PT 109 (1963)

John F. Kennedy  is known for any number of things from a tragically shortened life. His beautiful wife, Jackie, his supposed affairs with Marilyn Monroe among others, his charm and popularity, his turbulent presidency that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most tragically, his assassination under the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald. One of the most fascinating parts of his adventure-filled life? His World War II exploits as told in 1963’s PT 109.

While the fighting rages in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific in 1943, Lt. John F. Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) arrives at a small naval base specializing in patrol torpedo boats (PT) meant to keep Japanese forces at bay. Kennedy is given command of PT 109, a beat-up old boat that has seen far better days. He’s given just a week to get the 109 ready for action, assembling a crew, including Ensign Leonard Thom (Ty Hardin), cleaning the boat, and rehabbing the engines. They manage to come in under deadline, Kennedy, his crew and the 109 thrust immediately into action. The day-to-day life of a PT boat is a dangerous one though, the boats meant to be used to buy time while the U.S. Navy still tries to recover from Pearl Harbor. Patrols, routine or not, rescues, deliveries, Kennedy and his crew take it all on, but the mission that will put them all in the history books awaits one pitch-black night in the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands.

One of my favorite movies growing up, I can still go back and visit this 1963 WWII movie from director Leslie H. Martinson and enjoy it from beginning to end. This isn’t the most hard-hitting of movies, but like some other WWII movies from Warner Bros., there is a distinct visual look and a straightforward style that plays well. Could things be tightened up a bit with a 140-minute movie? Sure, here and there, but it’s an excellent film just the same. It was filmed in the Florida Keys, and it’s sunny and sandy with plenty of palm trees to help stand in for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. The musical score from composers David Buttolph and William Lava knows when to lighten the mood and when to show the developing drama, a score that sounds similar to another Warner Bros. WWII movie, 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders.

Released in theaters less than six months before his death in Dallas, PT 109 was made with the help of Kennedy right in the midst of his term as President. He even had final say on the actor who would play him, Robertson being his ultimate choice. It ends up being a great pick, one that makes the movie far more memorable in my eyes. Besides the striking physical resemblance — look at Robertson in an iconic JFK picture HERE — Robertson nails the heroic, likable, charming part of a future American president. That’s the movie’s goal, to show Kennedy as a hero. More on the details in the next paragraph, but Kennedy’s actions were more than enough so Martinson didn’t have to stretch things too much. Robertson’s Kennedy is smart, quick with a comeback and a plan, a leader who’s respected by his men and fellow officers, and a capable commander with a knack for doing the right thing. It’s not the most in-depth characterization, but it never set out to be. Kudos to Robertson, already one of my favorites.

Semi-SPOILERS from here on in. The truth of the story behind PT 109 is remarkable in itself. Patrolling in the Blackett Strait a dark August night, the 109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer similarly on patrol. Kennedy’s boat was ripped in two pieces, two crewmen killed in the collision. Banding the men together, Kennedy got the survivors to swim to a far-off island and hopefully wait for survival. What followed is and was an inspiring story in itself, Kennedy ultimately winning the the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions. The movie itself is divided into two halves, the first introducing Kennedy, the crew, the boat and their exploits, the second half following its chapter in history as a Japanese destroyer tears the little boat apart. Both halves are excellent, but it’s hard to beat the second half as the survivors desperately wait for help in one form or another, Kennedy swimming out into the Strait at night to flag down an American ship.

While the focus is obviously on Robertson as Kennedy, the supporting cast is very solid without stealing the spotlight. Hardin as 2nd-in-command Ensign Thom has a good chemistry with Robertson, Robert BlakeNorman Fell, Clyde Howdy, John Ward and Biff Elliot starring as the most visible of the 109’s crew. James Gregory is a scene-stealer as Commander Ritchie, the leader of a squadron of PT boats, a veteran officer who’s never seen combat but is always searching for the best out of his men. Even Robert Culp shows up at the halfway point as Ensign Barney Ross, an old friend of Kennedy’s who ends up on the 109 for its fateful missionMichael Pate making a memorable appearance as Evans, an Australian coastwatcher who plays an integral part in the eventual rescue of Kennedy and the remaining survivors. Also lending his voice talents in an uncredited narrator role is Andrew Duggan.

