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Operation Pacific (1951) was John Wayne's first film with Warner Brothers after an absence of 17 years and it finds him engaged in battle on two fronts - one military and one domestic. Not only must he win the war in the Pacific (single-handedly it seems), he must also win back the love of his ex-wife, played by Patricia Neal. And, Wayne being Wayne, it comes as no surprise to find him victorious in both endeavors.
Though Neal and Wayne would later re-team for Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way (1965) - where Wayne once again plays a Navy officer in the Pacific and Neal once again plays a Navy nurse! - there was little chemistry between them on the set of Operation Pacific. According to Neal: "John Wayne had enormous appeal for the public, but I did not find him appealing in the least. I think my charms were lost on him too." But while the romantic subplot may have been a fiction (Neal was at the time involved with Gary Cooper), the events on board the fictional submarine, the Thunderfish, were loosely based on historical exploits of the submarine fleet, otherwise known as the "silent service."
For instance, in the film, Commander John T. Perry (played by Wayne's old friend and frequent co-star, Ward Bond) sacrifices himself to save his ship and crew when he bravely orders the Thunderfish to descend, knowing he will be stranded above deck. The incident seems melodramatic, but is, in fact, based on the real-life heroism of Howard W. Gilmore, commander of the submarine tender USS Growler. In the early morning hours of February 7, 1943, the Growler approached a Japanese gunboat. The small ship quickly turned and started on a collision course with the sub. Commander Gilmore brilliantly maneuvered his ship so as to ram the gunboat, seriously damaging the Growler in the process. Then, according to the official citation:
"In the terrific fire of the sinking gunboat's heavy machine guns, Commander Gilmore calmly gave the order to clear the bridge, and refusing safety for himself, remained on deck while his men preceded him below. Struck down by the fusillade of bullets and having done his utmost against the enemy, in his final living moments Commander Gilmore gave his last order to the officer of the deck, 'Take her down!'"
Gilmore's sacrifice earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor and, the following year, the Navy named a submarine after him. Interestingly, Ward Bond played a part in another telling of this story. In 1957, John Ford directed The Growler Story, a short promotional film for the Navy. This time, Ken Curtis (Ford's son-in-law) played Gilmore while Bond played one of the officers.
Operation Pacific was written and directed by George Waggner, whose association with Wayne went back some 15 years. Not only did he write and direct Wayne's frontier drama, The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), he also wrote (or co-wrote) three of Wayne's minor films from the 1930s: Sea Spoilers (1936), Idol of the Crowds (1937), and I Cover the War (1937). Despite this history, Patricia Neal reports that "Duke was at odds with the director" during the shooting of Operation Pacific. The movie was shot by Bert Glennon, who was also the cinematographer on such notable John Ford films as Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Glennon also shot Warner Brothers' earlier submarine film, Destination Tokyo (1943), footage of which was re-used in Operation Pacific.
A very young Martin Milner (from TV's Adam-12) plays the role of Ensign Caldwell. And if the voice of the Alabama crewman known as Junior sounds familiar, it may be because he provided the voice of the adult Thumper in Bambi (1942).
Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Director/Screenplay: George Waggner
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Alan Crosland Jr.
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: John Wayne (Lt. Commander Duke E. Gifford), Patricia Neal (Mary Stuart), Ward Bond (Commander John T. "Pop" Perry), Scott Forbes (Lt. Larry), Philip Carey (Lt. Bob Perry), Paul Picerni (Jonesy), William Campbell (The Talker), Martin Milner (Ensign Caldwell).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.
by Mark Frankel