About 15 years ago I was having dinner with a new group of friends I had made and we started talking about our hobbies and interests. Naturally when it was my turn I mentioned classic movies. When asked to name my favorites, I said something like “Well, there’s nothing better than kicking back with the Duke.”
One of the girls looked at me with an odd expression on her face and after dinner came up to me and asked me (in those pre-DVD days) if I had a VHS copy of a John Wayne movie titled “Operation Pacific.” I said yes and she asked if she could borrow it.
I said of course she could but I needed my curiosity satisfied. Why that particular title?
She told me she dated this guy in high school and it was pretty serious. Upon graduation he decided not to go to college but instead was going to join the U.S. Navy. His desire to serve in the Navy came when he saw on television the movie “Operation Pacific.” He watched it several times and later decided to join the Navy, preferably to serve on a submarine.
She was curious as to what was in the movie that would make him want to enlist. I loaned it to her and she returned it about a month later. She had watched it several times (and enjoyed it) and said she now understood what made him want to enlist.
She smiled when she told me that. I asked her what made the movie offered to her in way of an answer, but she wouldn’t tell me. It seemed very personal to her so I let it drop.
Somewhat of an anti-climatic anecdote, to be sure, but I remembered it while re-watching “Operation Pacific” (1951) recently. I couldn’t pinpoint one particular scene or situation that would make an impressionable teenager want to enlist, but it must have spoken to him in some way. It’s a pretty good WWII movie; not one of John Wayne’s best but consistently entertaining.
The movie opens with some quiet excitement, as Wayne and his crew stealthily escort a group of nuns and orphans off a Japanese-held island to the safety of their submarine, the U.S.S. Thunderfish.
Once everyone is safely on board and the submarine successfully harbors at Pearl Harbor for repairs and to discharge their new passengers, Lt. Cmdr. Duke Gifford (John Wayne) is off to see his ex-wife, Navy nurse Lt. Mary Stuart (Patricia Neal). They still have feelings for each other despite their divorce.
Mary is currently seeing Lt. Bob Perry (Philip Carey), who just happens to be the younger brother of Cmdr. “Pop” Perry (Ward Bond, naturally), Duke’s commander on the Thunderfish.
So there’s a love triangle here, but it’s not an overriding factor in the movie, and in fact, the three characters are rather adult about their situation. I think they realize a war is on and to waste their time and energy on petty jealousies is counter productive.
Tensions do come to a boil, though, when Bob blames Duke for the death of his brother. During an engagement with the Japanese when the sub is on the surface, Pop is injured and orders the submarine to dive, even though it will mean his death. Duke was only following orders and the safety of the ship is now under his command, but the decision haunts him when he again brings the Thunderfish out on future missions.
What WWII submarine movie would be complete without a depth charge sequence? “Operation Pacific” has a pretty good one, and the reactions of the ship’s crew are adequately conveyed by the Warner Bros. stock company at the time, well-known faces like Paul Picerni, William Campbell and Martin Milner.
One can tell “Operation Pacific” was made after the war, since gung ho propaganda is kept to a minimum. In one telling scene, Wayne invites his crew to look through the periscope after they have won an engagement with a Japanese submarine. A young Martin Milner looks and says excitedly, “I’ve never seen a submarine destroyed before.” Wayne shoots him a dirty look and almost immediately Milner realizes that the burning submarine could have been their own. His face becomes anguished and Wayne gives an understanding nod as they quietly resume their duties.
In addition to the well-staged combat scenes, writer/director George Waggner gives some documentary-like scenes where the Navy experiments with exploding torpedo warheads. Some of the torpedoes have the habit of not exploding on impact, and while the ship is docked in Honolulu, they run tests on different kinds of warheads. It’s interesting material and gives the proceedings a little something extra.
Wayne and Neal play together very well. Like Maureen O’Hara, she’s no pushover but is a strong and dominating personality, the equal of Wayne in every way.
I’ve written before how strong the women usually are in Wayne films and, genre considerations aside, I’ve always wondered why he wasn’t more popular with female audiences. His characters are rarely condescending to the women in his life, and he treats them as partners in life, if not equals.
Also, unlike some actors like Cary Grant or Sean Connery, the ages of Wayne’s leading ladies stayed roughly his own as he got older. I think his romance with Elizabeth Allan in “Donovan’s Reef” (1963) may be the last time he was paired with a younger leading lady.
But as Wayne got older, he left the romance to his younger co-stars, or if he was paired with a woman it was a contemporary of his, such as Patricia Neal again in “In Harm’s Way” (1965), Sarah Cunningham in “The Cowboys” or Colleen Dewhurst in “McQ.”
I think Wayne knew how ridiculous it would be to be paired romantically with a younger leading lady. (One of my favorite John Wayne moments comes in “The Train Robbers” (1973) when the much younger Ann-Margaret tries to cuddle up with him by the fire. Wayne turns her aside, telling her, “I’ve got a saddle that’s older than you.” That’s a great line.)
Max Steiner provided the film’s exceptional score. The rousing main title music may sound familiar to movie fans, as Steiner first composed it for a Warner Bros. programmer called “Submarine D-1” (1937). Steiner used it in other military-themed films, including “Dive Bomber” (1941) and “Fighter Squadron” (1948). The melody became the basis for the song “We Watch the Skyways” with lyrics by Gus Kahn, ear candy to many a Looney Tunes fan. The other half of the main title music is Harry Warren’s toe tapping melody “Don’t Give up the Ship” from “The Singing Marine” (1937).
“Operation Pacific” will likely never earn its place on the slate of classic war movies, but it remains consistently engaging and still offers good entertainment today. The pairing of Wayne and Neal is a memorable one and between their scenes here and in “In Harm’s Way” I would rank Patricia Neal in the top pantheon of Wayne’s leading ladies.
By the way, I recently asked my friend if she knew if her old boyfriend had remained in the service. The last she had heard he was still serving honorably on a submarine in the U.S. Navy.
All because of “Operation Pacific.” Let the cynics scoff, but never let it be said that movies can’t exert a positive influence.