This isn’t a WWII movie that rewrites the genre. It is a movie meant to honor the heroics of future president John F. Kennedy, and it does it well. Exciting with some good action, some genuine laughs and some lighter moments, and Robertson in a great leading part as Kennedy himself.

PT 109 (1963): *** 1/2 /****

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Midway

midway_movie_posterWorld War II had countless key engagements and battles that helped turn the tide of the war, and in a bigger sense, changed the tide of history. D-Day is obviously at the top of the list, but many others have been given a film treatment, like Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, and with today’s review, 1976’s Midway. What if the Japanese had won the battle? Would WWII have a vastly different path and end result? Things you can’t help but wonder while watching this underrated gem.

It’s late spring in 1942 and the U.S. Navy is still incredibly vulnerable following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A Naval Intelligence officer and pilot, Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), talks to a fellow intelligence officer who thinks clues point to a Japanese attack coming at the key Pacific island of Midway. Washington seems to think it could all be a trick, an ambush for what’s remaining in the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda) thinks otherwise though, committing his fleet, including two essential aircraft carriers and one carrier fresh off a battle that almost crippled the ship. An immense Japanese fleet is sailing for Midway, the outnumbered, undermanned Americans racing to meet them. The young war potentially hangs in the balance in the Pacific…

In the vein of The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora! (among many others) comes this 1976 wartime battle drama from director Jack Smight. It isn’t a classic, but it’s really solid. Flaws? Sure, one major one I’ll discuss later, but when the story sticks to the war-turning battle, ‘Midway’ is at its best. It definitely gets points for portraying the battle from both perspectives, both the American and Japanese forces. It isn’t the horrific, evil Japs vs. the saintly, heroic Americans. This is a battle between professional soldiers, sailors and pilots with the battle hanging in the balance. It isn’t the most personal story — more of a BIG picture story — but the history itself is fascinating and doesn’t need much else added.

One of the best parts of these big battle epics is typically the all-star casts assembled. Some are bigger, meatier parts, others are cameos, but the star power is always impressive. ‘Midway’ doesn’t disappoint. Heston gets the biggest part — and the personal subplot — as tough, stubborn, knowledgeable Capt. Garth. Heston specialized in these big movies, whether it be war movies, disaster flicks or historical epics, throughout his career, and he’s solid as usual. Fonda makes the most of an extended cameo, if a bigger cameo than the others in the cast. He brings some charm and personality to Adm. Nimitz. Other high-ranking Naval officers include Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Robert Webber and Hal Holbrook as the intelligence officer who sniffs out the Japanese plan.

Who else to look for? James Coburn and Cliff Robertson make lightning-quick appearances (like Mitchum’s). So does Robert Wagner. On the Japanese side, Toshiro Mifune cameos as Adm. Yamamoto while James Shigeta plays Vice Adm. Nagumo, the commander of the task force. As for the pilots, Christopher George, Glenn Corbett and Monte Markam represent the Americans with varying amounts of screentime. Also look for young Tom Selleck as an officer on Midway, Erik Estrada as a pilot and Dabney Coleman as a ranking naval officer. Pretty decent cast, huh?

If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s Garth’s subplot with his son, a young Naval pilot who has fallen in love with a Japanese woman. It feels forced to say the least, to add a human element to a story that didn’t really need it. The pacing drags a bit in the first 60 minutes as the story bounces among the American and Japanese forces and then the Garth family trials. The interment camps are one of the most horrific things to come out of WWII but in a story about the Battle of Midway, the story is out of place.

Giving the story a sense of realism is real footage filmed during the actual Battle of Midway in 1942, footage used in John Ford’s award-winning documentary about the battle. Once the two fleets begin to fight, that’s where the story takes off. The naval battle begins a chess match as the two sides put plans into effect, then re-plan and adjust. The history is pretty spot-on. You see how the battle turns with some good and bad luck, some chance, some poor decisions and some calculated decisions that pay off with war-changing events. Fascinating to watch it all develop.

It’s an impressive movie. It genuinely makes you appreciate the sacrifices made on both sides. Several American squadrons attacked the Japanese fleet with little hope of success, but they flew into battle anyways. Their actions and their subsequent deaths ended up altering the battle and in a far bigger picture, the war itself. A switch here, a change there, and maybe history is dramatically altered. A film well worth checking out.

Midway (1976): ***/****