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"PT-109" Review: Cliff Robertson stars as young JFK in standard issue war pic

PT-109

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“PT-109” (1963)

Takei has an uncredited role in 1963's "PT-109"
Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images

Directed by Leslie Martinson

Written by Vincent X. Flaherty and Howard Sheehan. Based on the book by Robert J. Donovan

Starring: Cliff Robertson, James Gregory, Ty Hardin, Robert Culp, Grant Williams, George Takei

Director Leslie Martinson’s 1963 “PT-109” (co-written by Vincent X. Flaherty and Howard Sheehan and based on a book by Robert J. Donovan) is essentially a by-the-numbers war movie which contains a plethora of accurate details about Kennedy’s brief stint (April 23, 1943 to August 2, 1943) as the skipper of the ill-fated Elco motor torpedo boat, which was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer IJNS Amagiri in Blackett Strait, located between Kolombangara and Arundel in the Solomon Islands.

Starring Cliff Robertson (“Charly,” “Spider-Man”) as Navy Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy and co-starring Ty Hardin, James Gregory, Robert Culp, Robert Blake, Norman Fell and even an uncredited George Takei (Hikaru Sulu of Star Trek: The Original Series), the film is a fairly accurate depiction of JFK’s naval service in the South Pacific as the commander of a motor torpedo boat given the Navy pennant number PT-109 (the PT standing for the Navy ship designator “Patrol Torpedo”).

As the film opens (with an uncredited narration by character actor Andrew Duggan), we see young Lt. (j.g.) Jack Kennedy arriving at a forward Navy base in the Solomon Islands after using his father’s influence to get assigned to a combat zone. His new commanding officer, Commander C.R. Ritchie (James Gregory) doesn’t believe young Kennedy will amount to much as a naval officer, but assigns the eager and insistent lieutenant to command the PT-109, which is in bad shape and needs a great deal of repair work.

Ens. Leonard J. Thom: [reporting aboard the PT109] Mr. Kennedy? Ensign Leonard Thom, your exec.

[they exchange salutes]

Lt. John F. Kennedy: Oh, hi. Glad to meet you, Leonard.

[they shake hands]

Lt. John F. Kennedy: Welcome aboard.

Ens. Leonard J. Thom: [looking around the boat] How long did they give you to put it in shape?

Lt. John F. Kennedy: Well, we've used about half the time just talking right here.

Kennedy, assisted by his executive officer, Ensign Leonard Thom (Ty Hardin) and a motley crew of junior officers and enlisted sailors, rises to the occasion and oversees the “rehabilitation” of his new command. Richie is impressed by the young man’s dedication and good leadership skills, and soon he sends the “109” into action.

Lt. Kennedy participates in a harrowing mission to evacuate a Marine patrol from a Japanese-held island in the Slot, the body of water which runs down the center of the Solomon Islands..

In a sequence which eerily foreshadows future events, the “109” rescues some of the Marines and manages to inch out of the range of Japanese shore-based guns, only to run out of fuel and drift toward the enemy-held beach.

Only the timely intervention of another PT boat saves JFK, his crew and the Marines from certain death or the brutal hospitality of the Japanese military. (This event is actually based on a mission in which Kennedy participated as skipper of his second command, PT-59, a motor torpedo boat of an earlier class than that of the “109”.)

Eventually, the film chronicles the events of the night of August 23, 1943, when a Japanese destroyer steaming at high speed stumbles on the stopped (and unsuspecting “109” – nearly ending JFK’s life prematurely, while at the same time creating a significant (and politically helpful) chapter in the Kennedy saga.

My Take: When watching a movie such as “PT-109,” modern day viewers have to take certain things with a grain of salt.

First of all, though President Kennedy insisted that the film adaptation of Robert Donovan’s book be as accurate as possible, “PT-109” is a Hollywood movie made to entertain audiences. It is not a documentary, even though it’s based on a non-fiction book, and many liberties were taken with the facts in order to give the film a more dramatic and crowd-pleasing climax.

For instance, “PT-109” features a scene where other PT boats are conducting a search for Kennedy’s lost boat after the Amagiri incident. In reality, however, the Navy initially believed Kennedy and his crew was “missing, presumed dead,” and the PTs in the area were actually holding a memorial service.

Second, audiences who have come of age in the post-Saving Private Ryan era and expect to see graphic scenes of war violence and hear Navy and Marine personnel cursing like, well, sailors and “jarheads” won’t see any of that in “PT-109”.

The film was made in the early 1960s, and though war films were evolving from the WWII era’s simplistic, jingoistic and “support the cause” action tales to more nuanced and thoughtful fare that wasn’t as propagandistic, “PT-109” seems to depict a very sanitized version of World War II. The movie gives viewers enough “combat action” scenes to satisfy men and boys, while at the same time keeping the violence and language toned down to make “PT-109” family-friendly.

Though Leslie Martinson is best known for his long career in television he does a credible job as the director of “PT-109”. He isn’t in the same film making league as Raoul Walsh (who was disapproved of by President Kennedy because JFK didn’t like Walsh’s film "Marines Let’s Go!") or John Ford, yet he has a good eye for action sequences and paces his “beats” of pacing and rising tension well.

It helps, too, that the film has a solid cast of both leading men (Cliff Robertson) and character actors such as James Gregory, Robert Culp ("I, Spy") and Norman Fell ("Three’s Company"). It’s not an impressive all-star cast similar to that of "The Longest Day," but Robertson (who always turned in great performances) is believable as a young Jack Kennedy.

Though Robertson doesn’t try to mimic JFK’s well-known Boston accent, he was so committed to playing the role as accurately as possible that when he heard that the President noticed he was parting his hair to the right, Robertson immediately parted his hair to the left.

DVD Details:

  • Format: NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Warner Archive
  • DVD Release Date: November 2, 2011
  • Run Time: 140 minutes