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"PT-109" Memorialized

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Ehh, I have to free up room on the DVR. Some time ago I recorded "PT-109," the film version of the book PT-109: John F. Kennedy in World War II
by Robert J. Donovan.  My TV provider’s guide indicates it’s thought to be a good, not great film.  I hadn't ever seen the it. I looked to see had the film been discussed here and I didn't find that it had been.

Curiously, I had read the book. I checked it out of the local library in my teens. Curious, because I was not then the way I am now, a student of JFK, his allies, enemies, policies, those times. I did have an interest in World War Two stories since my dad had been in that one. I guess that's more why I read the book. It was an authorized biography, published in 1961.

Memorial Day weekend seemed a perfect time to watch the movie and delete it. But before I did, I poked around a bit to learn more about the film. Released in June, 1963, wow. Not much time to get a return on investment before The Big Event. Wikipedia asserts that Joseph Kennedy used his Hollywood connections to make the film happen. The citation for this on Wikipedia is a broken link to what may have been at one time an essay, “PT-109,” on the Turner Classic Movies website by an author named Sean Axmaster, whose work now seems lost to time.

The Wikipedia entry for this movie is also partially based on an article written by Senior Editor Ted Johnson, published in 2013 by Variety.

The Variety article fails to portray JFK’s father as an instigator for the film. According to Variety, Warner Brothers announced it was obtaining the book’s movie rights shortly after Kennedy’s inauguration, and only afterwards secured an arrangement giving the White House approval over the script and the lead. Jackie wanted Warren Beatty as the lead, and Beatty tested, but turned down the role, having had a look at an early draft of the script. For this snub, Beatty later told biographer Peter Biskind, Jack Warner “essentially kicked me off the lot.” When JFK selected Cliff Robertson for the lead, Kennedy’s liaison with the production, Alvin Cluster, told Robertson, "The President picked you not only because you were a fine actor but because you're young looking, yet mature enough so that the world won't get the idea the President was being played by a parking lot attendant or something." Robertson at the time was pushing forty. According to the Variety article, Robertson “did not resemble the president.” That may be in the eye of the beholder. I would say Robertson was in the ballpark, with a handsome face and, at least in this movie, a bushy ginger haircut. Robertson’s build was no doubt beefier than that of the twenty-six year-old Kennedy. Kennedy, after watching an audition, concluded of Robertson, using military terms, “He wears his equipment on the same side of his pants as I do,” according to historian Richard Reeves, cited in the Variety article. Perhaps one of you can explain that expression to me. It’s not a euphemism?

Apparently another who tested for the role was Edd Byrnes. Byrnes played parking lot attendant “Kookie” on the TV series 77 Sunset Strip. Byrnes said he was told, "President John F. Kennedy didn't want to be played by 'Kookie'."

Directing the film was problematic. Lewis Milestone was fired in July 1962 and replaced with television director Leslie Martinson who managed to put the film to bed. There is controversy over what led to Milestone being sacked. He made too many changes to an approved script. He aired his unhappiness with the film’s progress in Newsweek. Nicholas J. Cull, who authored an essay on the making of “PT 109” for “Hollywood and the American Historical Film” (2012, Palgrave Macmillan), found Kennedy himself put notations in one script copy.  Quoting the Variety article: “The President had concerns over such things as mentions of his father’s influence over his career. Robertson recommended a series of changes to give his character more of a backstory, but those suggestions were rejected in favor of a movie that, far from a character study, is pretty much just another war movie.” Variety quotes Richard Reeves’ essay on JFK: the “film’s dialogue sounds pretty corny today, but it gets to the truth of John F. Kennedy: The man had an iron will.” I haven’t tracked down this Richard Reeves essay. It may be you are familiar with it. I did find it excerpted here.

The film did decently at the box office but did not rake in the dough as expected. On a White House recording, Kennedy called ‘PT 109’ a “good product,” but worried about the 2 hour, 20 minute length. “It’s just a question of whether there’s too much of it,” the President determined. Also from the Variety article I learned that Beatty said the President told him, “you were right about that movie.”

You have to jump cut to “W” by Oliver Stone to find another biopic of a sitting U.S. president. “PT-109” was the first. Must that not have rankled his enemies? Reason number thirty-seven, to do him in?

One final note: I found this film has been uploaded onto the Internet Archive at
The Archive user who posted it also uploaded a raft of Kennedy-related video last year:
I can’t attest to quality or worthiness of any of it. You will find, however, that this material is available for streaming over or download from the Internet. It does include a video which is unlikely to be found broadcast on television any more. This is the infamous Part Nine of the Nigel Turner series, “The Men Who Killed Kennedy.”  “The Guilty Men” aired on The History Channel in 2003, and subsequently was repudiated by same. There’s a badge of honor for you.

Dog bless our many fallen fighters. That includes JFK, who died in battle with the War State itself.

Edited by George Govus
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