Last year on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, TCM ran AIR FORCE (1943) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), neither of which I’d seen in a long time, so I watched them both and found them just as compelling, as both history and drama, as ever. Two days ago, on December 7th, the 72nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I wanted to take a break from my normal fare of Japanese films and anime to watch something Pearl Harbor-related. TCM ran both AIR FORCE and ETERNITY again and I had a DVD of TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) beckoning. But then I remembered that I had a DVD of Otto Preminger’s IN HARM’S WAY (1965) on the shelf, a film I’d never seen in its entirety in one sitting. So that’s what I chose. (Interestingly, earlier this week I watched the last hour of BATTLESHIP, the notorious 2012 flop about an alien invasion, and the resolution requires a trip by its Navy heroes to Pearl Harbor where they take over the U.S.S. Missouri and its crew of aged war vets for use in battling the aliens.)
I found IN HARM’S WAY compelling enough to keep me awake and fully engaged for its running time of 167 minutes, even though I’d started watching it in the evening. It’s a Hollywood drama about a set of characters, some of whom are already serving in Hawaii in December 1941 when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurs and some of whom are sent to Hawaii afterwards, who get caught up in the demands of the Pacific war and pursue their relationships amidst the turmoil of it. It’s less about the issues of the war than about the attempts of people to keep their lives whole with a war going on. Romances rise and fall. Friendships form and fall. Family relationships get contentious. The chain of command gets broken and repaired. A lot happens, but it’s never overwrought and only occasionally borders on melodrama. It’s all extremely well-acted by a solid cast of Hollywood stars and character actors, with a few newcomers added to the mix.
The attack on Pearl Harbor begins at the 14-minute mark and lasts for five minutes. In the course of it, two characters who were already positioned as major supporting characters are killed off. One of them is played, in an unbilled cameo, by a major TV star of the time (Hugh O’Brian), while the other is played by a starlet who got a lot of attention in the film’s promotion (Barbara Bouchet, seen with O’Brian in the picture above). We don’t see a lot of the Pearl Harbor raid itself because the action quickly shifts to the crews of two different ships that are outside of the bombing area and pressed into duty to search for the Japanese fleet. Captain Rockwell Torrey, aka “Rock” (John Wayne), commands one of the ships and is forced to make a decision to travel in a straight line and save fuel rather than use up the ship’s fuel by zigzagging and having to turn back much sooner. By going in a straight line he makes his ship vulnerable to a torpedo attack by a Japanese sub, which then proceeds to happen exactly on cue. The acting captain of the other ship, Lt. McConnel (Tom Tryon), unloads depth charges to take out the Japanese sub and then tows Torrey’s ship back to Hawaii. Because of his decision, Torrey is relieved of his command and assigned to desk duty routing convoys until he is cleared for a return to combat.
While hospitalized for an injury received during the Pearl Harbor action, Torrey meets a nurse lieutenant, Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal), and they begin an adult romance, meaning they behave like adults their age (roughly late-30s for her and early-50s for him) and are blunter and less coy than a younger couple on screen would be. Maggie is certainly more proactive than a standard heroine in a Hollywood war film. When it looks like they’ll be separated for a long stretch after she’s scheduled to ship out the next morning, she pays Rock a visit in the bachelor officers quarters and pretty much indicates that it’s now or possibly never. So he calls his roommate (Burgess Meredith) and orders him to “bunk out” that night, meaning to stay away. A discreet closeup shows Maggie’s feet slipping out of her nurse’s shoes, followed by an immediate fade-out. We see more here than we would have seen in earlier war movies that this film evokes (more on that later), but not so much as to hit you over the head with it. Luckily for both Rock and Maggie, they eventually wind up serving on the same Pacific island. Both characters are cognizant of their duties and resolve to work their relationship around those duties. “We’ll make time,” Rockwell vows at one point.
