PT-109 on TCM

Cliff Robertson is young Jack Kennedy in PT-109, the first presidential bio-pic that I know of ever made while the subject was still in office. I write about the film for Turner Classic Movies.

Based on the book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII by Robert J. Donovan, a war correspondent and political reporter who covered the 1960 campaign, and adapted to the screen by Navy veteran turned screenwriter Richard L. Breen, the film is a profile in courage in miniature. Cliff Robertson plays Jack Kennedy, a young officer who pulled strings to get a command in the South Pacific theater at a time when the Japanese were still dominant. He’s offered a run-down wreck by his crusty new commander (James Gregory) and given a week to make it seaworthy. Much of the film hits the familiar notes of the classic platoon film with a stiff reverence (young leader pulls together a makeshift crew into a tight and loyal unit, proves his mettle under fire and makes rousing speeches to rally their flagging spirits). It also delivers a personable portrait of an inspiring leader. He successfully leads his crew through what could have been a suicide rescue mission and risks his own life to save his men from the burning wreckage when the ship is destroyed and then swims through open water to await search and rescue craft without attracting the enemy’s attention. While dramatic license is taken with some details (the real PT 109 wasn’t a wreck, merely a ship that had seen hard action) and the timeline is rearranged for dramatic effect, the exploits portrayed on screen are more or less accurate to the historical record. Even the coconut, on which the marooned Kennedy carved a message to be carried to the American forces, was true. (The real coconut shell was preserved and is now on display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.)

Read the complete feature here. PT-109 plays on TCM on April 29.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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