Who doesn’t love a good World War II movie? Despite its flaws, PT-109 is just that: an action-packed tale of courage and loyalty in the Pacific War.
This 1963 film follows the adventures of John “Jack” F. Kennedy, a young skipper who negotiates his way into active duty during the Pacific War. Despite his doubtful crew and cantankerous commander, Kennedy gets an old boat in ship-shape within a week. The boat, PT-109, is sent on a mission to rescue American soldiers trapped on a Japanese-held island. When the PT-109 is destroyed, Kennedy and the rest of his crew must keep their wits about them to survive and escape.
Almost half of the movie goes by before the action really begins. That might be a problem in other films, but it works in PT-109. Even when the characters aren’t fighting or surviving on coconuts, something is keeping the viewer interested. Kennedy is running his boat into a shed, the crew members are cracking jokes, or the tension is building at the officer meetings.
The action scenes are superb. Japanese Zeros swoop low over the island, dropping their bombs as men dive for cover. The crew of the PT-109 shoots down planes that are divebombing their ship. In a dramatic rescue, the American soldiers on the Japanese-held island run through the surf under fire, pulling their wounded buddies into the boat. All the action sequences are visually stunning and perfectly paced. Best of all, the filmmakers don’t feel the need to add gratuitous violence and gore to provoke a reaction. Instead, they let the tension and plot speak for itself. There is some blood, but it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re moderately squeamish (like me).
You can’t review a historical movie without talking about its historical accuracy. Overall, PT-109 does a good job with keeping things accurate. However, they altered one significant part of the story with the sole purpose of writing ethnic minorities out of history.
In real life, two native islanders played a pivotal role in rescuing the crew of PT-109. I won’t go into details because spoilers, but suffice to say, Kennedy never would have been president if not for an idea that Biuku Gasa had. (Here’s a source that goes more in depth if you don’t care about spoilers.) In the film, a crew member was the one to have the idea, and the actors playing the islanders Gasa and Eroni Kumana were not listed in the credits. Also, the islanders wear nothing but loincloths, while the white sailors are fully clothed. In real life, most of the crew members had stripped down to their tighty whiteys. Why did they think it was acceptable to portray people of color in their underwear, but not white people? The result is dehumanization and revisionist history.
Racism is the film’s biggest flaw, and it’s not excusable just because the film was made in the sixties. PT-109 came out in 1963. For some perspective, Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers almost fifteen years before that. I Love Lucy, a popular TV show featuring an interracial couple, had been running for five years. Just six months before PT-109 came out, the successful film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird was released. Although racism was very real in 1963, much of the American public had shown that they were open to ethnic and racial minorities in entertainment. The creators of PT-109 have no excuse for omitting the roles of people of color.
The portrayal of Japanese soldiers also could have been better. The soundtrack that plays in the background every time the Japanese show up is a discordant appropriation of vaguely “Eastern-sounding” music. However, the Japanese are shown as regular people, not the ridiculous stereotypes that featured heavily in World War II-era propaganda. The filmmakers did an OK job of not being offensive in that regard.
That said, I still like this movie. The story is gripping and inspiring, and the overall film is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s important that we acknowledge its flaws. But I’d still recommend this film to anyone who likes history and adventure.
What do you think of PT-109? Are there any other World War II movies that you’d recommend? Let me know in comments!