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. 

In Harm’s Way (1965) *****

Preminger at a peak, the more I watch this picture, not just the more impressed I become but the more I want to watch it again – three times, as it happens, for this review. A tale of heroism populated by morally wounded heroes, the undertone of critique for the Naval establishment dealt with in brilliant narrative fashion, terrific pacing, one of John Wayne’s very best performances, Kirk Douglas not far behind, great action scenes, and one of the few movies to fulfil this director’s original intent.

You can, of course, argue that it’s the height of political PR. Just as the Americans managed with The Alamo and the British with Dunkirk, the aim was to turn defeat into victory, so this moves beyond the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the victories beyond. But in some sense Pearl Harbor is just the prologue to a stiffer examination of men at war, rather than sailors taken to task over the complacency that left them so open to cataclysmic attack.

And while there’s a number of sub-plots, these are more expertly handled than I can recall in many another lengthy big-budget picture, no endless cutting between major and minor characters, but the minor characters only entering the frame when they have a dramatic part to play.

Captain “Rock” Rockwell (John Wayne) falls foul of his superiors for basically being in command of a ship sunk by a torpedo. On a technical point, he’s stripped of command, and reduced to a desk job, a casualty of the peace-time hierarchy determined to find someone to blame, only returning to active duty – and promoted to Admiral – when more war-oriented figures are put in charge.

The desk job gives him time to romance feisty nurse Lt. Maggie Haines (Patricia Haines) who has the cojones to take charge of the budding relationship. She happens to share an apartment with another nurse, the much younger Ensign Annalee Dorne (Jill Dorne) who is dating entitled Ensign Jeremiah Torrey (Brandon de Wilde), Rock’s estranged son.

Jeremiah works for slimy glory-hunter Commander Neal Owynn (Patrick O’Neal), a former U.S. Congressman using his political skills to worm his way into the office of by-the-book Vice Admiral Brodick (Dana Andrews). Rock shares his apartment with Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), a thrice-married playboy, high up in Navy intelligence.

Rock’s second-in-command is Commander – junior to a captain in case you don’t understand the U.S. Navy ranking system – Paul Eddington, a hothead whose mourning for dead wife Liz (Barbara Bouchet) results in him also being reduced to a desk job and exiled to the Pacific. On the fringes of the story are Lt. Commander “Mac” MacConnell (Tom Tryon) and pregnant wife Beverley (Paula Prentiss).

How all these characters enmesh is the consequence of a quite brilliant screenplay by Wendell Hayes (Advise and Consent, 1962). Rockwell and Eddington both seek redemption, the former to prove his Naval worth and regain the affection of his son, the latter to absolve himself for his terrible actions.

You can always tell the hero in war films because they are so rarely a physical casualty of war, all the others are killed and wounded but hardly ever the hero, so it takes something for the Hollywood Hero of the Century to play a character who is wounded not once but twice, and for the early part of the picture walks around with his arm in his sling (not quite an echo of the way he holds his arm in The Searchers, but evoking the same internal conflict).

The only supposed out-and-out hero is MacConnell, but his inaction at the beginning of the movie fails to prevent the death of Eddington’s wife. And his heroism largely takes place off-screen and it’s worth noting that Rock doesn’t raise a rifle or pistol in anger (or even get into a punch-up as was the actor’s wont in other films). Being in charge he’s removed from the core action even if suffering the consequences of battle. In a marvellous touch of irony, Rockwell is the most passive hero to hit the screen. It’s an incredibly bold and self-confident director who would even think of luring audiences into an action picture starring the Hero of the Century and then denying him a single moment of screen glory.

Much has been written about the cinematic arc John Ford took in the beginning and ending of The Searchers, the symbolic opening and closing of doors, but since Preminger is long out of critical favor nobody’s has bothered to notice how much of this film concerns cinematic echo.

To take the most obvious example, the first witnesses of the airborne Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are illicit pair Liz Eddington and her paramour (Hugh O’Brian) and towards the end it’s her husband Paul, by this point guilty of horrendous behaviour, who leads the airborne fightback against the enemy.

A beach – where Liz and escort make love – is how the director initially pushes the audience towards sympathising with the drunken Eddington. A beach is where we later learn to despise him, as he brutally rapes Ensign Dorne. And it doesn’t take much to work out that his wife’s exuberant wildness explains Eddington’s initial attraction to her, not realising that psychologically it provides him with an excuse for his own darker wildness, initially restricted to self-destruction but when it truly emerges it’s to the detriment of an innocent.

