They Were Expendable

When I was in the process of watching every film that had ever won the best picture Oscar I discovered a lot of great movies but I also hit quite a few speedbumps. One of the hardest to sit through was How Green Was My Valley, the film which is most notable for robbing Citizen Kane of the big prize. There’s a lot wrong with Valley - it’s too sentimental, for one - but the biggest problem is terrible pacing. It was adapted from an episodic novel and it was made into an episodic movie, but movies don’t suit that pacing very well because unlike a book you watch a movie in one sitting. Putting a bunch of random recollections next to each other in a movie makes it feel like nothing is happening.

John Ford directed How Green Was My Valley and he also directed this, and this suffers from a lot of the same problems. It’s a long film – two hours and fifteen minutes – and narratively it’s very slack, with individual sequences starting and ending with no real payoffs. When the movie starts John Wayne is complaining to his superior officer that he wants to see some real action; it’s then announced that Pearl Harbor happened; then a few minutes later everyone goes back to complaining that they aren’t seeing real action. (Their tiny wood hull boats are being held in reserve because the Navy doubts their ability to be strategically significant in the war effort.) Then when they are sent into battle (almost arbitrarily) the skirmishes come and go without conveying any real sense of who is winning or losing the war in general. Soldiers who went into battle keep coming back to base to tell the cook who stayed behind what happened only to have the cook tells them what kind of muffins he served for breakfast. It’s maddening; this is the biggest war in world history and everyone seems aloof about it.

John Wayne in particular is aloof. It’s completely bizarre to see this movie and think about how he was one of the biggest stars in movie history. He never changes his inflection, but he does take weird pauses in sentences and drags out words at random; he’s like a Christopher Walken but with less charisma. I suppose his stoicism might have appealed to a stiff upper lip generation, but his lack of energy and emotion doesn’t read well today.

The thing that I find the most puzzling about Ford’s failures on those two borderline unwatchable movies is that he really was a great director. His Grapes of Wrath is particularly powerful, with Henry Fonda turning in an all time great performance. The Quiet Man has a lot of charm, and even though Stagecoach is a pretty simplified story it’s easy to see why it was so popular when it was made. And that’s just scratching the surface of his career; even though I don’t love the Searchers as much as a lot of other people do, it’s still complicated and interesting enough that I can see why it’s reputation endures. So given that he’s capable of making these great movies, what in the hell happened with Valley and Expendable? It boggles my mind to think of how someone with that much talent could make movies that boring and that inept.

Winner: The cat

They Were Expendable on IMDB