I have to say that I didn’t have high expectations coming to this film. It’s been lying on my shelf for months, being part of the John Wayne Adventure Collection of Paramount. After having seen the other films of the collection I felt I had made a so-so purchase, with one really good film in the package (William Wellman’s Island in the Sky, 1953), one interesting for being the first of the “peril of a passenger plane”-genre (The High and the Mighty, 1954; another Wellman-film), and some forgettable lesser efforts (John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, 1963, and Howard Hawks’ Hatari!, 1962), notable mostly for the two directing legends’ whimsical approach to films they evidently didn’t feel very strongly about.
Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) was, however, much better than I had expected it to be. It’s a starpacked epic following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and serves as almost a sequel to Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity in that it gives a brief glimpse of life on the base (boredom, wantonness and alcoholism, evidently being core ingredients) before staging the attack itself and the first year of USA’s struggle to gain some minor strongholds in the pacific.
This film is at the same time both more mature than Zinnemann’s and more lightweight. It sets up situations of en emotional depth and frankness perhaps unthinkable at the time of Eternity, just 12 years earlier, but these situations often give way to more mundane and clichéridden stories. I think at least part of the reason stems from Preminger being more comfortable in the scenes concerning human interaction than in the enormous and admittedly impressive battle scenes. The special effects of the film are mostly top notch, but Preminger seems to mistrust the work done by his technical crew by trying to disguise some of the explosions and fires with superimposed smoke and strange optical effects that seems more like short circuits in the camera equipment than whatever it is meant to look like. This is a minor niggle, as I think that the biggest problem for Preminger in presenting the story is that he has to stage quite time consuming scenes of spectacle as well as extend the narrative over at least an entire year. The various battles are tied together by introducing slightly soap operatic elements in the narrative, but still the film comes off as extremely episodic. Furthermore, I’m not convinced by the resolutions to some of the subplots of the film. (An important person in Wayne’s life dies, but how does this affect him? At least one subplot has very little significance for the outcome of the movie and could easily have been cut to reduce the length of an already very long film, and some conclusions seem artificial).
On the positive side, almost all the stars of the film deliver performances that rate among the best of their careers. The Duke himself shows a vulnerability we seldom see in his personas while at the same time being decidedly more manly than any of us mere mortals can hope to ever be. To quote an interview with Wayne: “God-damn, I’m the stuff men are made of!” While accustomed to being the biggest – and at times only – star in so many of his almost 250 films (though he made about 70 of them before his starmaking turn in Stagecoach, 1939), often directed by John Ford, it must have been a challenge for him to work with a director as different (at least in subject matter) from Ford as Otto Preminger. Ford can arguably be said to have made Wayne and many of his other heroes larger than life, while Preminger tried to find the life of the character; to see how they function as social and real characters, to put it in a roundabout way.
By letting Wayne have his most revealing scenes opposite Patricia Neal, so good in Hud against Paul Newman and in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, Preminger almost forces Wayne to nuance his performance. This can’t have been an easy thing to accomplish, as Wayne is known to have said “I stick to simple themes. Love. Hate. No nuances. I stay away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes. Couches are good for one thing”. Or how about this?: “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity”. So we have to assume that if Wayne didn’t have more than just a little of his tongue in cheek while saying these things, Preminger’s direction of him in this film must have been of the highest order. (He also talked him into making a film with several very liberal actors, which Wayne normally was hesitant to do. This was, however, the first of three times he worked with Kirk Douglas, who he came to respect as an actor, if not for his political views). No matter his politics, Wayne was a movie star that could act when he needed to, and maybe he felt he needed to give his best for this movie, seeing as he had lung cancer at the time and removed his left lung two months after shooting ended. Fittingly, Wayne’s character in the film is named Rockwell, or just “Rock”.
Apart from the already mentioned Douglas, Wayne and Neal, the film has a wide array of bigger and lesser stars. Henry Fonda only has two scenes, but he fills them with all the necessary authority for us to believe that Wayne will take orders from him. (People talk of how fantastic it is to see Al Pacino and Robert deNiro share a scene in Heat, but I would argue that Fonda and Wayne’s respectful dialogue is much more a meeting between legends. They had worked together before, in Fort Apache and in the two epics of 1962; How the West Was Won and The Longest Day, although I can’t remember them sharing screen time in these two. Here, though, they are both a little older, carrying so much of the Western tradition on their respective shoulders, sharing between them so many great films. I also find it interesting that Fonda is Wayne’s commanding officer in both these films).
