In Harm’s Way: Otto Preminger’s sprawling World War II drama rides on the charisma of John Wayne and Kirk Douglas

In Harm’s Way(1965), directed by Otto Preminger from James Bassett‘s novel, and starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in lead roles, is a war-action drama set during the early days of United States’ participation in World War II. Like other Preminger films, this is a sprawling drama encompassing multiple sub plots and flawed heroes.

“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not go fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.” 

John Paul Jones

Though John ‘Duke’ Wayne is primarily regarded as a star of Westerns, he has done a fair share of War films; Sands of Iwo Jima(1949) is one of his most popular films in that genre, and for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In 1962, he received top billing for starring in Darryl F. Zanuck’s widely acclaimed, all-star cast, D-Day epic, The Longest Day. The 1965 War drama, In Harm’s Way, directed by Otto Preminger is not that widely acclaimed or popular a film in either Duke’s filmography or the War film genre, but actually, it’s a film that is historically important in Duke’s career for three reasons: First, it marked his last appearance in a Black and White film; second, it was his last film before undergoing surgery for lung cancer; and last, it marks Duke’s first of three collaborations with fellow screen legend, Kirk Douglas. This film that details the American participation in the Pacific theater of war fits in neatly with the other war movies of Duke, which are also mostly set in the same place and time. It’s also the only film Duke made with director Otto Preminger. The fact that Duke was a Conservative republican and Preminger was a staunch liberal democrat may have something to do with that. Both of them were also very aggressive personalities, with Preminger widely known in film industry circles as a tyrannical bully. Wisely, both Duke and Preminger chose not to discuss politics during the making of this film. The film is literally the last big budget, all-star cast, widescreen spectacle made in Black & White. Like other Preminger films of the time, this film too has a big-name cast, an epic running time and too many subplots and characters- which sometimes work towards slowing down the film’s narrative momentum. And as he did with Anatomy of Murder– a critical look at America’s judicial system; and Advise and Consent- a critical look at the American political establishment; In Harm’s way critiques the American Navy: the soldiers are portrayed as flawed characters, either inept, foolish or publicity hungry, with one of the heroes being even portrayed as a cuckold and a rapist. The film’s dramatic terrain covers an abundance of emotions and themes: Romance, infidelity, father/son conflict, honor, courage, rape, suicide, it’s got it all. The film has some similarities to Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 classic, From Here to Eternity; the human drama is set against the Pearl Harbor attack, but unlike, From Here to Eternity, where the attack forms the climax of the film, here the attack starts the film.

