Bold examination of racism years ahead of its time. Narrative not sweetened for audiences by a detective story (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) or grumpy father-of-the-bride comedy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) or by protagonists unrepresentative of society by being criminal (The Defiant Ones, 1958) and criminally insane (Pressure Point, 1962), the issue of racism – miscegenation and interbreeding – smack bang in the middle. Though it takes place in Hawaii, theoretically at one remove from the violence emanating in the U.S. Deep South, the points made strike home.
If a shade melodramatic, that is undercut by a set of very fine performances by all the principals. Charlton Heston, later lacerated in democratic circles for his defence of the right to bear arms, here employs his marquee value to deal with the ticking time bomb.
The tale is simple enough. Headstrong Sloane (Yvette Mimieux) decides to marry native-born Paul Kahana (James Darren) against the wishes of her older brother, widowed millionaire landowner “King” Howland (Charlton Heston). Despite using equality as an election platform in a bid to become a Senator, King fiercely objects to the marriage on the grounds that it will dilute his bloodline and, in effect, hand over control of his empire to an outsider. His spinster sister-in-law Laura (Elizabeth Allen) backs him on this score as does, oddly enough, Paul’s mother Kapiolani (Aline McMahon) who complains that interbreeding has reduced the number of native Hawaiians to a mere 12,000.
Complicating matters is King’s hypocrisy. His mistress, Mai Chen (France Nuyen), already is of mixed parentage. But when she announces she is pregnant, he demands she have an abortion. Spicing up that particular complication is her brother Bobbie (Marc Marno) who sponges off the perks King provides and now decides to hit the gold seam by blackmailing King. And just in case that’s not enough in the way of complications Sloane has always had a yen for Paul’s older and more successful brother Dean (George Chakiris), now a hospital doctor. In fact, as outlined in a flashback, Paul was decidedly second-best in Sloane’s eyes and there is a hint she romanced him to spite the more sensible brother.
Bobbie doesn’t get the chance to put his scheme into practice as he is implicated in the death of Paul, who had been trying to stop the blackmailer from drunkenly attacking King at a traditional engagement ceremony. Paul is killed accidentally by King.
That should have simplified matters, but it doesn’t. King is abandoned by Sloane and Laura leave and Mai Chen throws him out. The scandal of Paul’s death should have ended his political ambitions, but despite his backers dropping out, arrogantly he decides to go it alone until receiving the slow-handclap treatment from the public. He is fully aware of the consequences of his action, pointing out that $3 million spent on philanthropy wouldn’t “buy me a tear.”
It could have ended there, proud man brought down by ambition, institutional racism and stubbornness, but it follows a different, and reconciliatory, tack at the end.
And it could have been a heaving brew of melodrama with dilated nostrils and screaming matches but it’s redeemed from that by most of the actors downplaying their roles. There is some impressive playing by Charlton Heston (55 Days at Peking, 1964) who carries off his hypocrisy in some style, but doesn’t descend to the obvious ploy of disinheriting the defiant one or at the very least chucking her out and generally manages to keep the lid on his temper. George Chakiris (Flight from Ashiya, 1964) uncannily captures all the elements of his character. An educated man so can’t be downtrodden but has to watch his step in confronting such a powerful man, so he makes his point with quiet determination.
In an early starring role Yvette Mimieux (Joy in the Morning, 1965) is given a lot more to do than in some later offerings. She exhibits defiance not just in regard to racism but sexism as well, determining that her marriage would be an equal relationship not one where she would be subservient to her husband. Had she been able to rein in her pig-headedness and present herself as more interested in the business than its perks she might have allayed her brother’s fears that in endorsing the marriage he was risking handing over his empire to her idiot husband, so lacking in the brain department he needed extra years to graduate at college.
France Nuyen (Man in the Middle, 1964) has a peach of a part, plenty good lines, and the beneficiary of the few scenes not driven by narrative requirements, in particular her observations at watching her lover dress. James Darren (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), given less to do, is not surprisingly more of a cliché. Oscar-nominated Alice McMahon (Cimarron, 1960) is quietly impressive as the equally torn parent who could, at one point, take legal revenge on King.
Director Guy Green (The Magus, 1968), aware the content is inflammatory enough without the principals going overboard, does pretty well to stick to the issues. Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts (5 Card Stud, 1968), in adapting the bestseller by Peter Gilman, makes several changes to keep the focus on the key element.
