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In Harm's Way

In Harm's Way(1965)

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"You can't kill John Wayne," Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review of In Harm's Way (1965). "That's the message - the only message - that comes through loud and clear in Otto Preminger's big war film." On the screen, the Duke seemed practically immortal (even if he did die in a few films) but at the time of In Harm's Way, his health was in decline. During the filming he was plagued with a constant cough and it wasn't until the completion of Preminger's film that he learned he had lung cancer, marking the beginning of an eleven year battle with the disease. Despite the toll cancer took on the actor, Wayne soldiered on in his career just like his character Capt. Rockwell Torrey in In Harm's Way. In some ways, Preminger's film is less about the Pacific campaign of World War II then it is about the enshrinement of Wayne's screen persona.

Set in Hawaii on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 6, 1941) and culminating in a decisive naval battle between the U.S. navy and the Japanese fleet, In Harm's Way was an attempt by Preminger to create a courageous epic. "After all these anti-war films which seem to have been more defeatist than pacifist," he said, "the Navy needs a film like this!" (from Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger by Willi Frischauer). And who better than the Duke to play the brash full-speed-ahead Capt. Torrey aka "The Rock," a career navy man who abandoned his wife and family years earlier because his duty to country came first. Like Torrey, Wayne was a hawk and well known for his right wing politics. His choice of screen roles also reflected his belief that playing weak, ambivalent or villainous characters would alienate his fans and he was probably right. Wayne couldn't, for instance, understand why Kirk Douglas would want to play the brooding, deeply conflicted Commander Paul Eddington in In Harm's Way (he couldn't fathom why Douglas wanted to play the tormented Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life [1956] either). In a crucial scene, Eddington gets drunk and rapes the fiance, Ensign Annalee Dorne (Jill Haworth), of Torrey's estranged son Jeremiah (Brandon De Wilde). The incident drives Annalee to commit suicide and Douglas to sacrifice himself for the greater cause but Wayne was very unhappy with how the screenplay depicted Eddington. Wayne said, "If I were playing this part, I would want the girl's boyfriend to return, face me, and kill me." For his own character, Wayne wanted it made clear that he cared about his men. "I must show that I care about other people. Otherwise, when they go off and get killed on my orders, people will hate me." (from John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life by Emanuel Levy).

Wayne was equally adamant about the casting of his female co-star. He had been particularly uncomfortable with the romantic scenes in Hatari! (1962) opposite Elsa Martinelli, who was young enough to be his daughter. He no longer thought it appropriate for a man his age to be cast opposite some young ingnue so he was particularly happy to learn that the thirty-eight-year-old Patricia Neal had accepted the part of his love interest, Lt. Maggie Hayes. Neal wrote in her autobiography, Patricia Neal: As I Am, that In Harm's Way "brought me back into a working relationship with John Wayne, whom I had not seen since Operation Pacific [1951]. Those days were not pleasant for either of us and we had both been through a lot since then. He was certainly a better man for it, much more relaxed and generous. This time we got along splendidly."

Surprisingly enough, both Wayne and Neal also enjoyed a good relationship with director Otto Preminger who had a terrible reputation in the industry for his often cruel and contentious behavior on movie sets. Hollywood insiders expected a battle of egos between the director and Wayne but the actor told an interviewer, "He had my respect and I had his respect. He is terribly hard on the crew, and he's terribly hard on people he thinks are sloughing off. But this is a thing I can understand because I've been there...I came ready and that he appreciated." As for Neal, she admitted, "This will come as a surprise to some...but Otto Preminger may have been the most generous man I ever knew." According to the actress, he held up the production of In Harm's Way until after the birth of her child plus he invited her entire family to join them on location in Hawaii and covered all the expenses.
Kirk Douglas, however, had a different view of the director who on this film would strut around on the set proclaiming, "I'm the man with no hair who shoves around the people with hair." Douglas was particularly appalled by Preminger's treatment of actor Tom Tryon who had already been humiliated by the director during the making of The Cardinal (1963) and should have known better than to work with Preminger again. "Whispered rumors that Tryon was gay might have inspired Preminger's venom." (quoted from John Wayne: American by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson). "Kirk Douglas remembered, "Otto would scream. He would come right up to Tom, saliva spitting out of his mouth, and he would just yell. I've never seen anyone treated that way. Tom was shattered." Douglas begged Tryon to stand up to the old man. "The next time Otto screams at you," Douglas counseled him, "just yell right back. 'Otto, Go f*ck yourself!' and walk off the set." Tom Tryon did not like confrontations and kept his peace, suffering through the abuse. Preminger tried to bully Douglas a few times, but the star would have none of it. "Once, he raised his voice in a nasty way toward me. I walked over to him, nose to nose. In a very low voice, I said, 'Are you talking to me?' That was the end of it. He never insulted me again."