Though its Black & White images and its strict adherence to historical accuracy might give the impression that it’s a stark docudrama like The Longest Day, In Harm’s way is mainly a character-driven melodrama with the World War II setting mainly used as a backdrop. Duke plays U.S.. Navy Captain Rockwell “Rock” Torrey, first demoted after the Pearl Harbor disaster, and later reinstated. By this time in the mid 1960s, Duke had started drifting into ‘Father figure’ roles, and this film is no exception. Apart from trying to repair his relationship with his estranged, teenage son Jeremiah (Brandon De Wilde), Torrey also plays ‘Father’ to his second-in-command, Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), who is going through some personal problems of his own. Paul’s wife is a floozy, who sleeps around with every other soldier in Honolulu,, and on account of this, Paul has become an alcoholic. So, Torrey had to babysit him for the time being. Their relationship is similar to the one Duke shared with Dean Martin in Rio Bravo(1959). Of course, Brandon De Wilde had played little Joey Starret in Shane(1953), and Duke’s tempestuous relationship with him mirrors another troubled father-son relationship that Duke shared with another child prodigy in another military picture: Claude Jarman Jr. in John Ford’s Rio Grande(1950). Then there is Lieutenant Commander) William “Mac” McConnell(Tom Tyron), who also looks up to Torrey as a father figure. Unlike Eddington, Mac is the good son, with a good wife and a happy family life, and who comes to Torrey’s aid every time he’s in distress. Amidst all this, Torrey, a divorcee, also finds time to conduct a romance with nurse Lieutenant Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal). The film opens rather unusually for a war film: It’s the night before the Pearl Harbor attack; the camera slowly glides into an officer’s club, where the naval officers and their women are dancing the night away. Here, we get a glimpse of Eddington’s wife, Liz, carousing wildly with an Army Air Forces major. Eddington’s colleague, Mac and his wife, Paula, are outraged by Liz’s behavior, but decides that it’s none of their business. Liz leaves the party with her lover, and they have a wild fling on a local beach. Next morning, they wake up to find Japanese planes on their way to attack Pearl Harbor. They quickly get dressed and ride back into town, but they meetup with an accident and ends up dead.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Torrey and Eddington’s heavy cruiser engages the Japanese, only to have their ship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Mac, who by then had assumed command of his destroyer, Cassiday, comes to Torrey’s rescue, by first sinking the Japanese sub, and then helping the cruiser with damage control. Torrey has badly hurt his arm in the attack, but the deepest cut of them all comes when he is removed from his command for not following due process. Torrey is relegated to desk duty at Hawaii, and it’s while serving time here, and recuperating from the broken arm, that he falls in love with divorced Navy Nurse Corps Lieutenant Maggie Haynes. Through her, he comes in contact with his son, Jeremiah, whom he hasn’t seen for years, after his divorce from his wife. Jeremiah has been raised by his mother and her ultra-rich family, and he’s now an ensign in the Naval Reserve on active duty, assigned to a PT boat. Naturally he’s very arrogant, and looks down upon his father. He’s also in cohorts with politically ambitious, Commander Neal Owynn(Patrick O’Neal), a former U.S. congressman who obtained a commission as a senior Naval Reserve officer after Pearl Harbor. Owynn’s additional intent is to do as little as possible in combat while embellishing his credentials for an eventual postwar return to Congress. The first father-son meeting between the adult Jeremiah and Torrey does not go well. Jeremiah is dating Maggie’s roommate, Nurse Corps ensign Annalee Dorne, and they get engaged. But things go wrong when Eddington, who has become emotionally unstable after his wife’s death, and being exiled to a “backwater island purgatory” as an officer in charge of piers and warehouses, starts taking an interest in Dorne. In a scene that works as a perverted twist on the famous beach love making scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity”, Eddington first flirts, and then brutally rapes Dorne. Traumatized by the incident, and by her impending wedding to Jeremiah, Dorne commits suicide.

In the interim, Torrey was reinstated to active duty. He is promoted to Rear Admiral by the Pacific fleet’s commander-in-chief, who then gives him tactical command of an operation named “Skyhook”. It’s aim is to capture a strategic island named Levu-Vana, whose central plain would make an ideal airfield site for Army Air Forces Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress squadrons. Admiral Broderick(Dana Andrews) is in command of this operation, but his over-cautious nature has ensured that the operation has not progressed at all. The Naval high command expects Torey to speed up the operation by displaying the same sort of courage and initiative that he displayed while commanding his Cruiser. Torrey, unaware of Eddington’s fragile mental state. choses him as his second in command. The Skyhook mission brings Torrey and Jeremiah face to face again. Owynn has attached himself as an aide to Admiral Broderick. So, father and son once again find themselves in opposite camps. But Jeremiah’s attitude towards his father (and Owynn) changes, when Torrey successfully bypasses Broderick in planning and executing an operation to overrun Gavabutu, an island to be used as a staging base for the invasion of Levu-Vana. The son recognizes his father’s competency and the disloyalty of Owynn and Broderick, and thus develops a new regard for his father. After an altercation between Owynn and Eddington in Jeremiah’s presence, in which the latter insults and slaps the former multiple times for sabotaging Torrey’s operation, Owen packs his bags and leave the island.

