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An only half succesful tribute to the "Silent Service" and its exploits in Pacific War
on 7 January 2014
Made in 1951 when United States were in the middle of Korea War, this is more a propaganda film than a war movie and therefore has all the charm and limitations of this kind of productions. Below, more of my impressions, with some SPOILERS.
The tribute character of this film is immediately established by the opening statement, which deserves to be cited in its integrality: "When the Pacific Fleet was destroyed by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, it remained for the submarines to carry the war to the enemy. In the four years that followed, our undersea craft sank six million tons of Japanese shipping including some of the proudest ships of the Imperial Navy. Fifty-two of our submarines and thirty-five hundred officers and men were lost. It is to these men and the entire silent service that this picture is humbly dedicated."
This film describes the adventures and misfortunes of a fictitious submarine, USS "Thunderfish" (no ship of that name ever served in US Navy), during Pacific War. The main hero of the film is the executive officer (n°2), Lieutenant Commander Duke Gifford (John Wayne), a competent and courageous officer who just suffered a heartbreaking divorce. Other important characters on board of the sub are the commanding officer, Commander John T. Perry (Ward Bond), a junior officer, Lieutenant Larry (Scott Forbes) and Chief Petty Officer, known to all as simply "Chief" (Jack Pennick).
Now, this film is slightly hurt by the all present pathos and ultra-patriotic tone, but it would not be an issue if the rest of it was good. Sadly, it is not the case. The great problem with this film is that it seems all the time to hesitate between being a document and a war movie - and ultimately it doesn't succeed entirely in neither. To say things plainly, even if I am a military history freak and a great fan of John Wayne, I found large parts of this film BORING and poorly organised!
There is too much time devoted to Gifford's efforts to re-conquer his ex-wife Mary (Patricia Neal), the supposed love triangle between Gifford, Mary and Bob Perry (son of Commander Perry) is really so artificial that it is ridiculous and there is DEFINITELY too much time devoted to the evacuation of civilians (nuns and orphans) from a Japanese occupied island. Action scenes are really not that great, there is very little humour and dialogs are pretty lame. Last but not least, the great torpedo crisis which so horribly affected US Navy between 1941 and 1943 is shown here in a way which carefully avoids all the numerous ugly and ridiculous aspects of this enormous scandal - instead it is served to us sugar-coated and on a pink plate...
A precision here concerning (ATTENTION SPOILER HERE!) the scenes with a Japanese Q-Ship in action - in fact during the World War II the Imperial Navy deployed only one such unit, the "Delhi Maru", but it ended with total fiasco as she was sunk by a three torpedo salvo by USS "Swordfish" on 15 January 1944 during her first mission, without ever being able to use her guns...
That being said, the film has also some redeeming qualities. Action scenes are inspired by real events, especially the dramatic fight which took place on 7 February 1943 between USS "Growler" and an armed Japanese Navy auxilliary (supplies transport) "Hayasaki" as well as the even more famous submarine attack against Japanese cruisers in Palawan Passage on 23 October 1944. The few lighter scenes are quite good, especially one in which the crew of the USS "Thunderfish" watches with incredulity and considerable amusement another famous submarine movie, "Destination Tokyo" (see my review of this one). And then there is a very good, very powerful scene involving in a certain way yet another film, the comedy "George Washington slept here".
So bottom line, this is a watchable, but not really very good war film about submarines. I consider it inferior to such classics as "Destination Tokyo", "Run silent, run deep" and especially the great "Enemy below". Recommended only to terminal stage war film afficionados or the most extreme John Wayne fans.