John Wayne: Screen Ladies–Patricia Neal (Operation Pacific, 1950)

Wayne’s Strong, Mature Women

operation_pacific_wayne_posterIn the last decade of his career, John Wayne was paired with stronger and older actresses, such as Patricia Neal (“In Harm’s Way”), Colleen Dewhurst (“The Cowboys,” “McQ”), Lauren Bacall (“The Shootist”), and Katharine Hepburn (“Rooster Cogburn”).

Wayne was much more powerful and convincing as an actor when playing against strong-willed and intelligent actresses.  His casting against mature women prompted the distinguished film critic Molly Haskell to observe: “How many other maturing male stars have allowed themselves to be paired with women who were roughly their contemporaries, instead of dropping back one generation, then another”

Haskell’s statement is not exactly accurate, for most of Wayne’s co-stars, with the exception of Katharine Hepburn, were at least a generation his juniors. But she is right about the appeal of these stars: none was the typical Hollywood glamour queen.

Wayne was more aware of his progressing age and declining looks than other actors, as he said in 1957: “My problem is I’m not a handsome man like Cary Grant, who will still be handsome at sixty five.” “I may be able to do a few more man-woman things before it’s too late, but then what?”  He was determined not to play “silly old man chasing young girls, as some of the stars are doing.”

For the most part, he did not. In only a few movies, Wayne looked ridiculous, courting much younger women, as, for example, in “Donovan’s Reef,” in which his romantic interest was Elizabeth Allen, a former fashion model half his age.  Wayne conceded that, “Ford never should have used me in that picture.” “He should have picked some young guy,” he explained, “It didn’t require much of him. All he had to be was a good-looking young guy, and I wasn’t young enough.”

Another movie, exceptional in the incredulous way it treats Wayne’s sex appeal was “McQ,” in which he is pursued by women half his age.  Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, found it absurd that “women are all hot for this sex pot,” and that Colleen Dewhurst, playing a lonely waitress, had to apologize for being fat and ugly before dragging him to bed.

But other critics thought that Wayne still possessed “a more extensive sexual range than younger, ostensibly hipper studs like Paul Newman and Robert Redford.”

Describing John Wayne as “the last movie star to make respect sexy,” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll claimed that there was “plenty of eroticism in the Duke, but it’s a friendly eroticism that takes any woman on her own terms.”

Patricia Neal

operation_pacific_wayne_5In 1951, George Waggner directed Operation Pacific, a World War II submarine film, elevated to a higher level due to its two stars– John (the Duke) Wayne and Patricia Neal–and the strong chemistry between them.

This was the first of two movies Wayne made with Patricia Neal, the other also being a WWII drama, Otto Preminger’s well received In Harm’s Way (1965), which featured an all-star ensemble (including Henry Fonda).

The film benefited from the technical advice of Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, the actual Commander, Submarine Forces, Pacific (COMSUBPAC) during World War II.

During World War II, an American submarine, the Thunderfish, under the command of Cmdr. John T. “Pop” Perry (Ward Bond), transports some children and nuns to Pearl Harbor, including a newborn infant, “Butch.” The sub spots and attacks a Japanese aircraft carrier, but its torpedoes fail to explode. Pursued by the carrier, the sub escapes.

While in Pearl Harbor, the ship’s Executive Office, Lt Cmdr. Duke E. Gifford (Wayne) goes to visit Butch at the base hospital, and runs into his ex-wife, Mary Stuart (Patricia Neal), a Navy nurse.

operation_pacific_wayne_3Mary is now romantically involved with Navy pilot Lt. Bob Perry (Philip Carey), “Pop” Perry’s brother. Duke pursues Mary before being sent out on patrol.

The sub spots a Japanese freighter, but, again, their torpedoes fail to explode. The enemy ship raises the white flag, and the Thunderfish surfaces, but it is a decoy, and it opens fire on the American sub. Wounded, “Pop” Perry is stuck on deck, but he orders the ship to dive.  Uunder Duke’s command, the freighter is rammed and sunk.

Back at Pearl Harbor, Bob Perry believes Duke gave the order to submerge which killed his brother, and won’t listen to his explanation. Mary tries to comfort Duke, but he rejects her attempts.

operation_pacific_wayne_4Working with torpedo specialists, Duke and the crew investigate the reason for the new torpedoes’ failure to explode. Upon discovering the cause, Duke goes to Mary to celebrate, but she rejects him. In the past, he did not let her into his life, and she feels they cannot have a real bond.

Her superior, Cmdr. Steele (Kathryn Givney) castigates Mary for giving away her happiness with Duke.

operation_pacific_wayne_1Heading out to sea, The Thunderfish finds a Japanese fleet, and though it will reveal their position, the sub broadcasts the fleet’s position. Pearl Harbor acknowledges the message, and Duke fires all torpedoes. The sub destroys a Japanese aircraft carrier. American planes arrive to attack the fleet, and the Thurderfish helps to rescues American flyers, while under attack from Japanese planes. While rescuing Bob Perry, the Chief and Junior are killed and Duke is wounded.

Upon arrival at Pearl Harbor, Mary is waiting for Duke, and the two go to the hospital to take care of Butch.



John Wayne as Lt Cmdr. Duke E. Gifford

Patricia Neal as Lt. (j.g.) Mary Stuart

Ward Bond as Cmdr. John T. “Pop” Perry

cott Forbes as Lt. Larry

Philip Carey as Lt. (j.g.) Bob Perry

Paul Picerni as Jonesy

William Campbell as the Talker

Kathryn Givney as Cmdr. Steele

Martin Milner as Ens. Caldwell

Cliff Clark as Commander, SUBPAC

Jack Pennick as the Chief

Virginia Brissac as Sister Anna

Vincent Fotre as Soundman

Lewis Martin as Squad Commander

Sam Edwards as Junior

Frank Sutton as Chief Gunners Mate

Louis Mosconi as Radarman Mosconi