For details see the handout for Drums along the Mohawk (1939) and the "cavalry trilogy" beginning with Fort Apache.
Based upon the experiences of Lt. John Bulkeley (1911-1996) who commanded a Motor Torpedo Squadron (the predecessor of the Navy PT boats (in which the future President JFK also served - the film PT 109). Ford got to know Bulkeley when preparations were being made for the Normandy invasion.
William M. White, They Were Expendable (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1942).
A bitter reference to the men who were left behind in the scramble to flee the Philippines after the Japanese conquest. As one of Bulkeley's unit remarked in White's book, after having been presented the DSC by Gen. MacArthur Bulkeley and his crew learned they were to left behind while MacArthur fled to Australia:
Of course to us this meant that the China trip - our last hope of seeing America and escaping death or a Japanese prison - was gone forever. Now the MTB's were like the rest here in the islands - the expendables who fight on without hope to the end. So far as we knew, we would now finish up the war in the southern islands, when the Japs got around to mopping up the last American resistance there.
And yet I was curiously glad. Mostly, I think, it was because of Peggy. I wasn't guilty any more. Now we both had our duty to do here in the Philippines. Of course I would never see her again - her job was here in Corregidor, and mine would be down in the southern islands. But our end would be the same. We were both expendable now. I wasn't running out on her and I felt a lot better. (White, pp. 104-5)
A curious film to make in 1945 (about an early defeat) when victory seemed assured. This alone makes the stand out from the run-of-the-mill WW2 combat films. The heroism Ford depicts is quite different from that of Guadalcanal Diary - their actions are understated, they quietly carry out their orders and accept the decision to leave them behind to face death or imprisonment. The barb in the tail is two-pronged - the reminder of early defeats and the struggle of men like Bulkeley to prove the value of the PT boats to an unimpressed Navy hierarchy.
John Ford had reservations about making this film as he was pressured into doing it very soon after having been injured at the Battle of Midway while making a documentary for the Navy. He lost 13 men in his own unit.
Andrew Sinclair, John Ford (London: George Allen and Unwin, 197?), Chap. 11 "Theatre of War," pp. 109-22.
Obituary of Vice-Admiral John Bulkeley in The Times reprinted in The Australian, Tuesday, April 23 1996, p. 19.
1. Compare the sentiments expressed in White's book (pp. 104-5, 204) about accepting that one was one of" the expnedables" and James Jones' idea that the "evolution of a soldier" was complete when one acepted that one was already dead even before going into battle.
2. The implied criticism that the men left behind were paying for the lack of preparation and professionalism of the US Military before the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941.
3. Note Ford's concern for the "ordinary heroes" among the enlisted men and junior officers - compare with his cavalry films.
4. The "god-like" portrayal of Gen. MacArthur.
5. Sinclair notes that:
But in the final release print Brickley's bitter farewell to his men has been cut. He no longer takes off in a Flying Fortress, making a sad checklist of the men he has had to leave behind him, but roars away over the abandoned crews to the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the soundtrack, while MacArthur's famous words of defiance are echoed and superimposed, "We Shall Return". (p. 121-22)