But Eddington’s demons catches up with him; as the truth about Dorne’s suicide is about to revealed, Eddington undertakes a suicide mission: still a qualified aviator, he commandeers a patrol bomber and flies solo on an unauthorized reconnaissance flight to locate elements of the Japanese fleet. Engaged by Japanese Zero fighters, he’s shot down. Before his death, Eddington manages to find and transmit information regarding a large Japanese task force (centered around the super-battleship Yamato) on its way to engage Torrey’s much smaller force; and thus, manages to redeem himself. The news of an imminent and massive Japanese attack does not deter Torrey, and just as he showed in the beginning while commandeering the cruiser, he goes ahead with the invasion of Levu-Vana. The resulting battle proves tragic for Torrey, as his son, Jeremiah, is killed when he is rammed by a Japanese destroyer, and then, Torrey himself is seriously wounded, but is rescued in the nick of time by Mac. There are heavy casualties on both sides and Torrey looses several of his fellow officers. Torrey is returned to Pearl Harbor aboard a Navy hospital ship under Maggie’s care. His left leg had to be amputated as a result of his injuries. So, Torrey’s now an utterly defeated and a broken man; having lost his son and his leg, he now awaits court martial for his actions. But to his surprise, he’s congratulated by CINCPAC for repelling the Japanese advance and allowing his Marines to take Levu-Vana. Although Torrey has lost a leg, he is told by CINCPAC that he will be sent back to Washington, D.C. to get a peg leg, and he will be shipped back to the Pacific to command a task force and “stump his way to Tokyo” with the rest of the Allied forces. Thus, the film ends on a hopeful note for Torrey, as he slips into sleep, with a beaming Maggie at his beside.

Though the film received extensive cooperation from the U.S. Department of Defense, especially the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, with substantial filming occurring both aboard warships at sea and ashore, the film is filled with military anachronisms . A lot of the hardware, including ships, planes and light utility vehicle featured in the film originated either in the later stages of the war, or long after WWII. Also, Many of the non-military costumes and hairstyles worn by the women throughout the film were contemporary to the mid-1960s period during which the film was made, rather than of the early 1940s. The opening sequence with Barbara Bouchet as Liz Eddington salaciously dancing around teasing all the men and infuriating all the women is more a twist than a swing. The dress she wears is also more of a sack dress than the skirts fashionable in America in 1941. But my big disappointment was with the battle scenes. Obviously, they’re all accomplished with miniatures and models, but it’s far too tacky for even its time. This is felt particularly in the final battle sequence, which is rather confusingly put together: when ships are exploding, it’s hard to tell one from another. There are some poor use of optical-printer effects and the ship models sit so high in the water that they betray all efforts to make them behave realistically. Kirk Douglas was appalled when he saw the tackiness of the special effects. He offered to re-stage the scenes at his own expense using the special effects people who worked with him on Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. I suppose neither Preminger not the studio took him up on his offer.

Director, Otto Preminger, made his name in the 1940s by helming sophisticated Noir-mysteries like Laura and Fallen Angel. In the 1950s and 1960s, he segued into directing high-profile, prestige adaptations of popular novels and stage works that pushed the boundaries of censorship by dealing with themes which were then taboo in Hollywood, such as drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm(1955), rape in Anatomy of a Murder(1959) and homosexuality in Advise & Consent(1962). With Exodus(1960), adapted from Leon Uris bestseller about the founding of Israel, he moved into the arena of big-budget, international productions. Just prior to In Harm’s way, Preminger had made the epic drama, The Cardinal(1963), which touches on the activities of the Vatican in the first half of the twentieth century, with the rise of fascism in Europe and WWII. So, i guess, In Harm’s Way was a natural progression for Preminger. Like all the above mentioned films, Preminger tries to push some unconventional themes here as well, but it lacks cohesion and conviction: once you turn one of your lead stars into a rapist, then it’s very hard to redeem the film and the character he’s playing, even if he’s eventually turned into a martyr. Preminger limits his penchant for featuring bold and transgressive woman with Eddington’s wife, Liz, though one could say that Patricia Neal’s Maggie with her aggressive romantic pursuit of Torrey also fits the bill. Then there are the numerous subplots and characters, through which Preminger tries to argue that the well being of the Navy (and eventually the nation) is directly related to the kind of family relationships (or love lives) the men going into battle are having. So Jeremiah and Paul Eddington, who finds themselves at the opposite sides of a tragic romantic triangle, ends up dead. Torrey, when he’s a divorcee, ends up defeated and demoted. Once he falls into a stable relationship with Maggie, his career has a resurgence, and he ends up a hero despite being handicapped. Mac, who shares a stable relationship with Beverly, is the most successful of them all: never losing a battle and always turning up to save others. Obviously, the Mac-Beverly plot appears the most redundant of them all; and so is the various subplots involving a whole lot of Torrey’s fellow officers, who are either scheming and plotting to get ahead or bravely perishing in battles.