And that’s before we get on to Rockwell as the messenger of death, delivering the bad news to wives, and then being on the receiving end after his son dies in battle. And finally, the political peace-time high-ups get their come-uppance in actual war.

It’s insulting – as some have suggested – that the performance of John Wayne (The Hellfighters, 1968) is the result of undiagnosed cancer when in fact this is a finely nuanced role of a high-ranking figure living out in his life in regret, at times quite shamefaced about abandoning his son at a very early age. Preminger cracked down on Wayne’s habit of splitting his lines in two, so those typical pauses we have come to expect are in large part gone, and it helps the movie’s pacing. For most of the movie the character is saddled with consequence. That passivity that the director saw as essential to the role is virtually present all the time.

Preminger wrings a different performance, too, from Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968), equally laden with regret, but not enough to prevent him lashing out and the actor is accorded two quite stunning scenes, the first as he broods in silence over his wife, but for the second, prior to raping Ensign Dorne, the stone-cold look on his face suggests a serial killer held at bay for too long and now about to explode.

Burgess Meredith (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is another brought to directorial heel, his more common scene-stealing and vowel-stretching also eliminated, but in exchange given a larger-than-life character on which to expend screen energy. The entire cast is good-to-excellent and it’s jam-packed: Patricia Neal (Hud, 1962), Tom Tryon (The Cardinal, 1964), Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1963), Brandon De Wilde (Shane, 1953), Jill Haworth (Exodus, 1960), Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965), Franchot Tone (Advise and Consent, 1962), Patrick O’Neal (Stiletto, 1969), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), Henry Fonda (Battle of the Bulge, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (Danger Route, 1967) and Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964) Many of the supporting cast were also playing against type – Prentiss as the young wife falling to pieces, Andrews and O’Neal as slippery political types, Holloway  a guerrilla, and perhaps most interesting off Neal, not the typical woman left behind when the man goes off to war but, in her role as nurse, entering harm’s way herself.

And despite criticism of the miniatures used in sea scenes while that might have been obvious on the big screen you don’t notice it on the small screen. The action  scenes are very well-done for the time, and quite unusual in that by and large it’s the Americans who appear shell-shocked not the enemy.

Cramming this much narrative into the overall arch of Pearl Harbor and retaliation against the Japanese, while bringing so many different characters to the fore with clear dramatic purpose is an amazing achievement, screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent) doing the heavy lifting in this department.

But Preminger the director is very much to the fore, in his composition and use of the camera for long tracking shots (a particular favorite of mine) such as at the beginning. A riveting watch full of splendid acting. Shooting it in black-and-white might have at one time appeared to date the picture but instead it has rendered it ageless. Five stars without a doubt.

Book into Film: “The Way West” (1967)

Screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann earned their keep on this one. The source was a literate historical novel by A.B. Guthrie which, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, was seen primarily as a western. In considerable detail, it covered what a wagon train heading to Oregon needed to do and know in order to make the 2,000-mile trip. It is a fascinating read, told from many points of view. But very little of the book found its way into the film.

It wouldn’t have been much of a film if the screenwriters had simply followed the book structure, for much of that was internalized, thoughts and feelings of the settlers, dramatic incident not so much. So if this was going to be a big-budget western it needed a lot more.

The paperback was sold as a western not as a novel of literary merit so it was inevitable
that the Native Americans who played a minor role in the book took center stage
on the book cover to target the expected audience.

What isn’t in the book: Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) isn’t a Senator for a start, he’s not a widow and doesn’t have a child. He’s not a visionary either with some grandiose map of how he envisages the town he’ll build. He doesn’t hang a man, get a whipping or die falling over a cliff. He’s quit the wagon train long before the cliff section. And he stopped being the leader of the expedition less than halfway through the book.

What isn’t in the book: Evans (Richard Widmark) isn’t overfond of alcohol, doesn’t create an unforced halt in order to celebrate Independence Days several days too soon, doesn’t have a grandfather clock whose loss causes him to lose his rag with Tadlock, in fact it’s he who picks the fight after discovering Tadlock intends to hang a thieving Native American.

