Air Force (1943)
D. Howard Hawks
They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford
Ford and Hawks. Hawks and Ford.
No two directors have ever been paired so frequently. Hence, they’re stuck with each other–not that either man would mind.
They might be bemused, though, given all that separated them.
As for what united them, at least in the critical narrative….
Part of it was timing. They were close in age (Ford was born in 1894, Hawks in 1896), and subsequently comparable in experience and stature, not to mention close friends, especially later in life.
Part of it was taste. They both used John Wayne a lot (Ford could rightly take credit for making Wayne a star, Hawks for his maturation, Ford again for making the most of that maturation). They both liked stories about men in groups (though Hawks generally preferred ad hoc associations, Ford more formal and permanent ones).
Part of it was longevity. Once you sort out the wunderkinds (Welles, Ray, Coppola), they stand apart as the great American (and most American) filmmakers of the Golden Age or any other.
But mostly it’s the old yin and yang.
Give them the same subject matter, and they’d find approaches that both complemented and repelled each other–like two planets orbiting in opposite directions around the same sun.
That essential paradox was never more clearly displayed than in their approaches to their respective (somewhat obligatory) films about fighting men in WWII.
By obligatory, I don’t mean they took them less than seriously–these are two of the best war films ever made and likely the very best about men in small combat units. But it’s likely each man (both notoriously hard to read and completely unreliable as authors of their own narratives) approached his project more compelled by duty than enthusiasm. “A job of work” as Ford was fond of saying.
The dates on the films are a bit deceptive. Hawks filmed in the summer of 1942 and Air Force was released in February, 1943. Ford filmed in the summer of 1945 and They Were Expendable was released in December, 1945. The three years that separated the respective film-shoots were a lifetime.
In 1942, the outcome of the early war in the Pacific (the setting for both films) was still very much in doubt. It no longer seemed likely the Japanese would be overrunning the Pacific coast. But that they would hold onto, perhaps expand, their empire, seemed as likely as not.
In the tense, skittish atmosphere of ’42, Hawks, the man who loved flying and the sky, made a film about the crew of a single plane responding to Pearl Harbor and the impending loss of the Philippines by island hopping until they are able to lead a squadron that takes out an entire Japanese fleet and basically win the war by Christmas.
In the triumphant atmosphere of ’45, Ford, the man who loved sailing and the sea, made a film about a PT boat squadron being driven relentlessly toward defeat.
Air Force is notable among Hawks’ films in that death has a real presence and even a sting–a deep one on-screen and a deeper one off. In that sense, it’s the most Fordian film made by a director who, when asked by Peter Bogdonavich if he thought about Ford when he made westerns, said: “Well, it’s hard not to think about Jack Ford when you’re making a western…or any film really.”
Still, the tell-tale differences are there: there’s a “lucky” animal in both pictures, each played for laughs–a feisty little dog in Air Force gets some big scenes and plenty of attention, even an arc; a black cat in Expendable has no arc but simply skitters from boat to boat, reinforcing the random nature of “luck” in war time.
The men in both pictures go to extraordinary lengths to protect and preserve their “ships”–ships that are, in each case, considered of little use by high command until their crews prove them otherwise in the heat of conflict. Hawks’ plane–the Mary-Ann, rides out the film in glory. Ford’s boats–known by their numbers–go down in flames, one by one, until the last one is hauled off to run messages for the battered rump Army unit that remains on Corregidor. The men of Hawks’ Mary-Ann gather in the last scene, all smiles, on their way to bomb Tokyo. The men of Ford’s PT boats are scattered to the winds: some dead or lost at sea; others reassigned to the army, where (like the nurses exemplified by Donna Reed’s WAC) they’ll be killed or taken prisoner in the oncoming attack; a tiny few evacuated (in one of Ford’s most effective and moving final scenes, which is saying something) to be reassigned to teach the men who will “come back.”
Speaking of women–there’s no room for Hawks’ ideal One-of-the-Boys Dames in Air Force, so they don’t function as anything but someone for the heroes to say goodbye to (albeit they don’t yet know they’ll be heroes because they leave San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1941). The closest thing to a significant female character is a young woman, seriously injured in the Pearl attack, who is the sister of the Mary-Ann‘s co-pilot and the fiancee of its bombardier. She has a bedside scene that’s actually echoed in Expendable, only there, the patient is a wounded soldier pretending he doesn’t know he’s going to be left to die when his crew comes for a last visit.
In Ford, death always stings, never more so than here, where it is a constant presence, weighing more and more heavily as the film progresses–every visit registering in their commander’s face (Robert Montgomery, in a performance that transcends any notion of awarding it, though I doubt that’s why it was ignored).
Expendable, on the other hand, does have one significant female part–Reed’s Sandy Davyys. It’s a small but telling (and career-making) part. She’s no dame, but any man with sense would marry her a hundred times over any other man’s glorious fantasy. (Evidently a lot of men who actually fought in WWII felt the same. After Reed’s death, her daughter spoke of her mother receiving hundreds of letters from servicemen, which she mentioned to no one, and kept to the end of her life, a life that included fierce and public opposition to the American war in Viet Nam.)
Which leads us to the issue of verisimilitude.
To be fair to Hawks, Air Force comes from an era when war films were all but required to be infused with propaganda. Ford, directing at the end of the war, and having seen much of that war up close and personal–including Midway, where, in the initial fighting, men every bit as devoted to their planes as the crew of Air Force, were destroyed en masse by more technologically advanced Japanese fighters*–had a freer hand, not to mention a set of experiences that jaundiced a world view already prone to melancholy. In addition, Ford had the advantage of working with a number of cast and crew who, like him, had seen action. It’s possible that They Were Expendable is as close as any group of men have ever come to portraying war as they had just witnessed it so close to the fact.
And, oddly, it’s Expendable‘s downbeat tone–reflected in a title that, perhaps unconsciously, doubles as homage to its heroes and a dire prediction of the subsequent costs of empire which are with us still–that lends gravity to Hawks’ irrepressible can-do optimism. It’s a spirit that’s fundamental to all of Hawks’ best work, just as the spirit of elegy and remembrance is fundamental to Ford’s, but here is gains by the presence of a counterweight, brought to his own film by Ford’s original great silent-era collaborator, Harry Carey, Sr. and the hindsight we can enjoy from a distance where both films are secure in their reputations, as necessary to their own times as they are unfathomable to these.
I didn’t have a chance to see either film until after I was forty. The distance between them–the way they both reinforce and parry each other, until Expendable finally rises above–was more evident then because I’d undergone my own transformation. At twenty-nine I was a Hawks man all the way–the same way I preferred the Beatles to the Stones, Audrey Hepburn to Vivien Leigh, Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald.
Time reversed all those judgments.
Not because I lost any affection for the former–not even one degree.
Just because older, for me as for most people, has meant sadder and wiser.
Defeat may not be permanent. But it’s the greater part of life’s arc. As someone said at the end of another great war film: All glory is fleeting.**
For nations, as well as men.
Hawks may have suspected.
*Ford, having taken film of the men with their planes the day before, later arranged the films to be sent to each man’s family at his own expense.
**Patton, for those wondering. Pretty safe bet that Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the screenplay, knew his Ford as well as Patton knew his Latin.