Operation Pacific (1951) review-America takes a victory lap

While most classic Hollywood war films have a pretty clear set of objectives (selling bonds, driving up recruitment numbers, etc.), George Waggner’s Operation Pacific (1951) is an entirely different animal.

This John Wayne-led naval adventure is much more celebratory and easy-going in tone, clearly riding off the protracted high that many Americans were still feeling since World War II ended six years earlier.

As a result, the film is a lot more interested in exploring what a soldier’s life might be like after “the fight” comes to an end, rather than providing some insight into what this specific conflict looked like in a larger context.

Even though this tone might upset some military diehards, Operation Pacific actually benefits from the gift of hindsight, since it doesn’t get completely bogged down in the cynical saber rattling that kneecaps so many other war films of that era.

The plot of Operation Pacific revolves around Duke Gifford (Wayne), who serves as an executive officer aboard a submarine called the USS Thunderfish during World War II.

After returning from a dangerous mission in the Philippines, Duke runs into his ex-wife Mary Stuart (Patricia Neal) while on leave at Pearl Harbor.

Even though the two still have feelings for each other, Duke’s responsibilities as a naval officer keep getting in the way of his romantic advances toward Mary, especially as his patrols in enemy waters get increasingly treacherous.

Now, some of you might be scratching your heads after reading this plot synopsis, since this sounds more like a Nicholas Sparks novel rather than a gritty war epic starring John Wayne.

This element caught me by surprise as well, since lengthy sections of the film are dedicated to Wayne and Neal making doe eyes at each other, while a lot of the naval combat scenes are pushed to the sidelines.

Operating Pacific also goes out of its way to depict the more blasé and uneventful aspects of military life that border on the comical, some of which wouldn’t be out of place in an Abbott and Costello movie.

In one scene, while on shore leave, Wayne is tasked with bailing his men out of a Honolulu jail after they get into a drunken brawl with some local police officers.

When the crew is at sea, they use some of their down time to screen a movie in the submarine’s mess hall.

And after rescuing an infant from enemy territory, the men of the USS Thunderfish figure out how to feed the child using a rubber glove.

While these moments do tonally clash with the naval combat scenes—which are awash with gunfire, explosions and technical mumbo jumbo — they do add some much-needed variety to what would otherwise be a pretty by-the-numbers war movie.

And by shifting the film’s focus away from the “battlefield,” Waggner (who also wrote the screenplay) is very clearly trying to appease a post-World War II audience, whose appetite for outright bloodshed had definitely cooled after six years of peacetime. *

Plus, by 1951 the US Baby Boom was noticeably underway, with the romance between Wayne and Neal in this film serving as an obvious nod to the kind of cathartic, romantic energy embodied in classic wartime imagery like Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph.

In fact, this film is so uninterested with broader conflict itself that there’s not really any main antagonist to speak of.

Sure, Wayne has to butt heads with a fellow soldier who is also after his ex-wife’s affections, but their relationship is always very cordial and never escalates beyond a harsh word.

Because of this, most of the film’s charm comes from its quieter moments, where the main characters hang out and discuss what life is like back on dry land.

That being said, Operation Pacific does slightly buckle under some clichés that one would expect from a Hollywood war epic from that era.

For one thing, a lot of the film’s action sequences rely way too heavily on stock imagery, which isn’t spliced into the director’s original footage in an organic fashion.

Additionally, Waggner is pretty upfront about presenting this story as a piece of military propaganda, opening up the movie with a Star Wars-style crawl that pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

While there’s nothing wrong with this kind of cinematic remembrance, it does set the tone for a movie that casts World War II in an overly simplistic light, where all American soldiers are depicted as being absolute paragons of virtue.

This approach to characterization turns into a problem whenever the movie veers off into a territory that isn’t morally black and white, like the aforementioned moment where Wayne has to bail his men out of jail.

Even though these characters assaulted several police officers under the influence of alcohol, this scene is largely played for laughs, where the crew is ultimately left off the hook for committing such a serious crime.

This uncritical eye is prevalent throughout the rest of the movie as well, since the filmmakers don’t provide any insight into the Imperial Japanese Navy, outside of the fact that they are a mostly faceless enemy who must be defeated.

Thankfully, this outdated propaganda isn’t so heavy handed that it ruins the movie, although everyone’s mileage may vary (especially if you don’t care for the term “Japs” being thrown around in casual conversation).

And even if you’re not a big fan of romance being mixed in with your violent war movie, at least take comfort in the fact that Waggner does a pretty decent job of balancing those two elements throughout the film’s 111-minute runtime.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen this kind of genre bending done way worse, with Paul Gross’ crushingly melodramatic Passchendaele (2008) immediately coming to mind.

Plus, in this case, the relationship between Wayne and Neal actually saves Operation Pacific from being completely irrelevant to a 2021 audience.

After all, [SPOILERS] their successful reconcilement at the end of the movie is obviously meant to tap into America’s desire to return to some state of normalcy after a long period of societal upheaval.

And in that respect, Operation Pacific has become way more relatable than ever in the seven decades since its original release now that the country (and North America more broadly) is turning the tide in the fight against COVID-19. **

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Ghirardelli sea salt chocolate (because it’s the only nautical-themed snack food that I could find)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 27, 1951

-Budget: $1.46 million (estimated)

-Box office: $2.56 million (US), $1.3 million (worldwide)

-Retired US navy admiral Charles A. Lockwood served as a technical advisor on Operation Pacific to ensure its accuracy when depicting submarine warfare. According to Wikipedia, Hollywood producers sought out Lockwood a couple more times to advise them on a variety of other film projects, including Hellcats of the Navy (1957), On the Beach (1959), and Up Periscope (1959).  

