John Wayne Goes to War: Duke’s WWII Films of the 1950s

Operation Pacific (1951)

Now. What’s not to like about Operation Pacific? It’s John Wayne’s first WWII movie of the 1950s AND it’s a submarine movie as well and I just love submarine films.

Operation Pacific with John Wayne

Whilst not exactly in the same league as Das Boot or Run Silent Run Deep – who could ever forget Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster finding themselves in the Bongo Straits? – or even Destination Tokyo, which the crew in this film coincidentally find themselves watching at some point, but it’s still a worthy entry in the submarine genre.

That’s mainly due to this being the product of a major studio, Warner Bros, as opposed to Republic or RKO, so the production values are elevated somewhat as opposed to previous John Wayne WWII movies.

The film is written and directed by George Waggner who worked with Wayne previously on The Fighting Kentuckian back in 1949. Strange to say after my comments on The Flying Leathernecks but for some reason the use of large amounts of stock footage in this film doesn’t appear to have the same deadening effect upon the picture as a whole as it did with Nicholas Ray’s effort.

I’m pretty sure that there’s footage in here from another submarine film but I can’t figure out which one, so I’m going to put my money on Destination Tokyo, which is also a Warner Bros film, made back in 1943.

The initial commander of the sub is Ward Bond, who pops up as ‘Pop’ Perry until he dies heroically whilst attacking a Japanese ship that has disguised itself as an unarmed vessel. He’s then replaced by Duke, who pops up here as – well, someone called Duke Gifford.

Operation Pacific with John Wayne

Now why didn’t anyone think of that before? We know from the beginning that Wayne is in nice guy as opposed to Sergeant Stryker mode in this film as he leads a bunch of rescued kids and nuns out of the jungle.

Wayne also has one of his better co-starring leading ladies in Patricia Neal (the soon-to-be Mrs. Roald Dahl a couple of years later), playing his ex-wife in a husky voice very reminiscent of Lauran Bacall. One of my few complaints about the film is that it has yet another clunky love triangle story going on, this time between Wayne, Neal and a very young and dashing pilot played by Phil Carey.

Wouldn’t you just know it that out of all the places in the Pacific Carey gets shot down and rescued right when Wayne comes sailing by. Carey’s character even comments on the coincidence himself, George Waggner as the writer having his cake and eating it too I guess.

The film reaches an exciting climax when Wayne and his crew find themselves slap in the middle of the Imperial Japanese Fleet although the depth charge scenes really do lack the tension of similar scenarios in Das Boot for example.

Also, we only find out after almost 90 minutes into the film that Wayne and Neal once had a child who obviously died very young. That’s a hell of a plotline to just suddenly drop into the story literally 20 minutes before the end but I have to admit these are small quibbles to make about what I found to be a surprisingly enjoyable John Wayne WWII film.

And of course, Wayne gets his girl back at the end. Besides, any submarine movie that features the line ‘I could never marry a submariner. I like to sleep with the windows open’ gets a thumbs-up from me.

The Flying Leathernecks (1951)

The Flying Leathernecks with John Wayne

First the good news. Based on watching this movie, I’d say Sergeant Stryker miraculously recovered from being shot in the back on Iwo Jima, changed his name to Daniel Kirby, somehow managed to get himself in command of a Marine Fighter Squadron, then adopted the rank of Major which I guess obviously paid more.

Now the bad news. This is a boring film, and I can’t believe I’m saying that about this or any other John Wayne movie. How can a film be this dull when it’s supposed to be a war movie, it stars Duke, it’s directed by Nicholas Ray – who went on to direct Rebel Without a Cause a few years later – and it pairs Wayne with Robert Ryan as two men at odds with each other on how to command a fighter squadron? And it has a halfway decent script from James Edward Grant as well?

The main problem is the overuse of stock footage in the battle sequences. This is just plain lazy and cheap filmmaking, even by RKO standards. By my reckoning, about 75 to 80 percent of the action in the film is comprised of shaky and out of focus shots of the real war.