The film features an incredible panoply of recognizable stars including Slim Pickens, Burgess Meredith, Bruce Cabot, George Kennedy, Hugh O’Brien, Carroll O’Connor, Larry Hagman, Dana Andrews and Stanley Holloway, and they all put in good performances, but many of them appear and disappear at random, without having well defined roles to play. The film truly survives on the charisma and talents of the superstar duo of Duke and Douglas, and to an extend Patricia Neal. Duke and Neal had worked together not so well earlier in Operation Pacific(1951), but here their chemistry sparkles. They make their twilight romance achingly moving. Duke exudes relaxed authority, which is his forte. He could have walked through the part but he does a thoroughly professional job. Duke plays the tender lover opposite Neal with great sensitivity, making us wish that he done more characters like Torrey. And unusually for a ‘John Wayne’ character, Torrey’s not so much a man of action here as he is a man of thought: he’s a planner, not a doer, and Duke pulls it off effortlessly. Needless to say, strong women tend to improve Wayne’s work- as seen in his films with Maureen O’Hara- and Neal is about as strong as they come. The film also brings Duke and Henry Fonda together after a long time. Fonda has a cameo as CINPACII, who promotes Torrey.

Also, for a John Wayne War film, I found it surprisingly low key, no big speeches, not many instances of flag-waving. This has to be one of the most flawed or downbeat characters Duke has ever played in his career. By movie’s end, we see Duke broken and depressed in a hospital, with an amputated leg, a dead son, a dead substitute son, dead friends, and a dead crew. Thankfully, his relationship with Neal’s Maggie has endured, and even here one feels that his Torrey is the weaker half of the couple, who’s hanging on to her like a life preserver. The naval service and its attendant glories have come at too high a price for Torrey, just as a long and successful movie career cost Duke too much. Shortly after the filming ended, Duke was diagnosed with lung cancer on September 13, 1964. Before he went into surgery, he suggested that Kirk Douglas should replace him in his planned next film, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), if he did not survive surgery. But Duke survived, successfully battling cancer, though he had to sacrifice a lung and few ribs in the process. He not only went on to star in “Katie Elder”, but also made two more movies with Douglas, Cast a Giant Shadow and The War Wagon.

As for Kirk Douglas, who’s billed second in the credits but has a much smaller role as Wayne’s competent but tormented second in command, he continued his fascination for playing morally tainted characters. Right from his star-making performance in The Champion to Ace in the Hole to Two Weeks in Another town, he has reveled in playing not so likeable heroes, but here he pushes it to extreme by playing a mentally unstable rapist, who’s beyond the point of redemption. He at least gets the few humorous moments in the story, in which he’s good, and not to mention that shocking confrontation with Patrick O’Neal where he slaps the hell out of him. The major highlight of the film is a rich musical score by the great Jerry Goldsmith, who became the go to guy for scoring war epics. He not only creates a score that’s very different and unusual for a war movie, but also very different from his scores for other war epics like The Blue Max and Patton. Here, he had the opportunity to compose music for war scenes, love themes, dance tunes for the officers’ ball, ethnic music of the South Seas, a theme for Duke’s character; and a very dark, ominous “end title” music that evokes the theme of war affecting human relations that runs throughout the story. From the mid-1950s onwards, most of Preminger’s films used animated titles designed by Saul Bass. Here too, Bass has designed a unique end-credit title sequence (all the credits appear at the end of the movie), with ocean waves giving way to a nuclear explosion, that goes well with Goldsmith’s score.


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