Torrey’s executive officer, Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), whose unfaithful wife is the one killed along with Hugh O’Brian in the Pearl Harbor raid, tends to dissipate when he’s not in a crisis. Pearl Harbor galvanizes him but when he’s sent to Gavabutu and assigned to be the officer in charge of piers and warehouses, he goes native, lets his beard grow and shacks up with French-speaking island girls (above). Only when Torrey arrives, ready to spearhead Operation Skyhook and requesting Eddington as his executive again, does Eddington get back in shape.
In the midst of all this, Torrey reunites with his long-estranged son, Jeremiah, commonly called “Jere” (Brandon De Wilde), whose arrogance initially repels him. Jere works on a PT boat but has pulled family strings (via the connections of his Boston mother, from the Cunliffe family, who’d divorced Torrey when the boy was four) to get a new assignment assisting Commander Neal Owynn, a congressman-turned-public relations officer (Patrick O’Neal). When Jere gets too rough with a young nurse, Annalee Dorne (Jill Haworth), who happens to be Maggie’s roommate, he is plainly written off by both Torrey and Maggie, not to mention Annalee.
An incident on Gavabutu, however, sparks a change in Jere. When Neal leaks details of Torrey’s strategy for conquering the island to the indecisive Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews), who’s nominally in charge, Eddington confronts Neal, slaps him three times (in a manner known colloquially as a “bitch-slap”) and demands he leave the island “and take this punk with you,” referring to Jere. Jere, for his part, tells Neal he didn’t see anything and when Neal angrily threatens to send him back to PT boat duty, Jere smiles and agrees to it. Hence, a character we thought of as callow and supercilious begins the process of redemption. He eventually reconciles with Annalee, as well as his father and Maggie.
Eddington, though, despite being in the thick of war and evidently thriving on decisive action, has fallen for Annalee and when she fends off his advances at the beach and tells him she’s engaged, he commits a despicable act that has tragic results. How can he redeem himself after that? By commandeering a long-range bomber and flying alone out to Cape Titan to scout the location of a rumored Japanese fleet, headed by Japan’s most famous warship, the formidable Yamato. His heroic sacrifice saves lives but Torrey, knowing what drove him, declines to recommend him for a medal.
Thus, the personal is constantly intertwined with the professional in this tightly constructed narrative that flows at its own pace, like a novel, and doesn’t engineer action sequences or emotional highs and lows to manipulate an audience. It just develops the characters and shows us what happens along the way to them as this tiny corner of the war progresses. The film doesn’t strive for spectacle, although it’s beautifully shot in black-and-white on location in Hawaii and at sea, employing seven different U.S. Navy vessels to film the shipboard action. The only real extended combat scene comes at the finale when Torrey and his outnumbered fleet, buttressed by underwater mines and the PT boats, seek to stop the advance of the Yamato and its accompanying warships.
Although the film has a large cast of Hollywood names (including early roles for so-far-unmentioned Carroll O’Connor, George Kennedy, Larry Hagman, Christopher George, and Jim Mitchum), many of the bit parts and all of the extras are filled in with actual naval personnel from Hawaii. These men and women look the part, not like they stepped out of Central Casting. This gives the film an aura of authenticity many other Hollywood war movies of the time didn’t have.
Henry Fonda has a cameo as the unnamed CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command) and has two scenes with Wayne’s Torrey. The characters get along a lot better here than their characters did in John Ford’s FORT APACHE (1948), 17 years earlier, when Fonda’s Custer-like martinet of a cavalry commander ignored the advice of Captain York (Wayne) and rode his troops into certain death at the hands of the Apaches.
Here, Fonda cites the Civil War and President Lincoln’s dismissal of the well-organized but indecisive General McClellan and replacement by the unorganized but decisive General Grant to justify his sending of Torrey to take over the action on Gavabutu from Admiral Broderick. In the final scene, Torrey comes out of a coma expecting to be removed from service for losing so many ships in the final action. Instead, Fonda comes in and informs him of his victory and the retreat of the Yamato and his new assignment that will take him all the way to Tokyo.