What isn’t in the book: Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) isn’t losing his eyesight, though recently widowed his wife wasn’t a Native American, and he doesn’t have a lucky necklace to pass on to a young man or woman.

So there’s a whole passel of wonder right there. The screenwriters have instantly dramatized all three leading characters by providing them with different attributes, making Tadlock and Summers more sympathetic than in the book, rendering Evans less sympathetic. The problem with the book’s Summers is that what makes him interesting is his lore, his knowledge of everything to do with the West, little of which translates to the screen. So providing the toughest of them all with an impediment allows him an immediate story arc.

What isn’t in the book: a Native American child is not killed by a settler, there’s no settler hanged by Tadlock to placate the warring tribe. There’s no warring tribe. There’s no race with other wagon trains at the outset and no racing across a river to get ahead of a rival. There’s no stowaway preacher either, though there is a preacher (Jack Elam). There is only one stop along the way in the film, at Fort Hall, but two in the book, the other being Laramie.

What isn’t in the book, I’m sorry to say, is the wonderful sequence of lowering wagons down a cliff, and Brownie (Michael McGreevy) marries Mercy (Sally Field) because otherwise she’s going to leave the wagon train at Fort Hall and he doesn’t make a pledge in public that her unborn child is his. And there’s no part for Stubby Kaye.

This hardback cover gives far better representation of the novel’s content.

Some of the more solid emotional material is retained. The frigidity of Mrs Mack (Katherine Justice) remains, giving her husband (Michael Witney) the excuse to seduce Mercy, considerably more innocent in the book, where she is described not as sassy but awkward in adult company, “growed up in body and not in knowing.”  While not loving Brownie, she marries him for convenience, though she learns to love him. Brownie gets advice on handling Mercy from Summers and much of that dialog is imported straight from the book.

From the book comes the idea of the settlers chiseling their names on the rock, of Brownie, while doing so, being captured by Native Americans and being traded back to his father.

Cover of the British Corgi movie tie-in paperback printed in 1967.

But there are some ideas lifted from the book out of sequence that the screenwriters build up into major dramatic incidents. The river crossing at the start of the film is taken from the river crossing near the end of the book. Close to the start of the novel, Mack kills a Native American, whose tribe seek justice but are sent away empty handed by Tadlock. That becomes a key sequence in the film when Mack is hanged by Tadlock. A child is killed by a rattlesnake and that is transferred to a different father who gives full expression to his grief.

The screenwriters exacerbate the tensions between the characters, create more moments of high drama, invent the visionary element, and are responsible for the vast bulk of crisp dialogue. While the dialogue in the book sounds authentic, it lacks the brittleness and thrust of the words spoken in the film.

A.B. Guthrie was a celebrated American novelist, a journalist who had come to fiction late, over 40 when he produced his first book, a mystery novel set in the West. But after winning a fellowship to Harvard, his writing took a literary turn, and his West did not take the traditional romanticized view. Two of his novels had been filmed – The Big Sky (1952) starring Kirk Douglas and These Thousand Hills (1959) directed by Richard Fleischer – and he had written an Oscar-nominated screenplay for Shane (1953), based on the Jack Schaefer novel, as well as for The Kentuckian, based on the Felix Holt book. The Way West had become such a touchstone for originality and an acclaimed masterpiece that it seemed impossible to turn it into a film.

Whether the film’s negative critical reaction and audience disregard was down to the screenplay veering so far away from what was considered a classic novel is hard to say. This is a very good example of a book that appeared unfilmable being somehow turned into a more than watchable film.     

And I can recommend the book.

Behind the Scenes: “The Way West” (1967)

As you might expect with a title like this John Wayne was in the frame, at least at the start. But when Burt Lancaster’s production outfit Hecht-Lancaster bought the property that was the end of that casting idea. Hecht-Lancaster was at its peak in 1956, each of its first 11 pictures turning a profit, and just signed up to a $40 million three-year deal with United Artists. Biggest project on the table: $5 million for The Way West with a dream team of Lancaster, James Stewart and Gary Cooper and a script from Clifford Odets (The Sweet Smell of Success, 1957). But by 1959 the dream had soured, with $545,000 already shelled out on the western with no sign of a start date. A year later the project was shelved. When Harold Hecht split from Lancaster, the rights reverted to United Artists.

