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12/31/2015 02:21 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2016

John Ford's Greatest Film at 70 (plus In Harm's Way at 50)

It was 70 years ago this holiday season that the film I think is legendary director John Ford's greatest -- greater even than The Grapes of Wrath or The Searchers -- was released to an American public just a few months removed from the largest war in world history. They Were Expendable is the largely true story of a gallant defeat that set the stage for the victory to come, the last stand of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in attempting to defend the Philippines in the wake of Japan's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.

The film, which features a host of veterans of the war just past, including director Ford, a Navy captain, and star Robert Montgomery, a Navy commander, focuses on the cockleshell heroes of the PT (patrol torpedo) boats, those speedy plywood vessels which began the war as an untried curiosity and ended it as one of the most glamorous, and perilous, of assignments. As a certain future president found out the hard way.

It is also 50 years since In Harm's Way, another World War II-in-the-Pacific saga which, while not a great film, is a fine and satisfying one that's among my 50 or so favorites.

With the Pacific again looming as arguably America's most geostrategically important region -- hence the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific Pivot policy -- and the Navy taking the lead role, the two venerable Navy pictures, both depicting Pacific operations, have renewed relevance.

The original trailer for They Were Expendable.

They Were Expendable's elegiac tone and message of self-sacrifice leading to ultimate victory was a little out of step with the national mood at Christmas 1945. The war, at long last, was over, and people were more into moving on than contemplating its darkest days after Pearl Harbor.

Still, the film was one of the 20 biggest pictures of the year at the box office.

But time has burnished its allure, though not as bright as that of It's A Wonderful Life (which was not a success when it came out), lacking It's A Wonderful Life's repeated TV airings, beginning decades later in the '70s, which turned it into a force-fed though legitimate Christmas classic which also stars the estimable Donna Reed.

They Were Expendable, based on the book of the same name by William L. White, is a true story of gallant defeat setting the stage for ultimate victory. Which is really more in the British story-telling tradition than the more determinedly upbeat American one, and probably a reason why this film hasn't achieved the level of fame it deserves.

The tale of an untried PT boat squadron in the Philippines rising to the occasion in the dark days after Pearl Harbor even as it is inexorably ground down is part of the larger story of the destruction of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the only major American command in World War II that was crushed and never resurrected.

This forward-deployed force in the Western Pacific, the lost fleet, subject of an old war college paper for me, fought against overwhelming odds, in effect serving as a series of speed bumps for onrushing Imperial Japanese forces. They and allied ground and air forces had no hope of beating the Japanese in the Philippines or anywhere else in the region.

Bu the effort showed that America would fight for Asian allies even against much more powerful forces. And it bought time, crucial time needed for larger and more advanced American forces to regroup and prepare, probing for the right opportunity to turn the tide.

As such, They Were Expendable is a film of painful choices, which director Ford presents in a series of elegantly framed episodes, all of it beautifully shot in gorgeous black-and-white and accompanied by a heartfelt and usually unobtrusive Herbert Stothart score.

If it's all rather noble, filled with Fordian grace notes, well, guess what, the material deserves it. It was a very noble effort. These folks knew they could not win, that it was their duty to lay down the sacrifice plays. They did what needed to be done.

As Ford himself was a rather heroic naval officer in the war, seeing action at Midway and on Omaha Beach, the film was a labor of love.

As his star, Ford selected a prominent Hollywood leading man named Robert Montgomery. Best known today as the father of Bewitched star Liz Montgomery and as the star of the original version of the Warren Beatty smash Heaven Can Wait, Montgomery was himself a decorated PT boat officer in the Pacific, a multiple Oscar nominee who hunted some medals after helping set up FDR's famed White House Map Room. Later he went on to be a big TV producer and arguably the first media consultant in presidential politics, working with Dwight Eisenhower.

Here he plays real-life Medal of Honor winner and future Admiral John Bulkeley (called Brickley in the film to comply with naval regulations for serving officers), a PT boat friend of JFK. As played by Montgomery, the squadron commander is an ideal naval officer, smart, cool, contemplative yet decisive, always aware of the bigger picture yet concerned for his men, neither rah-rah nor especially macho. The latter is left to his combustible second-in-command, well-played by John Wayne, whom Ford reportedly rode hard during filming for his lack of military service until Montgomery interceded on Wayne's behalf. Later Oscar winner Donna Reed, extremely well known to boomer TV viewers, plays a stalwart nurse with a star-crossed friendship.

The squadron's individual successes can't outrun the shadow of impending defeat and retreat, a retreat which won't save many on the team. And its greatest success was defensive in nature, engineering the escape from the Philippines by General Douglas MacArthur, whom FDR, despite his dislike and distrust of the controversial commander, deemed too valuable to go down for morale and overall strategic purposes.

There is no Hollywood happy ending for They Were Expendable, just an unforgettable one I won't spoil.

