Drama / War / Romance
Directed by George Waggner
Cast: John Wayne as 'Duke' Gifford
Patricia Neal as Mary Stuart
Ward Bond as Capt. 'Pop' Perry
Scott Forbes as Larry
Philip Carey as Bob Perry
Paul Picerni as Jonesy
Bill Campbell as The talker
Katherine Givney as Commander Steele
Martin Milner as Caldwell
Cliff Clark as Comsubpac
Jack Pennick as The chief
After leading a mission to rescue nuns and orphans from a settlement being taken by the Japanese, Duke takes a liking to one of the infants, calling him Butch. The rescue team leaves the island by boat to rendezvous with the Thunderfish, a submarine Duke is the Executive Officer for. Back on board, the crew of the sub detects an incoming Japanese destroyer and fires torpedoes. Although making a direct hit, the torpedo fails to fire, and the destroyer is alerted to the sub’s presence and begins dropping depth charges. The sub has to make a hasty retreat to ensure the safety of its precious cargo.
Back on shore, Duke goes to visit the infant, Butch, and comes across his ex-wife, Lt. Mary Stuart, who serves as a nurse in the medical department. Although divorced, the two obviously still share affection for each other. Duke wants to make a fresh start, but Mary informs him that she has a date with Bob Perry, the younger brother of ‘Pop’ Perry, the captain of the Thunderfish and Duke’s mentor. That night, Duke and Pop are having dinner at a fine establishment when Bob arrives with Mary. The duos share a table, and as Pop dances with Mary, Bob confides in Duke that all his life he has been living in Duke’s shadow. Bob announces that he has proposed to Mary and they are engaged. However, Mary responds that she has not actually said yes yet. Duke presses the issue, and Mary wisely escorts Bob away to avoid a confrontation. Duke follows the couple, picking up flowers along the way. After Bob leaves Mary at her quarters, Duke approaches and they discuss their marriage, what went wrong, and Duke promises to pay more attention to Mary, and less to the Navy if they are to try again. At that moment an officer of the Thunderfish rushes up, telling Duke there is trouble and he is needed. His promise apparently forgotten, he rushes off to assist his crew, leaving a frustrated Mary realizing that things will be the same if she gives Duke another chance. Several members of the Thunderfish’s crew have gotten drunk on illegal spirits distilled by the locals and got into a brawl with a Hawaiian band. The band demands reparations, but Duke points out that they are also brewing illegal spirits. The commander of the military police points out that the fine for brewing spirits is the same as the amount the band wants in reparations, and they agree to drop the charges.
Back at sea on patrol, the crew of the Thunderfish encounters more issues with torpedoes when they have shots on prime targets and the torpedoes again fail to detonate. Pop radios Navy command and is invited to discuss the issue further with them when their patrol has completed. At the next location, the Thunderfish encounters a Japanese freighter. After the torpedoes fail again, the Japanese vessel flies the white flag. Puzzled by the action, but following protocol, Pop commands the sub to surface and orders the guns on the surface manned. Pop and Duke go up on deck, and just as the sub gets in range, the Japanese vessel reveals hidden gun emplacements and opens fire, killing the Thunderfish’s gunners and mortally wounding Pop. Pop orders Duke below deck and gives the command to dive, sealing the hatch while he is still outside, sacrificing his life to save the ship. In frustration and grief, knowing their torpedoes are no good, Duke orders his crew to ram the freighter, sinking it, but damaging the Thunderfish as well. The crew limps home to port, their morale shaken at the loss of Pop.
Back at shore, the Navy begins an investigation of the encounter, and Duke, Mary and Bob attend a service for Pop. After the service, Bob angrily accuses Duke of getting Pop killed by playing the hero and storms out before Duke can explain Pop’s actions. Mary tries to console the frustrated, angry and grief-stricken Duke, but he rejects her affection, claiming his crew is his priority and storms out as well. Duke sets his men to the task of discovering the issue with the torpedo’s malfunctioning firing pins, and after a series of trial and error, the crew finds the issue and begins retrofitting their torpedoes. The Navy returns the results of their investigation, clearing Duke and the crew of the Thunderfish of any misconduct. Duke goes to see Mary to see if he can salvage the situation. Mary has come to the conclusion that it is no use to pursue a relationship with Duke further because he will not allow her to comfort him, and his primary concern is the Navy. Duke leaves, and Mary’s superior officer, Cmdr. Steele, who overheard the conversation, advises Mary to stop trying to change Duke and take him as he is or she will lose him forever.
The Thunderfish, now repaired and torpedoes fixed, returns to patrol. The Thunderfish is ordered to investigate a series of explosions, when they encounter the bulk of the Japanese fleet. Realizing the Thunderfish and its crew are less important than stopping the Japanese fleet and the damage it will cause, Duke orders the Thunderfish up to radio depth to notify the Navy of the fleet’s position. The Thunderfish is detected and Duke fires off all of their torpedoes, trying to inflict as much damage as they can. The Thunderfish sinks a Japanese aircraft carrier before the destroyers catch up to her and begin battering her with depth charges. Meanwhile the Navy has responded, and planes begin attacking the Japanese fleet, drawing their attention away from the Thunderfish. Although damaged, the Thunderfish is ordered to surface and try to rescue downed pilots. Duke is leading one of these rescue missions personally and pulls Bob from the sea, although he is wounded in the process when they come under fire. The mission completed, Duke returns to port to find Mary waiting, where they agree to start anew, adopting Butch in the process.
Charles A. Lockwood, commander of the submarine forces in the pacific during WWII, served as technical advisor to the film.
The dramatic scene where Pop sacrifices himself is based on the actions of Commander Howard W. Gilmore, captain of the USS Growler. Cmdr. Gilmore was mortally wounded on the bridge and gave the order to take the Growler down, sacrificing himself to save his ship and crew. For his actions he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Gilmore also ordered the ramming of an armed freighter, sinking it, although it occurred on an earlier patrol.
The torpedo issue portrayed in the movie is factual, although the correction was not done by the crewmen of the ship.
Patricia Neal did not get along with John Wayne during filming. One of the issues of contention was the way Wayne treated a gay crewmember. They were reunited on the screen fourteen years later for the film In Harm’s Way. At that time Neal noted that Wayne had mellowed a lot, perhaps because he was fighting cancer at the time. At the time she was quoted as saying, “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. He was going through marital problems, which kept him in a bad humor all the time. Duke was at odds with the director and could be a bully, particularly with a gay publicity man, who seemed to draw his wrath at every turn."
Wayne wasn’t entirely happy with the film believing that it was too long, and focused too much on romance. He also was opposed to the casting of Patricia Neal as he felt she was too young to be his ex-wife.