What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Box Office Jocks Blog-A-Thon: This is a blog-a-thon dedicated to actors who were once athletes or famous athletes who appear in films. It’s also hosted by Return to the 80’s and yours truly Dubsism.
This is my second consecutive movie set during the Second World War, about the U.S. Navy, starring a Lieutenant Junior Grade who wants to be transferred to destroyer duty, and directed by John Ford. Not that there’s a pattern here or anything like that; it’s not like John Wayne and John Ford top my lists of favorite actors and directors respectively.
Set in the opening days of the war, a squadron of U.S. Navy patrol boats under the command of Lieutenant John “Brick” Brickley (played by Robert Montgomery) is sent to Manila to help defend the Philippines against a potential Japanese invasion. But once they arrive, they are not met with a welcome. Instead, they are ridiculed by the local military commanders. Brickleys’ second-in-command, Lieutenant Junior Grade “Rusty” Ryan (played by John Wayne) gets his hackles up when nobody thinks the patrol boats are worthy of “real” naval action. In fact Ryan is in the process of word-smithing his formal request for a transfer when they get the news of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
With the outbreak of war, Ryan and Brickley step up their demands for combat assignments, but they are relegated to messenger duty. Even after a Japanese air raid on the patrol boats’ base, which makes it clear the war is coming to them regardless of what the prevailing opinion of these boats is, they remain little more than naval mailmen, which only spurs Ryan to continue his requests for transfer.
At this point, the film provides it’s own sports analogy when Brickley’s commanding officer gives him a speech about laying down a “sacrifice bunt, and letting the other guy hit the home runs.” That’s his way of telling Brickley that it isn’t just the local commanders who don’t believe in the patrol boats, nobody in the higher chain of command believes in them as a viable military weapon either.
But as the Japanese begin landings on the Philippine Islands themselves, the situation grows more desperate and two things happen. First, Brickley’s squadron gets orders to attack a Japanese destroyer. But as Brickley and Ryan are about to embark on their mission, it is discovered that a minor wound suffered by Ryan in the aforementioned air raid has progressed into severe case blood poisoning. Brickley orders Ryan into the hospital, and selects another officer and crew to go on the mission. The patrol boats succeed in sinking the Japanese destroyer, but it isn’t without a cost. One of the two attacking boats is lost, and one man is killed. This sets the tone for the rest of the action the boats see; success at a high cost.
Meanwhile, the hospitalized Ryan Rusty strikes up a romance with Army nurse Lieutenant Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). All the promise of new love does in this case is to provide contrast to the sense of impending doom. That’s because even though they won’t admit it, everybody knows the clock is ticking toward the inevitable; the fall of the Philippines and Japanese occupation.
When it becomes clear that Luzon will be lost to the Japanese onslaught against the American garrisons at Bataan and Corregidor, Brickley’s squadron is ordered to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and a selection of various VIPs to Mindanao, where they will board bombers flying them to Australia; Brickley and Ryan are unaware this is also their future. But before that, the boats are ordered back into combat, specifically to engage and sink a Japanese cruiser. By the time they accomplish this mission, the squadron is down to two boats.
As the boats are lost, their crews are sent to fight as infantry. Eventually, the last remaining boat is turned over to the Army for messenger duty on Lake Lanau. That’s when Brickley, Ryan and two ensigns get the word they are also to be evacuated to Australia because they have proven the military value of the patrol boat, and they are needed to train officers and crews to man them. They board what is literally the last plane out, leaving everybody else behind to fight alongside the with remnants of the U.S. Army and Filipino guerrillas.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
From the moment the Battle of Bataan in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was clear this would be a crushing American defeat. After a round of initial air attacks and naval bombardment, the 45,000-man strong Imperial Japanese 14th Army landed at two points on the main Philippine island of Luzon. While the supreme commander of all Allied forces in the Pacific General Douglas MacArthur ranks as one of the great military strategists in history, the Filipinos and the Americans were woefully unprepared to repel a large-scale invasion. On paper, MacArthur commanded a force numbering near 150,000.
But in reality, the combined Filipino-American force consisted of tens of thousands of ill-trained and ill-equipped Filipino reservists, about 20,000 American troops who were little more than a loosely organized collection of garrison soldiers who had no combat experience, a small group of pilots and ground crews who had no planes, and sailors whose ships happened to be in port when Japanese forces bombed the naval yards in Manila Bay.
MacArthur’s status as a military strategist makes the hap-hazard retreat to the Bataan Peninsula all the more inexplicable. The operation was so badly planned and executed that the retreating troops left behind tons of rice, ammunition, and other vital war materials. This meant in no time, MacArthur’s forces were subsisting on limited rations consisting of monkey meat, rice, and whatever they could scrounge.
This ill-equipped, ill-trained, and ill-supplied force had no air cover or naval support, which made their eventual surrender inevitable. There’s a special kind of hopelessness reserved for situations where there was no hope in the first place.
That has to describe how fans of the Baltimore Orioles feel now with two weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. Looking at the defenses of the Philippines in December 1941 has to have similar sense of despair that Orioles fans must have when realizing was their Opening Day line-up might look like. The Orioles are coming off a season in which they weren’t just awful, they were historically awful, posting a record of 47-115 and finishing an almost-incomprehensible 61 games behind the division-winning Boston Red Sox.
Coming into 2019, the Orioles find themselves without the best players they had for a team which only won 47 games. If a team which had “A-list” guys like Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Zach Britton, and Brad Brach was “historically awful,” how bad is a team without them going to be?
The worst part if you’re a fan of the Baltimore Orioles is that like the fall of the Phillippines, getting to that point didn’t happen overnight. Achieving historic weakness involved years with of neglect, poor decision-making, and just flat-out incompetence.
I take that back. If you are an Orioles fan, the worst part is that unlike “They Were Expendable,” you really don’t have a “Brickley” or “Ryan” you might want to save from the carnage to help rebuild for the future.
The Moral of The Story:
The Baltimore Orioles of 2018 might be one of the worst baseball teams of all-time. The future for the 2019 Orioles doesn’t look much better. But on the flip-side, for my money “They Were Expendable” is the best war movie ever made. It takes place in the Philippines right after the Japanese invasion in 1941, a period that saw a large scale American defeat. It doesn’t engage in the “rah-rah” jingoism common to war movies made after WWII. Instead, it graphically depicts the understanding fighting men have about honor, duty, and sacrifice. This is embodied in the closing scenes of the movie where John Wayne and Robert Montgomery are order to leave the Phillippines for the safety of Australia. Montgomery’s only comment: “Well, that makes us a fine pair of heels,” knowing full well they are leaving their men to a fate of a prisoner of war camp or death.
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