Friday, August 14, 2015

PT 109 ( 1963 )

"Nauro Island...Commander...native knows posit...he can pilot... 11 alive-need small boat... Kennedy".

So reads the carving on the coconut that sat upon President John F. Kennedy's desk for over twenty years. It's a coconut with a past and the film PT 109 tells the story of this coconut or rather, the story of the hard-shelled naval lieutenant that eventually became president of the United States. The two go hand in hand.

When Kennedy was but 26 years old he was made skipper of a Navy patrol boat ( PT boat ) stationed off of the Solomon islands during WW2. One night while on patrol, a Japanese destroyer bore down upon the vessel and rammed it, cutting it in two. Most of the men survived and managed to swim to a nearby island unoccupied by Japanese. For the next five days, Kennedy and his men tried to flag down passing American ships to no avail. It was not until several natives in a canoe landed on the island that Kennedy managed to get a message out. Having no paper, he carved his words on a coconut and told them "Rendova, Rendova" ( a nearby base ). The next day an Allied coastwatcher- Lt. Evans, received the coconut and instructed the natives to have Kennedy come back with them. After reaching Evans post, Kennedy returned with the two PT boats sent out to pick up his crew on the island. 

Kennedy didn't have an ideal group of men to be marooned with. While his fellow officers kept their cool, his crew were a lackluster bunch of fellows. At least, that's how they were portrayed in the film which was based upon the novel "PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII" written by Robert J. Donovan. JFK's father, Joseph Kennedy Sr. was one of the founding fathers of RKO studios and he used his influence in Hollywood to have Donovan's novel turned into a motion picture. 

Cliff Robertson was John F. Kennedy's personal choice of actor to portray him and he did a great job, especially considering that he was nearly twenty years older than Kennedy was at the time the events happened. Jacqueline Kennedy preferred Warren Beatty to play her husband. Other actors considered for the role were Ed "Kookie" Byrnes, Peter Fonda, and Jeffrey Hunter. Another choice was Peter Brown, who would have been stellar in the role.

Supporting Cliff Robertson was Ty Hardin (as Ensign Leonard J. Thom ) and Robert Culp ( as "Barney" Ross ) with James Gregory and Grant Williams portraying officers on the naval island base. The enlisted men included actors Robert Blake, Norman Fell, Biff Elliott and Errol John. 


In addition to having the choice of lead actor, President Kennedy set down two requirements prior to filming : he wanted the picture to be historically accurate and he wanted the profits from the movie to be donated to the PT 109 survivors.

PT 109 was released on June 19, 1963, just five months prior to Kennedy's assassination, and grossed 5.5 million worldwide. It was a far cry from a flop, but the studio had much greater hopes for the picture and its returns were disappointing. While PT 109 has a few exciting sequences, the story drags in places and its run-time of 140 minutes makes it too long for one sitting. Kennedy himself thought the film a "good product" but had a difficult time sitting through it all...especially with his bad back. At one time he could endure six days stranded on an island but knew that modern audiences liked their action fast, and remarked "It's just a question of whether there is too much of it".


  1. I want to see this movie sooo bad!!!! It's been sitting in my Amazon cart for months but I never have the $17 to spend on it. 140 min. does sound long, but at least it's looking at Cliff Robertson :)

    1. Check your library first, Phyl. While it is entertaining, I wouldn't really recommend buying it. It's one of those watch-it-once-every-10-years-films.