Although director John Ford didn't appreciate Herbert Stothart's musical score (or apparently very much else about this production), I thought that the music had a major impact on the emotional power of this outstanding World War II film. Having read several recent user reviews, I was very surprised that not one of them even mentioned the very influential effect that Stothart's score had on the entire mood, which was quite often melancholy and even gloomy. Whether you like or dislike the music, its overall contribution to this film cannot be overlooked. Personally, I love the music along with just about every other component of this fine film.
Examining the long list of John Ford's films, this stands among my favorites. I realize that many enthusiasts of the western genre probably won't agree with me. According to John Wayne, Ford poured his heart and soul into this movie but then reportedly expressed his disappointment with the final results, that is until he was coaxed into watching it and changed his mind.
For me, this also features performances that rank among the finest of the three main stars, John Wayne, Robert Montgomery, and Donna Reed, whose efforts created very convincing, credible characters. An uncle of mine, now deceased, fought in the Battle of Okinawa, which, unlike the Philippines, was a pivotal Allied success, but it still came at a huge human price. My uncle never recounted his war experiences with anyone other than fellow combat vets, so he probably would not have shared them with me even if I valued them as I should have during my mostly unconscious, frivolous childhood. Like the PT crews in this film, my uncle's precious life was expendable for a much greater goal--to win the war, no matter what the cost of victory meant to individual human beings, and the cost was very high indeed.
The message that I received from this film is that it wasn't only the PT boat crews who were expendable. All of those who so nobly served their country and were left behind, for whatever reason, during the fall of the Philippines or, for that matter, on any battlefield were expendable. Before viewing this movie, I never truly understood what it must have been like to be forced to remain on those islands, totally isolated from the rest of the world, while the Japanese conquered it so quickly. Ford's repeated use of closeups powerfully conveyed the quiet, mostly unspoken sense of fear and abandonment among the defeated service people at the time. I also appreciated the sense of drama that Ford created at the nightclub with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor as there was nothing but open water between Hawaii and the Philippines with Japan located just to the north. Without any prior notice, the American service people stationed there, along with their families and the Filipino civilians, knew that the attack would instantly change their lives forever in ways that they could never imagine at the time.
I checked the spoiler box, but I don't think that it will give away the movie's essential ending by stating that the predicament of Major James Morton (Leon Ames), by itself, summarizes in one, single instance a critical message of this movie. Morton is assigned to the number 31 for the transport out, but there is only room for 30 evacuees on the one plane that is provided. At one point, he takes the place of Number 30, who is a no-show. The engines of the plane rev up, and just as he seems "home free", there is a sudden knock on the door. It's Number 30. Morton is ordered off the aircraft, and he has no choice other than to deplane as directed. As the Japanese rapidly advance, he is left on the ground with the others watching in silence as the evacuation plane takes off over the jungle. That is a scene I will never, ever forget.