Hecht’s initial efforts as a solo producer had not paid off, Taras Bulba (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), both starring Yul Brynner, and Tony Curtis comedy Wild and Wonderful (1964) all covered in red ink, before suddenly resurfacing with the hit Cat Ballou (1965), making him imminently more bankable than before. However, given the impact music had in Cat Ballou, Hecht hankered after something in the same vein, except bigger, and bought the rights to Finian’s Rainbow, a Broadway hit from 1947. When casting issues caused delay, Hecht signed a one-picture deal with United Artists for The Way West. The studio had such high hopes for the movie that plans were made for its world premiere to be held at the Houston Astrodome, a first, and it was considered a natural for roadshow treatment.

A substantial rejig was required of the source material, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by A.B. Guthrie, by screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, not least to ensure that the character played by Kirk Douglas remained with the wagon train until the end of the trail, unlike in the book. Andrew V. McLaglen, with three box office western hits behind him in McLintock (1963) starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, Shenandoah (1965) with James Stewart and The Rare Breed (1966) co-starring Stewart and O’Hara, was first choice to sit in the director’s chair.

Charlton Heston (El Cid, 1961) was approached to play the lead of Senator Tadlock. When he turned it down, Kirk Douglas signed on for his first western in five years – although his next would also be a western, The War Wagon (1967) with John Wayne – Robert Mitchum (Villa Rides, 1968) was offered the choice of either scout Dick Summers or firebrand Life Evans. At the end of a long lunch with Hecht and McLaglen, Mitchum could not make up his mind and the producer and director assigned him the role of the scout.

“I’m awfully glad it worked out the way it did,” recalled McLaglen, “because Widmark was perfect for the other part and Mitchum was perfect for the scout.” It might not have been Widmark because Max von Sydow was also reputedly offered a part. Von Sydow was too big a star to play any of the other supporting parts and the part assigned to Widmark was Scandinavian so in that sense an ideal fit.

While Widmark did not attempt a Scandinavian accent, Mitchum spoke Lakota, apparently with a decent accent, in several scenes where he had to communicate with Native Americans. He didn’t learn the language, as modern actors might do, but simply recited the words spoken to him off-camera.  Mitchum and Douglas had acted together in Out of the Past (1947), where the former had the larger role, and, while not sharing scenes, appeared in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), where the billing was reversed. Although not in a directorial capacity McLaglen had worked with Mitchum on Blood Alley (1956) before the actor was fired.

It was an arduous shoot, virtually the whole picture shot as exteriors, in Tucson, Arizona, and in various locations in Oregon including Bend, Christmas Valley and the Crooked River Gorge. Around 400 members of cast and crew made the trek. In the absence of CGI, everything seen on the screen was achieved for real without any recourse to blue screen. The desert was real. When the river was forded, it was with real wagons and the cast. The wagons were raised and then lowered from the tops of cliffs using the old-fashioned methods that would have been available at the time, that is by rope-and-tackle.

In order to begin filming or play less arduous scenes on top of the cliffs, cast and crew went up in a ski lift. “You’re up there, hundreds of feet up, nothing but rocks to call on,” Jack Elam remembered. “If you had to go to the bathroom it was a matter of half an hour down and half an hour up.” When the wagons were lowered down the cliff all the actors at some point had to participate and according to Elam “some people landed in the hospital.” The river crossing was no less dangerous, with the potential for drowning a constant hazard.

“Andy McLaglen…was wonderful through the whole thing. Stayed calm through thick and thin,” said Elam. Added assistant director Terry Morse, “Nothing intimidated him…for all the difficulties he kept it right on schedule.”

Given three stars with reputations, it was not surprising there were flashpoints, Kirk Douglas, apparently, at the heart of most, accused of snatching newspapers out of the hands of supporting players and trying to usurp the director. Commented Harry Carey Jr., “He tried to take over the thing at some point. Widmark got furious at it, very agitated. He screamed, ‘You’re not directing this goddam movie.’ Really raised hell with Douglas.”

Said McLaglen, “Somebody like Kirk Douglas and somebody like Mitchum, they were poles apart in personality. Bob was an easygoing guy and Kirk was more volatile. But there was never a feud.” Just how easygoing Mitchum was – a production assistant was assigned to keep an eye on him just in case he got carried away with his predilection for fishing and was wading in the water when it was time for his next scene.