Special mention also has to go to Dana Andrews, the “hero” of so many of Preminger’s Noir-films, who delivers a deliciously slimy and spineless character in his cowardly Admiral Broderick. Then there are solid character actors like Slim Pickens, just off his famous missileride in Dr. Strangelove and Burgess Meredith, who the year after would achieve a kind of fame as the Penguin in the Adam West Batman series and film, and who had earlier worked with Preminger and Fonda in Advice and Consent, 1962. The weak link of the film is definitely the coupling of Brandon DeWilde, a former child actor (famous for George Stevens‘ Shane, 1953: “Come back, Shane. I need you. Mother needs you!”) as Rock’s son, and Jill Haworth as DeWilde’s fiancée. She was a protégée of Preminger’s, which is perhaps putting it politely, and he used her in three films, but never managed to make her the star he evidently felt she could be.
As for the film itself, it is actually rather more psychologically complex than many others of the same genre. One can say some good things about The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, but in order to cover as much ground as they have to, they forego any kind of emotional or narrative complexity. In Harm’s Way, on the other hand, dares to infuse a darker tone into the psychological make-up of the characters we expect to be heroes. It is easy to vilify Nazis or any enemy in war films that almost always have a kind of propagandistic/jingoistic element, but this film doesn’t go out of its way to demonize the enemy. In fact, the enemy is hardly seen (we see the backs of some Japanese heads for about two seconds), except by the metonymic representation of their vehicles, be they planes or battle ships. One feels that Preminger was much more interested in how human weaknesses are present in everyone, and especially to uncover these weaknesses in the people that so often are represented as two dimensional hero types, or – in the case of the women – sound, wholesome Americans solely existing to marry the hero or, if already married, fulfil their marital duties with little complaint and lots of encouragement.
Not so here. The film opens with a big band playing jazz that sounds suspiciously more 60s-like in its arrangement than of 1941. Men and women are dancing, some more than others and none more than the very drunk Liz Eddington, “played” by Barbara Bouchet (who later got a career playing in Italian giallo). All the women have dresses and hair styles that seem to be designed in 1964, but apart from these anachronisms the film convinces as a portrait of 1941. The drunken Liz is taken away from the party by an air force officer who seems to be sober. They stop at a beach and she undresses and he undresses and are about to make love in the shallow water when the film cuts to the morning after.
It’s pretty impossible not to think of the famous beach-scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, but this is, of course, a much greyer version without an ounce of happiness on display. As they wake up, the first thing they see is the Japanese planes coming in over the island. Speeding back to the base, they lose control of the car and die in an explosive car crash. We soon learn she is the wife of Kirk Douglas’ character, and that he is semi-alcoholic because of what we euphemistically can call marital problems. I like the fact that the kind of life they’ve had is only hinted at and never spelled out for us, and I like that the consequences of these very first scenes will reverberate and finally become uncomfortably clear two hours into the film in a splendid piece of direction, acting and tasteful editing.
Following the attack, a few ships manage to escape the base, but John Wayne’s decision to seek immediate revenge almost cost him his ship and his men. He is demoted and given a desk job. This set up is admirable, because it gives us three plot lines that converge rather beautifully. John Wayne’s situation is comparable to that of the USA itself. He has been knocked down because he was lax and didn’t keep his guard up. Now we have to see whether he – and the country – can weather this predicament and be reinstated to former glory. Kirk Douglas’ character is in a parallel situation; he has let himself go to the bottle and bitterness, his wife is dead and he is on the verge of being fired from the navy. Will he become the nightmare version of how USA would react to the threat, or can he follow the path that John Wayne tries to follow? By entwining different characters in similar predicaments as the country itself, and examining the consequences of their choices – or whether they have a choice at all – to the point that the story that is told almost feels inevitable, Preminger manages to bring an interest to the proceedings that perhaps is not extraordinary, but at least well beyond the call of duty.
Finally a thing or two has to be said about the credit sequence of the film; a feature seldom commented upon. Saul Bass is generally considered the best graphic designer working in films ever. A typical description of his skill is that after his credit sequences one can leave the movie theatre, as he has managed to sum up the film entire. He is most famous for his work with Hitchcock and Preminger, but even Martin Scorsese – ever the film historian – used him from Goodfellas to Casino. For In Harm’s Way, I assume they needed a different kind of credit sequence, as the film ends long before the war ends. As such, there was a danger that the audience could feel they were told only half the story. Utilizing Bass’ fabled skills of compressing hours of material into a two minute credits sequence, Preminger or the producers or whoever in charge could counter this potentially half-baked feeling by moving the credits to the end of the film. This was not normally done at the time. Bass delivered a beautiful sequence that for me would have been more than worth the cinema ticket alone. He pretty much tells the story of the rest of the war and madness to come by using the symbols of calm and stirred water, then later fire and more fire, seeping lava, volcanoes and gradually turning the flames into bombs and bigger explosions, until finally the last one is imploding there alone on the screen; the nuclear bomb, covering everything and after that there is nothing.