It is perhaps a bit late to be making pictures dramatizing the winning of the war, but it is worthwhile waiting for the return of such veteran Hollywood operators as John Ford and Robert Montgomery to lend an authentic and competent touch to cinema versions of the great battles. It would have been worth while, that is, if the producers of "They Were Expendable" had refrained from turning William L. White's stirring narrative of the mosquito boat war into the usual run of synthetic melodrama.
Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 admittedly played a gallant role in the delaying action of the Philippine retreat. But MGM has succumbed to the usual temptation of ascribing too much glory to too small a company. What was originally an honest account of the P.T. boats' performance has now been magnified and somewhat distorted; too many guns and too much shooting have detracted from the realism which could have made this one of the few really good war pictures.
The best scenes--and there are quite a few good ones--take place on dry land. Superior direction by Ford, just out of the Navy himself, is responsible for several excellent episodes: the gently humorous and sometimes tragic incidents in the life of the squadron, the quite irony of the potent little boats being relegated to messenger duty by a disbelieving admiral, the well-restrained and completely credible injection of the inevitable love interest.
The performance by Bob Montgomery, who saw much real-life service with the mosquito boats, as the screen counterpart of Commander Bulkeley is natural and eminently satisfactory. So also is John Wayne's playing of the Squadron's executive officer, and Donna Reed is quite acceptable as the Army nurse who falls for Wayne; she is "good to have around."
It is not the cast's fault that the picture fails to come through. Nor is it Ford's either, for the most part. It is primarily the Hollywood tradition of giving the customer the largest amount of fireworks in the longest possible picture (two hours and fifteen minutes, to be exact) that has conspired to ruin an otherwise excellent war epic. mss