Stephen Hunter Recommends
Swift boats, anyone? Okay, there seem not to be any Swift boat movies, Kerry supporters or haters, but here are a few about fighting big wars in small vessels.
They Were Expendable (1945, 135 minutes) is certainly the best, one of John Ford's enduring masterpieces. He looks at PT boats -- oceangoing, high-speed Swiftie forerunners intended to "patrol, torpedo" -- buzzing around the Philippines in the dark days of December 1941. Ford, who spent the war years in the Pacific running a Navy film unit, captures like no one before or since the crushing fatigue of war as the men in the boats -- on night mission after night mission as the islands are gradually taken by the Japanese -- keep doing the necessary. Robert Montgomery, also a wartime naval officer, is fabulous; John Wayne, a boat commander, is at his best. You say, hey, John Wayne was no war hero. True, but nobody played them better; it's called acting.
The Sand Pebbles (1966, 179 minutes) covers bigger, slower boats -- Navy gunboats in the Yangtze River in 1926 during the Chinese civil war -- and it's a bigger, slower movie. Directed by Robert Wise, it's probably closest to the Swift boat experience. The "brown water Navy" represented American interests in a violent locale without much beyond small arms for protection. Wise stays with one craft, the USS San Pedro, commanded by a young officer played by Richard Crenna, whose crew includes the eternally cool Steve McQueen at his most eternally cool. Of course the whole thing was an extended metaphor for Vietnam, and though it seems not to have made any classic canon, it's one of the really good old-fashioned movies. (Rated PG-13 for violence and sexual material.)
In Harm's Way (1965, 165 minutes) isn't "PT-109," the John F. Kennedy war story, which is what you thought I'd resort to, right? Nope. Instead: Otto Preminger takes a larger-scale look at the early war in the Pacific with John Wayne (again masterfully) playing a kind of roman a clef version of Fleet Adm. Bull Halsey. It's huge: Kirk Douglas, Tom Tryon, Henry Fonda, Patrick O'Neal, Patricia Neal and even Carroll O'Connor! The model ships are a thin movie illusion in this pretty standard war movie, but it features a stirring account of a small group of PT boats against a Japanese heavy task force, knowing that this is the one nobody walks away from. As Burgess Meredith, an inebriated intelligence officer watching on radar as the small boats move in on the big ones, says: "Go, babies, go."