-Near the finale of Operation Pacific, the men of the USS Thunderfish can be seen exchanging film canisters with a friendly American sub so that both crews can enjoy a movie night. These films, Destination Tokyo (1943) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), were both produced by Warner Bros. Pictures in real life.

-Following the release of Operation Pacific, George Waggner mostly directed television for the remainder of his career, including episodes of The Green Hornet, Maverick, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

* I realize that the US was involved in the Korean War by 1951, but that conflict wasn’t nearly as pervasive in American society as World War II was, so I think my original point stands.

** I sincerely hope this statement doesn’t become extremely dated in the coming weeks and months.

Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) review- Uncle Sam gets creative with his recruitment techniques

The 1940s was truly a golden age in terms of Hollywood produced war propaganda.

Not only would these productions play as cartoons or documentary shorts before the beginning of a feature film, but sometimes they would take the form of the main attraction itself.

This can even be seen through a screen classic like Casablanca, which was made entirely to capitalize on America’s decision to enter the Second World War and reassure the US public that their government had made the right decision.

John Farrow’s Commandos Strike at Dawn, released at the very tail end of 1942, operates on that very same logic, since its plot and characters are meant to serve as an stand-in for America’s transition from neutrality to outright involvement in the Allied war effort.

In this film, the role of audience surrogate doesn’t go to Humphrey Bogart but Paul Muni, who plays a mild-mannered Norwegian fisherman whose sleepy village is taken over by the Third Reich in 1939.

While Muni’s character originally believes that the best course of action is to simply cooperate until the war blows over, he’s gradually pushed to violence after witnessing the atrocities committed by the Nazis and recruits a squad of British commandos to help liberate his home.

Now, when I use the term “propaganda” to describe this film, I don’t use it in an entirely negative sense. After all, I’m perfectly willing to stomach some ham-fisted messaging in my entertainment as long as the end product is well-made.

For example, even though Casablanca is a pretty transparent World War II allegory, it’s done with a certain level of sophistication and the film contains a pretty timeless love story that still strikes a cord with audiences to this day.

Unfortunately, the same really can’t be said for Commandos Strike at Dawn, since the filmmakers settle for cheap gimmicks that relegate the production to being simply a product of its time.

This kind of tone is established in the first couple seconds of the film, when the opening credits prominently display all the flags of the Allied powers, including the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. This kind of intro immediately dates the film, especially with the Cold War being right around the corner.

Even though there are times where the movie’s attempts to be timely do work out in its favour (like how the characters mention the persecution of Jews at a time when they were being slaughtered in concentration camps in real life) this kind of tacky filmmaking has way more misses than hits.

Although Muni is a compelling lead, he’s saddled with a lot of corny lines about how “nobody’s going to win the war for anybody else,” which sound like they are meant to lecture the 1942 audience rather than inform the movie’s characters.

The rest of the film’s cast is even more disposable.

Despite the fact that all the major players are given a long introduction through a fairly impressive tracking shot, most of them disappear halfway through the movie as the narrative focuses exclusively on Muni and his mission to coordinate a rescue operation.

The worst example of this is probably Muni’s love interest, who doesn’t affect the plot in any way and only seems to exist to reassure the audience that their protagonist has (if I may borrow a term from Red Letter Media) a “case of the not gays.”

The writers don’t even have the decency to provide us with a main antagonist, and settle for flooding the screen with a bunch of nameless German foot soldiers instead.

With that being said, the one segment of the cast who do manage to make an impression are the “British” commandos themselves.

The climactic clash between them and the Nazis feature some really impressive stunt work, which probably has something to do with the fact that they were played by real-life members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Commandoes(1)

What’s even better is that director John Farrow compliments their military acumen with some good production decisions, since a lot of explosions are done in-camera and aren’t watered down by post-production trickery.

With that being said, basically none of these commandos are given personalities or even a single line of dialogue, which means it’s hard to get emotionally invested in this climax beyond admiring the pure spectacle of it.

And that’s probably the biggest problem with Commandos Strike at Dawn: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Sure, the filmmakers make a big show at the beginning about how they want to present an intimate character piece, but it’s clear by the final frame of the film that that’s all window dressing.

Instead, they’d much rather settle for showcasing flashy pyrotechnics and real-life military hardware, something that would have worked as long as they fully committed to this idea.

As a result, Farrow and his team fall victim to the classic filmmaking mistake of trying to make a movie for everyone, which inevitably means that they made a movie for no-one (especially by 2018 standards).

(Side note: it’s clear that the final climactic battle wasn’t shot in the early in the morning, but I guess “Commandos Strike at Mid-Day” wouldn’t have looked great on a movie poster.)

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Bits & Bites Original (because it should have stuck to doing one thing, instead of mixing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 30, 1942.

-Box office gross: $1.5 million (estimated).

-This film was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture at the 1944 Academy Awards (the same year Casablanca won Best Picture).

-Paul Muni is probably best know for starring in the original Scarface from 1932, when the title character was an Italian gangster named Tony Camonte.

-Even though he’s kind of slumming it in this movie, Muni has five Oscar nominations for Best Actor under his belt, with an eventual win in 1937 for starring in The Story of Louis Pasteur.

-Unexpected cameo: Lillian Gish (a silent movie star best known for playing the pivotal role of Elsie Stoneman in the Birth of a Nation) makes her first screen appearance in almost a decade by portraying one the Norwegian villagers under Nazi siege.

-According to IMDB, the entirety of this film was shot on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.