At one point, as a plane spirals into the ground, you can even see a hair in the camera gate flickering across the bottom of the screen. To be fair it looks as though some effort went into building a set on the back lot to then blow up using real fighter planes that have been hired for use in the movie itself but the constant insertion of stock footage detracts from keeping the audience immersed in the main story.

The knock-on effect is that you end up not having that much interest in the characters themselves which leads to a lack of sympathy when some of them get killed because you’re not that engaged with the story in the first place.

The other issue is that the expected fireworks between Wayne and Ryan – Duke gets command of the squadron in favour of Ryan – doesn’t really come to life.

The Flying Leathernecks with John Wayne

At one point they’re about to get involved in fisticuffs but another interminable bout of stock footage intervenes and the promise of a good old fashioned John Wayne punch-up never materialises.

The main thrust of the issue between the two men is down to Ryan being unable to take responsibility for sending men to their death. It’s only when he does actually cause a pilot to die in the usual futile gesture of war that he gets respect from Duke and then eventual command of the squadron, but by then I have to say I didn’t care one way or the other.

I can’t be certain – the constant intercutting between the action shot for the film and the stock footage causes confusion at times – but it looks as though Wayne goes in for yet another WWII suicide attempt, his third by my count after The Flying Tigers and The Fighting Seabees, when he runs out of ammo and appears to deliberately ram the back end of a Japanese bomber with his own plane. This time he gets to live but by the end of the film I’d lost interest in the whole thing.

The Sea Chase (1955)

At first glance I’d have to say this is somewhat of a departure for John Wayne. He plays a German sea captain. That’s right, you heard it correctly the first time. A German sea Captain.

The Sea Chase with John Wayne

The anticipation that comes with the thought of hearing Duke having to utter the words Jawohl mein herr in that inimitable drawl of his, and with a German accent as well, was almost too much to bear. Alas, it was not to be. He pulls a Sean Connery instead and makes absolutely no attempt at all to talk in any way other than his normal voice. On balance, after his Swedish accent in The Long Voyage Home, that’s probably a good thing.

Directed by John Farrow (Mia’s daddy and director of Hondo) and co-written by occasional Ford scriptwriter James Warner Bellah, Wayne plays Karl Ehrlich, captain of a German freighter which is confined to harbour in Australia prior to the imminent breakout of WWII.

It’s basically a chase movie, with Wayne trying to stay one step ahead of a British destroyer determined to catch him and his ship as he breaks out of the harbour and tries to make it back to Germany.

Just in case we don’t know which boat is which, the British one is signified by the occasional burst of Rule Britannia. In return I was expecting to hear Deutschland uber alles every time Wayne’s boat comes into view but, what with Karl being one of the many ubiquitous ‘good’ Germans Hollywood loves so much, nothing remotely smelling of Nazism is going to smear our hero.

The supporting cast is a collection of some of the usual John Wayne film suspects; Paul Fix – how many movies did that guy make, for Heaven’s sake? – and John Qualen, the actor who plays the Swedish guy in The Searchers, but here playing a German with an accent that is definitely not German.

There’s James Arness lurking in the background along with Claude ‘Joe Burdette’ Akins, and a very tiny looking Lana Turner as Wayne’s love interest.

The Sea Chase with John Wayne Lana Turner

I swear she looks so short standing next to Duke it’s a wonder he doesn’t accidentally tread on her.

On top of that we get heartthrob of the day Tab Hunter, or Slab Grunter as I remember he was once referred to in an old episode of The Flintstones I saw back in the 60s – how the hell do I remember stuff like that when I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning?

There’s also a nasty turn by Lyle Bettger as a slimy Nazi who murders three men in cold blood, for which the British blame Wayne. We don’t actually get to see Bettger’s comeuppance in full, but I’m prepared to wager it was never going to be as good as his finest screen moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus epic, The Greatest Show On Earth.

