Behind the Scenes: “In Harm’s Way” (1965)

In October 1962 Otto Preminger bought the rights to Harm’s Way, a thumping big bestseller by Ronald Basset with a host of characters and sub-plots which serve, like Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, to analyse an American institution, in this case the Navy, pre- and post-Pearl Harbor. In some respects, it was an odd choice, Preminger better known for pictures that filleted such august institutions, The Cardinal (1964) exposed the inner workings of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it rubbed shoulders quite happily with Exodus (1960), a tale of battle against the odds.

Preminger’s aim was to blunt the current onslaught of movie pessimism with a picture that ended on an optimistic note. He observed: “We are attacked, we are unprepared in every way, and manage by sheer guts, character and resourcefulness to start to work out of it.” He concluded that such action “should remind us and perhaps other people that there is never any reason to give up or to give in to anything that is not right or dignified.”

Celebrated Saul Bass poster.

“One of the reasons I made In Harm’s Way,” explained the director, “is that it is a big step away from most of the films I have made so far. I try not to repeat myself too much…not to make pictures in just one category…I was very fascinated by the characters and the story..,(which) shows that people will act even if they are unprepared and don’t want war.”

Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent, 1962) started on the screenplay right away, taking it so far as embarking on a rewrite with the director in London. But the  project was unexpectedly shelved for a couple of years. In the meantime Preminger assigned a different writer, Richard Jessup. But when the concept received the director’s full attention once again Mayes was at the wheel and with a different approach. “I had a fresher point of view and did many things that were not in the book at all. I think we improved it for that reason, since we had quite forgotten the novel.”

But collaboration with Preminger was exacting. “We sat together and and worked over almost every line,” explained the director. “I always work very closely with the writer on the screenplay…There is one man, the independent producer-director, who from very beginning takes the whole responsibility and has complete autonomy. I feel responsible for the script: I engaged the writer and I worked with him. Like I direct actors, I feel a director also directs the script.”

In particular, into sharper focus came the son, Jeremiah (played in the film by Brandon de Wilde) of Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne). In the book he had been a passing, insignificant character, who quickly befriended his father. “He had no feelings about the fact that his father had left his mother, and we changed that in the script,” said Mayes. This provided not just a source of dramatic tension but a more mature role for Wayne, who had to express regret for the estrangement, all his fault. (Although the idea of a son enlisting against the mother’s wishes reflect a similar situation in Rio Grande, 1950).

Wayne was Preminger’s first choice. “Because it has passive elements, a strong actor like Wayne is ideally cast,” said the director. Despite being sent an incomplete script, the star signed up – for $500,000. “I don’t look for stars and I don’t avoid them,” he said. The leading roles in Bunny Lake Missing (1965) and The Cardinal (1964) went to relative unknowns. “I would not ask John Wayne to play, say, a coward because his image is not the image of a coward, or have him play a Greek philosopher…He at least fulfilled all my expectations more than I could possibly hope for. Kirk Douglas, too, came to my mind almost immediately.”

The movie should have ended up at Columbia which had funded the director’s last two movies and would back Bunny Lake. But Preminger had just struck a deal for seven pictures with Paramount and in January 1964 that agreement was announced with the re-titled In Harm’s Way (a phrase associated with John Paul Jones). 

Mayes completed the new draft two months later with the rest of the cast now assembled, including Preminger contract players Tom Tryon (The Cardinal) and Jill Haworth (Exodus) who replaced original choice Carol Lynley (Bunny Lake). Keir Dullea turned down the part of Jeremiah. Advise and Consent’s Henry Fonda came on board as the overall Navy commander  at the expense of Chill Wills who was fired after shooting had begun.

One uncredited recruitment was Hugh O’Brian (Africa, Texas Style, 1967) who undertook the part of Liz Eddington’s lover. “He played a role as a favor without compensation,” recalled Preminger. “He did not want billing and only asked that I give some money to a charity. I needed somebody who was a secure actor and right for the part because I used a complete beginner (Barbara Bouchet) for the girl he plays opposite. And if I used some other young actor with her, people would have felt that this couple would disappear almost immediately at the beginning of the film. It was important to me to establish this young couple as an important episode at the beginning of the film and he helped that.”

The director spent three days scouting locations in Hawaii but decided to shoot in black-and-white because “ a picture like this has much more impact and you can create more of the feeling, the illusion of reality, than when you shoot it in color.” False guns mounts were attached to more recent ships since the older relevant vessels were no longer available.

Wayne with co-star Patricia Neal.

Shooting started on June 23. The biggest issue was transportation, drivers getting lost reaching locations for the night-for-night sequences. Preminger struggled to meet his shooting schedule and the movie was soon over budget thanks to long hours, Sunday working and extra local staff. Even so, the Hawaii shoot came in 17 days ahead of schedule. Five days were assigned for shooting at sea. Larger than usual miniatures – some as much as 55ft long – were shot over a month on a lake in Mexico and in the Gulf of Mexico, the battle of Leyte Gulf costing an estimated $1 million. “I needed the real horizon,” said Preminger.