In his diary, Charlton Heston noted that that movie was overly melodramatic but with the proper treatment it could work. He was right. The plot has more cogs than any wheel could comfortably accommodate, but by keeping the central issue central the movie would be viewed today as the highpoint of Hollywood’s opposition to racism rather than being superseded four years later by the pair starring Sidney Poitier.
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.”
“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.
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.
Not to take anything away from this fascinating documentary about the battle for gender parity in the surfing world, but it occurred to me how few movies exist that features female athletes, compared to the plethora focusing on males. The occasional Million Dollar Baby (2004) and I, Tonya (2017) are in stark contrast to the plethora of Rocky (and now Creed)movies, or all the American football and baseball pictures while Kevin Costner alone has managed a dozen varied sports movies and even the recent King Richard (2021), ostensibly about the Williams sisters, actually centered on the father.
And the reason I ask is that the lives of any of the champion surfers showcased here would have made a worthy biopic, their stories mostly about overcoming adversity, battling male prejudice and finally, though only in the last few years, winning equal pay with men. Just as King Richard was as much about brand management, so is Girls Can’t Surf, although it was only by accident that big business understood the commercial impact women surfers had on sales of board clothing.
And the other reason I ask is that compared even to the long ago likes of Big Wednesday (1978) and Endless Summer (1965) the actual surfing footage here is meagre and it got me to thinking how much better it would have been with a proper budget for filming the surfing action.
Anyway, back to the movie I actually saw rather than the one I can only imagine, this covers the growth of female surfing from being regarded as a mere appendage to the male version to the billion-dollar industry it has become, tracing the largely sexist obstacles thrown in the way of women. The biggest issue initially wasn’t prize money, but that the men hogged the best waves and the best beaches, women often allocated times where the waves would be dismal, and therefore could not show off their skills.
This isn’t a sport like tennis or soccer where muscle power gives men the edge. Here, everyone is battling the same ocean. It’s not as if women get to surf with smaller, easier waves – that’s the last thing they want. The ocean doesn’t take it any easier on the women. But the women, barely tolerated, found themselves not just squeezed out of a decent share of the prize money but, being ignored in terms of publicity and deemed unworthy of articles in the surfing magazines, lost out in the battle to raise the sponsorship required just to make a living.
Whenever recession hit the sport, the answer was always to reduce female prize money, cancel female events or attempt to drive them out of the sport altogether. There’s an entire roll-call of generation after generation of top surfers not just battling each other to become world champion (there’s a program of global events as in Formula One racing) but battling personal circumstances – Pauline Menczer was crippled by arthritis, Pam Burridge suffered from anorexia – and each other as well as endemic sexism and inappropriate male advances.
The men were the glamour pusses, and they preferred it if the women stayed in their cars and read Mills & Boon novels and watched them surf, or if they wanted to parade about it should be in bikinis for the beauty contests that appeared a constituent part of any event.
The story is told in large part by the participants, names that were unfamiliar to me, like Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Lisa Anderson, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and Stephanie Gilmore. But the terms they use are the same as competitive athletes the world over, the determination to win, sometimes win at all costs, and even with a world championship trophy to your name unable to attract sponsorship.
The film could easily be interpreted as all about the battle for parity. At the start female prize money was barely a tenth of the million-dollar prize fund allocated the men. But even when manufacturers recognised that females were selling product, female earnings were usually half that of men. Eventually, the women took action, effectively going on strike when offered the poorer time slots in competitions, and at some point, it’s not exactly clear when, forcing the organisers to create a more even playing field, taking competitions to places where there was no shortage of giant waves for both sexes. The men, encountering exactly the same waves as their female counterparts, were forced to admit that in some instances the women were actually better. A social media outcry spelled the end of unequal pay, although noticeably there was no back payment for the years of inequality.
So, a terrific film directed by Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers: New Zealand, 2010) – and co-written with Julie-Anne Du Ruvo – with no shortage of potential candidates for an awesome biopic, the supposed glamor of the surfing world exposed as tawdry for the most part, a bunch of larger-than-life personalities, a dose of humor, and women riding waves you would be scared to cross in a boat never mind with just a board for company.
In some programming quirk I caught this at the cinema but apparently it’s available on DVD and it must be streaming somewhere. The small screen will no doubt diminish the action but won’t take away form the basic story.