- Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger
- April 6, 1965
A Naval officer reprimanded after Pearl Harbor gets a second chance to prove himself against the Japanese.
Dramatic war stories in John Wayne’s filmography are not all that unusual. Most tended to follow a fairly standard format and are enjoyable but ultimately not great at least for the general viewer. This might stand as the rare exception to that. While it followed a standard formula, it was a great bit of drama and action that told a great story.
A lot of it is due to Otto Preminger himself. In his day John Wayne was a huge star and being a celebrity meant something then. A big star could guarantee success even if the movie was ‘meh.’ Often directors in my opinion allowed Wayne’s stardom to carry their film to whatever success rather it had than force a good performance out of the star. Wayne could act but he needed somebody to get that acting out of him. Henry Hathaway, John Ford, Mark Rydell were all that kind of director. Not sure what they did but they did something. I would like to now add to that list of mine Otto Preminger.
Wayne turned in a complex character in Captain (then Rear Admiral) Rockwell W. “Rock” Torrey. While he is the father figure the film, he is not perfect. Torrey is regretful of his life decisions. In the film Torrey speaks to his son Jere (Brandon deWilde) whom he hasn’t seen in 18 years who just happens to be assigned to the same station he is. You can see regret and pain in Wayne’s performance. Despite misgivings Rock gets involved with Lieutenant Maggie Haines (Patricia Neal), Nurse Corps, USNR. He’s afraid to get involved again based on what happened with his son’s mother and approaches the nurse with the appearance of having fun and then nervousness as he develops genuine feelings for her. And you can see those feelings and reactions in Wayne!
And kudos to the minds behind this film as Maggie is more than the token love interest. She’s a character in her own right. While given to what were considered womanly things of the era, she has also had a hard life and is hesitant of love herself but also knows she has to take it carefully with Rock. She’s a good reader of people and guides Rock when he is lost on his son.
Kirk Douglas shows up as Commander (later Captain) Paul Eddington and does what Kirk Douglas did best and gives a great performance. Early on in the movie. Early in the movie his wife who is living at Pearl Harbor where he is stationed out of gets killed in the attack largely because she had spent the night with another officer on the beach and was caught in the shelling as they tried to get to safety. He hides his issues behind alcohol and women, but this sets up the final resolution of his character.
The issue I have is that Eddington goes from troubled but still an okay guy to a complete piece of human excrement. That’s fine. Not every character needs to remain a saint. The thing is he gets to save face as a character with a heroic redemptive final act. I have trouble buying into those scenarios because they usually come, like here, when the scumbag gets discovered and he knows his future is over.
Bruce Cabot is the only Wayne regular performer that shows up here. But in their place we get the likes of Henry Fonda in what amounts to an extended cameo as “CINCPAC II” (No name?) and Burgess Meredith as Commander Egan T. Powell, USNR with both turning in a great performances. Meredith in particular was fantastic and outshone everyone when he was in a scene. We also get Carroll O’Connor who plays Commander (later Captain) Burke, Slim Pickens as Chief Petty Officer Culpepper, George Kennedy as Lieutenant Colonel Gregory, and Larry “J.R. Ewing” Hagman as Lieutenant (junior grade) Cline.
Unlike some other war films of the time and of Wayne’s In Harm’s Way is not a movie where war is an adventure. Rather than experience battle and losses with no real emotional impact to the characters, people die and individuals mourn. War is not presented as fun but as a serious effort with serious consequences.
As per usual in a John Wayne film there are themes of responsibility and duty. Rock must come to terms with his decision to stay away from his son as well as guide his portion of the war effort to victory. Eddington goes through dealing with his personal issues and fails to rise to the challenge.
The story itself is slow but steady and focuses on the characters rather than the events. We take a look at them as well as the institutions in which they function. Elements of the story are carefully laid out with the narrative having a clearly planned ending even if you do not know what will happen to the characters.
And the acting is just great. Everybody came to work. I was truly blown away by all the performances. You felt as if they dropped a camera in and covertly filled actual events. They seemed real as if they had pasts and possible futures.
In Harm’s Way is a great war drama with a strong performance from John Wayne as well as the entire cast. The story while used plenty before, is amazingly well done. This is one film that I highly recommend to all movie fans.