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 /****

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

sons_of_katie_elder_1965John Wayne is my all-time favorite. He is, was and always will be the coolest. By the mid 1960’s, he was still one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and around the world. His lifestyle — and smoking packs a day — took its toll though, with production on one of his movies being delayed for several months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One lung and two removed ribs later, Wayne came back with a vengeance, turning in one of his most underrated performances in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder.

It’s been 10 years since gunfighter John Elder (Wayne) has returned home. When he gets word that his mother, Katie, has died, John heads home to Clearwater, Texas. There he finds his three brothers, Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler/cardplayer, Matt (Earl Holliman), a hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest brother and a college student. John and his brothers find out how much things have changed, not only the circumstances that led to Katie’s death, but their father’s death some 6 months earlier. The family ranch is now owned by an aspiring businessman/rancher, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). John intends to find out what happens, righting any wrongs that may have been done on the family, but mostly, he wants to honor Katie and leave the Elder name in a positive way.

This was an interesting turning point in Wayne’s career. The health scare woke the Hollywood legend up in a way. From this point on, Wayne finished his career with more fan-friendly roles. He knew what his fans wanted and delivered. They weren’t always the deepest or most hard-hitting roles — there were exceptions, The Shootist, True Grit, The Cowboys — as Wayne surrounded himself with family, friends and plenty of familiar faces. As for ‘Sons,’ I maintain that it belongs in the list with the trio of movies listed above. It is one of my favorite westerns, not just a John Wayne western.

A lot to recommend here. It’s an old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys western, but there’s more to it (in a big way). From director Henry Hathaway, ‘Sons’ blends familiar western elements and mixes in family drama and a bit of a murder mystery. Now that’s a unique premise! The filming locations in Durango, Mexico are a gem, a beautiful backdrop with cinematographer Lucien Ballard turning in one gorgeous scene after another. Oh, and music composer Elmer Bernstein delivers one of his best, most unheralded scores, including a highly memorable main theme. Give it a listen HERE.

I liked this movie as a kid, but I’ve loved it as an adult. Why’s that? I love the idea of family here, brought to life by Wayne, Martin, Holliman and Anderson. Their chemistry is impeccable. It’s simply perfect, brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and must get back together, reminiscing, bonding, arguing and fighting. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quartet of brothers sitting at their Mom’s house talking…and arguing and even starting a fist fight. Katie ends up being an off-screen character too, a woman you feel like you’ve met by the end of the movie. Family is a key element in countless westerns, but it’s rare it felt this authentic from beginning to end.

It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Oh, that’s Wayne just playing the Duke.’ It’s fair depending on the role you look at. When he did it right though, it was just so perfect. He’s the iconic western hero — flawed but upright, fighting for what’s right, loyal and honest. His John Elder makes it look easy. Martin was always an underrated dramatic actor — just look at his other pairing with Wayne, 1959’s Rio Bravo — and he doesn’t disappoint here as Tom, always ready with a quip or a line or a gimmick. Holliman isn’t flashy, just solid as Matt, the brother who went straight. And Anderson holds his own as young Bud, no easy task with the talent around him.

A pretty cool cast backs up our brothers. James Gregory does what he does best, playing a smarmy, backstabbing villain with George Kennedy as his hired gun, Curley, Dennis Hopper as his bookish son, and Rodolfo Acosta as another enforcer. Martha Hyer plays Mary, a young woman who knew Katie well and tries to tell her boys what an impressive woman their Mom really was. Paul Fix and Jeremy Slate are excellent as Sheriff Billy, a calming, longtime peace officer and Deputy Ben, a hot-headed youngster trying to make his way. Plenty more familiar faces including Strother Martin, John Doucette, John Qualen, Rhys Williams, Sheldon Allman and even Karl Swenson playing dual roles.

At 121 minutes, ‘Sons’ is far from action-packed. There’s actually only one major set-piece, one major gunfight, set at the famously beautiful El Saltito waterfalls in Mexico. The beauty of it all? You don’t need the action. The story builds and builds, the tension growing as we learn the truth of what’s happened. It’s just a gem of a western that doesn’t always get its due. It should though. ‘Sons’ is an underrated classic.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ****/****