Preminger gave short shrift to In Harm's Way in his autobiography but he did admit that "Wayne is an ideal professional: always prompt, always prepared" and noted with some pride, "The good timetable that we kept in the making of In Harm's Way helped to save John Wayne's life," a reference to the fact that Wayne was able to arrange a medical exam (where they discovered his cancer) because Preminger finished ten days ahead of schedule. The director also recalled with some amusement (in The Cinema of Otto Preminger by Gerald Pratley) Paula Prentiss's final scene in the film (she plays Bev McConnell, the newlywed wife of Tom Tryon's character). "...She so much wanted to be good that she kept unconsciously kicking herself in the ankle. When the scene was over, she suddenly couldn't walk, and she was taken to the hospital. She had broken her ankle, but she was concentrating so hard on the scene that she didn't realize it."

In Harm's Way, based on James Bassett's best-selling novel, was indeed an epic undertaking and Preminger was able to count on the US Defense Department for practically everything he needed in order to recreate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other combat scenes. The U.S. Navy "supplied him with the USS St. Paul, a cruiser, and sailed the entire cast and crew from Seattle to Hawaii. On the way Preminger shot a number of the onboard scenes, ordering the St. Paul's captain and crew around as if they were employees. The naval base at Pearl Harbor became a Preminger set..." The only obstacles to overcome were mere technicalities: "No importation of explosives into operational bases and no laying mines in Pearl Harbor by civilians. Instead, dummies were rigged up on vacant lots and wired with gas and oil for controlled fires." (from Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger by Willi Frischauer). In some battle scenes, Preminger resorted to using miniatures which some critics realized were obviously toy ships and detracted greatly from the film's realism; John Wayne also complained to Preminger about it.

Reviewers were clearly divided on the merits of In Harm's Way. The New York Times proclaimed "This is a slick and shallow picture that Mr. Preminger puts forth here, a straight clich-crowded melodrama.." Mike Mayo, author of Videohound's War Movies, wrote that the actors were "all saddled with a convoluted story that's so idiotically written it's unfair to judge the actors' work...One clue to the bad writing comes in the place names that were invented for the fictional campaign. When Torrey says, "You're gonna mop up Gavoobutu and mount the invasion of Lavoovona," it sounds even sillier than it reads." Kirk Douglas's volatile character doesn't come off any better with dialogue like "We've got ourselves another war...a gut-busting, mother-loving Navy war!"

Weighing in with positive assessments, however, were such respected publications as The New Yorker, Films in Review, and Variety. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker wrote, "The picture lasts two hours and forty-five minutes, nearly every one of which is filled with storm and stress, both literal and figurative, and it's an honest measure of its success as a melodrama that I, who am usually irritated by long movies, never once bent forward in my seat to consult my watch." Wilfred Mifflin of Films in Review confirmed Preminger's original reason for making the film: "I was absorbed not because its story is novel....but because I'm starved for movies which "accentuate the positive"...In Harm's Way is a pleasure to watch because it makes possible whole-hearted identification with a hero."

But it has to be said that the movie's major appeal was the Duke. Variety acknowledged this, stating "This picture was tailored for John Wayne...He is in every way the big gun of In Harm's Way. Without his commanding presence, chances are Preminger probably could not have built the head of steam this film generates and sustains for 2 hours, 45 minutes." Nevertheless, In Harm's Way was virtually ignored at Oscar® time with the exception of a well-deserved nomination for Loyal Griggs for Best Cinematography. His beautiful cinemascope compositions are particularly striking, especially during the opening sequence that sets up the pre-dawn attack on Pearl Harbor.

Producer: Otto Preminger
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: James Bassett (novel), Wendell Mayes
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Film Editing: Hugh S. Fowler, George Tomasini
Art Direction: Al Roelofs
Music: Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Hennagin
Cast: John Wayne (Capt. Rockwell Torrey), Kirk Douglas (Eddington), Patricia Neal (Maggie), Tom Tryon (Mac), Paula Prentiss (Bev), Brandon De Wilde (Jere).
BW-167m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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