Some scenes were proving impossible to capture first time out. A second unit had two attempts filming a car going over a cliff, a marine landing was spoiled by water on the lens, and technical problems prevented Preminger achieving a “mystic-hour shot” of a plane taking off.  Part of the director’s problem was his insistence on rehearsal. “I could make every picture in ten days if I slough it. Some actors just need more time and more rehearsal.”

Despite observers expecting – perhaps hoping – for volatile confrontation between the director and star, the pair enjoyed a cordial relationship based on mutual respect. Of Wayne, Preminger commented that he was “the most cooperative actor, willing to rehearse, willing to do anything as long as anybody. I was surprised really how disciplined a professional Wayne is and he liked this particular part very much.”

From Wayne’s perspective, “He had my respect and I had his respect. He is terribly hard on the crew and he’s terribly hard on people that he thinks are sloughing. But this is a thing that I can understand because I’ve been there (directing The Alamo) and I know that if a fellow comes on and he’s careless and he hasn’t thought at all about his…I come ready and that he appreciated that. I was usually there ahead of him on the set and he couldn’t believe that. So we had a really nice relationship.”

It was surprising Wayne remained on such an even keel since he was beginning to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him. “He looked ill,” Tryon remembered, “He was coughing badly, I mean, really awful. It was painful to see, so God knows what it was like for him. He’d begin coughing in the middle of a scene and Preminger would have to stop filming.” Although he refused to consult a doctor during filming, he agreed to a check-up once shooting of his role was complete, three weeks earlier than scheduled. He may indeed have owed his life to Preminger’s speedy shooting.

Kirk Douglas had a bone to pick with Preminger after the director stole the glory of being the first director to publicly announce, on Exodus, that he had employed a blacklisted writer, pre-empting Douglas who had done the same for Spartacus (1960). Although Douglas didn’t rank Preminger as a director he enjoyed a good relationship with him except for one minor confrontation.

Douglas got on well with Wayne: “There was a mutual respect…We got along quite well…He was a strange fellow. I’ll never forget the talk we had about my playing in Lust for Life (1956). Although emotionally we were not close and politically we were antipodal he asked me to work with him several times.” (Not entirely true – Douglas would have been the driving force for their collaboration on Cast a Giant Shadow in 1966 and he fell out spectacularly with Wayne on The War Wagon in 1967).

But others suffered from Preminger’s notorious temper, Tom Tryon in particular. The bullying became so bad Kirk Douglas once walked off the set. Douglas advised Tryon to fight back but Tryon could not pluck up the courage. Chill Wills who endured Preminger at his “absolute worst” did stand up to him and was fired. Patrick O’Neal turned on actors who refused to fight their corner. “Stand up to him once and find out he’s a human being,” was his advice.

Myth has it that Paula Prentiss’s role was truncated after she fell foul of the director but rumour was baseless. In fact, Prentiss was another of the director’s defenders, claiming he was “absolutely wonderful to work with. For a scene to work, tension needs to be put into a scene. There have to be genuine efforts to make the scene work. And Preminger understood this and was able to get much conflict and tension into the scenes.” And he was not all tough talk. She recalls him as particularly gentle guiding her through the scene where she asks her husband to make her pregnant. 

Although surpassing the original $5 million budget, it was not by much, an extra $436,000. The Production Code had objected to the phrase “screw the captain,” a line Preminger refused to remove and despite further protest from the censor, who threatened to withhold the precious official approval,the director got his way. Preminger had shot the scene where Barbara Bouchet was dancing topless from the rear but the still photographs were sensational enough for publication in Playboy in its May 1965 issue. 

The decision to shoot in black-and-white probably accounted for the picture’s relatively poor box office. Its length and the all-star cast should have qualified it for roadshow. (It was roadhsow for all of one day at two prestigious new York first houses; the next day it went continuous, but you could advance book a seat for an extra 50 cents). It was a sign of how quickly audience perceptions had changed that only three years previously the black-and-white The Longest Day had appeared as a roadshow and proved a resounding hit.

As a result of Wayne’s illness The Sons of Katie Elder was postponed. Preminger moved onto a smaller project, Bunny Lake Is Missing and Douglas reverted to top billing for The Heroes of Telemark (1965). Tom Tryon never worked for Preminger again and after top-billing in The Glory Guys (1965) faded from Hollywood view, re-emerging as the bestselling author of The Other. Paula Prentiss shifted sideways into television with He and She (1967-1968) and Jill Haworth made very few films after this, of which most were horror.

SOURCES:  Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber and Faber, 2008), p317-329; Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend, (Simon & Schuster, 2015) p385-387; Maurice Zolotow, Shooting Star, A Biography of John Wayne (Simon & Schuster, 1974) p361-362; Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (Robson Books, 2003) p254-255; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012), p387-381; Ian Cameron, Mark Shivas, Paul Mayersberg, “Interview with Otto Preminger,” Movie 13 (Summer 1965), p15-16; Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 3, p266; Otto Preminger, “Keeping Out of Harm’s Way,” Films and Filming, June 1965, p6;  Newsweek, April 20, 1964; New York Herald Tribune, October 17, 1965, p55. 

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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