An In Harm's Way scene featuring Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Burgess Meredith. Wayne's beached Navy captain has just been promoted to admiral, but the celebration will be short-lived.

In Harm's Way is more a melodrama, quite good though critically underrated, featuring an astounding nine Oscar nominees in a powerful cast. It was popular in the day and became a big TV standby in an era in which a nightly movie presentation on one of the three networks was something of a big deal.

The title comes from perhaps the most famous of John Paul Jones sayings: "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way." Jones, the great naval hero of the American Revolution now interred at Teddy Roosevelt's direction in a sarcophagus at Annapolis, died penniless in a foreign land before Thomas Jefferson could rescue him with an appointment.

The last of the big movies filmed in black and white -- which earned an Oscar nomination for its often striking cinematography -- the film boasts a huge, star-studded cast with a box office giant at its center, yet is also something of an examination of the US Navy as an institution. This was the period in which director Otto Preminger also used the event film template to examine the founding of Israel (Exodus), the US Senate (Advise and Consent) and the Roman Catholic Church (The Cardinal).

Yet it is essentially the story of one man, "the Rock," a career naval officer named Rockwell Torrey, played of course by Wayne. While a bubbling sexual potboiler on the side, In Harm's Way features a tale of mature romance between Wayne's Captain and later Admiral Torrey and Patricia Neal's senior nurse Maggie Haines. Neal won a British Academy Award for her portrayal of a character who more than holds her own with Wayne's powerhouse.

In Harm's Way, rather sprawling at nearly three hours long, is several things at once. It is a John Wayne vehicle with a terrific ensemble cast, a World War II epic that is at once a potboiler and rather shrewd examination of the US Navy as an institution.

Based on the novel Harm's Way by longtime Los Angeles Times journalist James Bassett, an aide to legendary Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey during the war and later a high-level Republican operative, the film uses the prism of war to examine a career naval officer described by a subordinate as "Old rock of ages, all Navy and nothing but Navy."

As dawn breaks on a fateful Sunday in December 1941, Captain Torrey -- with his broken marriage to a Wall Street heiress and estranged son in the rear view mirror and all his belongings in his old sea chest -- is commanding a old cruiser off the coast of Oahu, his charismatic alcoholic best friend (Kirk Douglas) serving as his very capable but volatile executive officer. After the devastating Japanese attack, he's ordered to form a makeshift task group and seek out the enemy.

Beached after things go badly, separated from his exec who's nearly busted from the service after his reaction to the unsurprising yet highly cinematic end of his marriage, Torrey settles into some quiet staff work at a recovering Pearl Harbor only to find a variety of second chances, both personal and professional.

Wayne shows how an older action hero can be a dominant presence in a war epic without ever firing a shot or throwing a punch. Others, like Kirk Douglas, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday with son Michael Douglas and the rest of the Douglas clan, carry the bulk of the action. Douglas shows here why he was a two-fisted action hero and a very fine dramatic actor.

Henry Fonda, like Douglas another staunch liberal, who in real life was also a decorated naval officer in the Pacific, makes a vivid impression with only a few scenes as the overall American naval commander in the Pacific, the unnamed Admiral Chester Nimitz. Burgess Meredith is another strong presence as Fonda's intelligence advisor, a reserve officer and ex-Hollywood screenwriter who befriends Wayne and ends up as his key aide.

Younger stars like Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss, Brandon deWilde, and Jill Haworth also make strong impressions.

But Wayne is the rock of the production, with Patricia Neal and Kirk Douglas as very strong co-stars. Does Wayne's Rockwell Torrey prevail in the end, even though he has his doubts? Whatever happens, it comes at a very high cost, much higher than in most star vehicles.

It's an interesting picture by autocratic Austrian director Otto Preminger, whose reputation has faded next to John Ford's but who provides here a very entertaining and flavorful film that is also quite savvy and mostly unsentimental in looking at the Navy.

As Fonda's CINCPAC says to appreciative chuckles from fellow officers before announcing a certain promotion and command change: "Well, we all know the Navy's never wrong, but sometimes it's a little short on being right." The "little short on being right" is on ample display throughout the film, depicting a service shot through with bureaucracy, internal politics, apple-polishing and cover-your-ass thinking. Great things occur only by cutting through the normal BS. But only when order and discipline are observed as well.

It's an interesting and savvy take.

The film, while not great, is nonetheless smart and warm and entertaining as hell. It's even marked by some touches of pure artistry, such as an early stunning score by the young Jerry Goldsmith, who would be the perfect composer for the sometimes erratic musical stylings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were he still with us, and awesome closing titles by legendary designer Saul Bass, which prefigure the nuclear closure to the hard-fought war depicted in the film.

While each film has been a bit lost to history, especially in our devotedly non-historically minded culture, history is bringing their relevance back round again as the nexus of events shifts toward the Pacific. History has a funny way of doing that.

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