He tries to stop a train wreck by driving his car into the path of a speeding locomotive. One hundred tons of steel traveling at 80 miles an hour versus a flimsy looking Eldorado Cadillac. It was never going to happen. Spectacular, but stupid.

Where was I? Yes, war breaks out during the chase which therefore qualifies this in some way as a Wayne WWII film, but the only action we get to see is a model boat shooting at another model boat as the dastardly British try to stop Wayne from escaping.

As usual, our hero indulges in what looks suspiciously like another of his futile suicide attempts – scuppering the ship after the crew has left in a lifeboat – but it turns out Ms Turner’s still on board so Wayne fools the British into thinking that he’s gone down with the ship.

The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but seeing as The Sea Chase never seems to appear in the list of films in which Duke goes to that great roundup in the sky, I’m guessing he and Lana live happily ever after.

The Wings of Eagles (1957)

This isn’t really a John Wayne war film per se, more of a bio pic about the navy aviator turned screenwriter turned naval commander, Frank ‘Spig’ Wead. He and director John Ford had worked together on Air Mail in 1932 and They Were Expendable in 1946.

The Wings of Eagles with John Wayne Maureen O'Hara

Wead also wrote screenplays for quite a few other war and air-based melodramas such as Ceiling Zero, Test Pilot and Dive Bomber. Somewhere along the way, Ford must have decided Spig’s life story was eventful enough to turn into a film and this is the result.

The start of the movie, an extended slapstick sequence in which Spig crashes his plane into an admiral’s garden party, belies the serious undertone of the film as a whole.

Wayne plays someone who can’t keep his marriage together – appearing with Maureen O’Hara for the third time in this film – and then ends up crippled for the rest of his life when he accidentally falls down the stairs.

O’Hara’s role is a bit thankless, required to come out of the shadows every now and then for most of the film to indicate the on-off nature of her relationship with Wayne.

The Wings of Eagles with Duke & Maureen O'Hara

Towards the end of the film she just kind of disappears, which is a bit of a shame because her early scenes with Wayne illustrate she could always more than hold her own opposite Duke onscreen.

Portraying a man who is physically weak is quite a departure for Duke. Audiences don’t want to see Wayne channeling his inner Douglas Bader and struggling to walk, not for long periods of time anyway, which is probably why the film isn’t exactly one of Ford’s totally successful efforts.

It’s also notable that Wayne plays someone his own age and as his character ages the make-up starts to come off until we see something that doesn’t happen very often in a John Wayne film – he takes his wig off as well.

There’s an interesting scene in which Wayne as Spig meets the famous Hollywood director John Dodge, with Ward Bond lording it up as a thinly disguised portrayal of Ford himself. We know he’s supposed to be Ford because he has a big portrait of Harry Carey Senior on his office a wall and a big model of a stagecoach on the table. I would have liked to have seen more of this part of Spig’s screenwriting life but, wouldn’t you know it, WWII gets in the way.

The war part of the film doesn’t start until about three quarters of the way through when we see Spig listening to the radio as he hears about the attack on Pearl Harbour. I’ve lost count of the number of times in a film that this device is used to indicate the start of WWII. Ford’s They Were Expendable also has a similar scene.

Anyway, Spig drops the scriptwriting and somehow ends up seeing action in the Pacific. Unfortunately we get another great dollop of stock footage war sequences – I’m guessing although I can’t be totally sure but maybe some of Ford’s war materials might be in there somewhere – but as I said earlier this isn’t a war film, it’s about someone who just happens to play a small part in the proceedings.

I found the ending quite poignant, with Spig invalided out of the navy due to ill health. The final scene in which an old-looking Wayne is hoisted across the water from his battleship to a cruiser that will take him home almost brings tears to your eyes. Not exactly a classic film for either Wayne or Ford but as a rumination on ageing and mortality it’s worth taking a look at.

Check out the John Wayne WWII movies of the 40s.

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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