Other older films are evoked here. Wayne and Neal had played lovers against such a backdrop before in OPERATION PACIFIC (1951) where they play a divorced couple—a submarine officer and a Navy nurse–who reconcile against a backdrop of submarine warfare in the Pacific. That film was more a standard Hollywood entertainment than this one, although the Wayne-Neal scenes gave it some real substance, as I recall. (Maybe I’ll watch that one again next Pearl Harbor Day.) IN HARM’S WAY also reminded me of an even earlier Wayne Navy movie, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), John Ford’s first Hollywood film after returning from wartime service as a Navy officer. Wayne played a PT officer in that one, similar to the role played by his character’s son in IN HARM’S WAY. He has a romance with a navy nurse in that one as well, played by Donna Reed, and there’s a heartbreaking scene where he has to have a last awkward conversation with her over a field phone as they’re in the middle of evacuation. It’s that scene that came to mind as Wayne tells Neal in this one, “We’ll make time.” Wayne was always good with his leading ladies and he and Neal have an easy rapport in this that’s delightful to watch.
Wayne’s relationship with his son here also recalls the third of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, RIO GRANDE (1950), in which Wayne’s cavalry commander is reunited with the son he never knew (played by Claude Jarman Jr.) when the son shows up as one of his new troopers. The relationship with Jere in this film also recalls Wayne’s mentoring of John Agar in THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, when Agar initially rejects the military as a way of life in a conversation that Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker finds quite hurtful. Agar eventually has a change of heart, as does Jere in the later film.
This is very much a smooth, polished, and uncontroversial Hollywood production from Otto Preminger. Not that his films weren’t generally smooth and polished, but they often had an edge to them that usually pushed the censors one way or the other. I’m guessing the rape scene in this one is the closest to the “edge” that the film gets. I tend to associate Preminger more with his smaller films from his noir period, like LAURA (1944), FALLEN ANGEL (1945), WHIRLPOOL (1949), WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) and ANGEL FACE (1952), or his more controversial films like THE MOON IS BLUE (1953), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955) and ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), which pushed the boundaries of the Production Code on issues of subject matter and language. I forget sometimes that he made several epic dramas as well, including THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955), EXODUS (1960), ADVISE AND CONSENT (1962) and THE CARDINAL (1963), not to mention the large-scale black-cast color musicals, CARMEN JONES (1953) and PORGY AND BESS (1959).
With this script, Preminger was able to make a film that had the full cooperation and support of the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense. He was apparently so proud of the film that he put himself into all the trailers for it and a “Making of” featurette as well, at least the ones included as extras on the Paramount DVD. In the course of its narrative, the film offers a thoughtful study of military professionalism and the mechanics of the command structure. Wayne had already portrayed army officers and non-coms faced with crises of command in such films as Ford’s cavalry trilogy and Allan Dwan’s SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949), not to mention the sheriff he played in Howard Hawks’ western, RIO BRAVO (1959). Here he offers an older, more measured portrayal, a man who makes time for meaningful exchanges with an estranged son and loving embraces with a woman who becomes a partner as much as a lover. Why is Preminger the one to do this and not Ford or Hawks? How would Ford and Hawks have handled this project if they’d been given the opportunity to direct it? Would it have been significantly different? Would it have been a little less thoughtful, a little more sentimentalized? Would they have played up the action and downplayed the drama? Would the final film have been a little more jingoistic? I have to say I’m impressed with the way Preminger walks a thin line to maintain the approval of his navy advisors while showing just enough of the tragedy, turmoil, and folly of war to remind the audience that it’s not a grand adventure or glamorous enterprise, that good men and women can die in it or lose everything.
As of this writing, Kirk Douglas is still with us, alive and kicking. Today, December 9th, is his birthday. He’s 97. As I was preparing this I learned that his co-star from DETECTIVE STORY, Eleanor Parker, died earlier today at the age of 91.