesson.