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 Blake, Norman 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 mission, Michael 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 /****