Imagine this scenario: a year and a half before a presidential election, a major film studio releases a movie, based on actual events, where the lead heroic character is the sitting president who will be up for reelection.  In our cynical society of today, we would probably immediately accuse this film of being a feature-length campaign commercial…and rightfully so.  Such a thing probably wouldn’t happen today, but in June of 1963 that’s exactly what happened.  “Under the Personal Supervision of Jack L. Warner” (as the credits proudly state) a film was produced that was based on the World War II heroics of then-President John F. Kennedy… “PT-109.”

The film opens with US Navy Lieutenant Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) arriving in the Solomon Islands during World War II, where he is under the command of Commander Ritchie (James Gregory).  Kennedy requests to be put in command of a PT boat and is given the run-down PT-109.  Without even a crew yet assigned to him, he is given one week to get the ship into working order.  Soon, his crew starts to assemble, including his executive officer Leonard Thom (Ty Hardin) and several other sailors…among the actors making up his crew are Robert Blake and Mr. Roper himself, Norman Fell.

After PT-109 is declared seaworthy, we see it engaged in a mission helping marine paratroopers escape from the Japanese.  But the ship runs out of fuel just after getting out of range of enemy fire and must be towed back by another ship.

The second half of the film focuses on the events that made PT-109 famous.  One night, while out on patrol, a Japanese ship appears unexpectedly.  Unable to get out of the way, PT-109 is literally cut in half, leaving flames and debris in the wake.  Two men died in the collision and several others were seriously injured.  After waiting awhile on half of the boat which remained afloat, Kennedy decides to lead the men in swimming 3 miles to a nearby island which is unoccupied by the enemy.  Kennedy even drags one of the seriously burned men as he leads the swimmers.

Kennedy and his men await rescue on the island, but even passing planes do not seem to see them.  One night, Kennedy spends the night floating out in the water, with the help of his life vest, with a signal light, hoping to spot a passing US patrol.  The following night another officer, Barney Ross (Robert Culp), does the same, but neither is successful.  Eventually hope arrives when they encounter a pair of natives.  Kennedy carves a message into a cocoanut which the natives deliver to an Australian ship.

As I said earlier, this is an interesting film simply because of when and how it was produced.  Reportedly, the White House was very involved in the production, which included final approval of the actor chosen to play Kennedy.  Cliff Robertson does a fine job with the role.  It was wisely decided that he would not try to mimic Kennedy’s distinctive Boston accent.  Being so used to that aspect of the real Kennedy’s personality, it does take a moment to get used to…but I fear that had Robertson used the accent, the performance would’ve come off as a cheap impersonation.   The other performance that really stands out is James Gregory as an irritable commanding officer who deep down really loves the men he leads.

This is an impressive production.  A lot of detail was put into the look of the ships and in showing how Navy life in the Pacific was.  The effects are also quite impressive.  The actual destruction of PT-109, with the enemy ship slicing clear through it, is very a intense sequence.  On a technical level, the film receives very high marks.

Really, my only complaint with the film, and this was almost an inevitability, is the uber-heroic brush used to paint Kennedy.  How accurate this portrayal is, I have no idea…but I might have had an easier time accepting more of this as accurate had the man actually been given some flaws.  History tells us that he had some, but he’s portrayed as the ultimate boy scout, and there’s way too much heroic speechifying to make the portrayal completely believable.

“PT-109” is a very good film…after all, it was “personally supervised by Jack L. Warner.”  It portrays and interesting event in the life of an important American figure, and works as a solid World War II adventure film.  Plus, it may be biggest piece of Presidential propaganda ever produced.

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  1. I always liked Cliff Robertson and felt he was under-appreciated as an actor. I thought he was quite funny as the villanious Shame in the ‘Batman’ TV-Show. He is also excellent in the independent 1971 film ‘J.W. Coop’ in which he also wrote and directed. Some say he could have done more films had he not gone to the authorities in the 1970’s and exposed a major Studio head who was forgining his name on checks, but if somebody was forging my name on checks I would have gone to the authorities too!

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