Kirk Douglas thought so little of the picture there’s not a single mention of it in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son.

The movie wrapped on August 29, two days ahead of schedule, which was quite remarkable given how tough the shoot had been. The fact that it took almost a year to reach screens suggested UA had problems with the finished product. Andrew McLaglen asserted that it had been shorn by nearly 30 minutes after the first round of cinema screenings, but that memory seems faulty given that the film Variety reviewed the movie in mid-May 1967 – a month before its world premiere in Eugene, Oregon, on June 13 – ran 122 minutes, the stated running time. Critics were not kind but the director thought it was “a terrific picture” and “one of the things I dream about today.”

SOURCES: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster, An American Life (Aurum Press, 2000) p171,192, 194; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care, (Faber and Faber, 2002), p491-495; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012); “Largest Independent Motion Picture Deal,” Variety, April 13, 1956;  “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, November 15, 1965, p20; “Hecht’s Oncer for UA,” Variety, March 30, 1966, p5; “Astrodome May Show Hollywood’s Way West,” Variety, May 4, 1966, p12; “Hecht Finishes Production of UA’s The Way West,” Box Office, September 5, 1966, pW5; “Review,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p6.

The Way West (1967) ****

How this crispy-told beautifully-mounted character-driven western ever languished among the also-rans is beyond me. I suspect the specter of John Ford hung heavily over it in the eyes of critics at the time but it more correctly belongs to the cycle of Cecil B. DeMille westerns that told stories with a true historical bent. Often detrimentally compared to How the West Was Won (1963), which told a similar tale of endeavor, this movie deliberately lacks that movie’s inflated drama in which every incident was built up, not least influenced by the need for Cinerama effect, rather than seeking an authentic truth.

Plainly put, the difference is here there are no charges, no races, no fording of rivers in the wrong places. Native Americans are treated with respect. Above all, an epic crossing of the continent with fully-loaded wagons is necessarily going to be slow, risk avoided at all costs, and yet this is not without incident or character arc. In fact, the script is terrific, not just dialogue that rings true, but among the elements brought into play are male rivalry, clash with authority, guilt, young love, revenge, vision, justice, America in embryo. That the movie maintains a stately pace, no fistfights descending into brawls, and a shock ending indicate a director in charge of his material.

Based on A.B. Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in 1843, the first wagon train heads for Oregon under the iron rule of Senator William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) and guided by a scout with failing eyesight in Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), both men widowed and in emotional limbo, and in the cantankerous company of Lije Evans (Richard Widmark) and his glamorous wife Rebecca (Lola Albright). There’s a stowaway (Jack Elam), a preacher who can’t afford the price of transportation, an illicit love affair between the vibrant and lusty Mercy (Sally Field) who “hankers after any three-legged boy” but makes eyes at married man Johnnie Mack (Michael Witney), and enough obstacles to keep less determined settlers from reaching their promised land.

Tadlock is the visionary, a politician suffering from an overblown estimation of his self-worth,  who “might have been President except for a woman,” ruthless, valuing only his own ideas. “Point the way,” he tells Summers, “don’t gall me with opinions.” For fear it might interfere with his role as commander, he hides his vulnerability. There’s a plaintive moment when he shares his vision of a city with Rebecca, on the one hand full of his own importance, on the other clearly needing the pat on the back. Later, an occasion of death sees him falling prostate with grief on a grave and on breaking his own laws demands to whipped. The over confident blustering individual is by the end almost suicidal. What is a leader if there is no one to lead?

Summers stoically accepts his infirmity, constantly dropping his head so his eyes are hidden from sight under his hat as if his ailment could be easily detected, mourning the loss of his Native American wife, and while full of Western lore as easily passing on gentle wisdom about love, and his “lucky necklace” to an unrequited lover, but still accused of unworldliness, “for a smart man you ain’t got a lick of sense.”  Evans bristles at any authority, believing independence means he goes his own way, especially if that permits the freedom to get drunk at a time of his choosing, and especially once he realizes such lack of inhibition riles the repressed Tadlock. But his fondness for alcohol triggers an incident that almost costs his son his life.

Celebrations he started catch the attention of the nearby Sioux and in the communal drunkenness a Native American child is accidentally killed. In the best scene in the film battle Sioux seeking justice and intent on attack are thwarted only by the “sacrifice” of the killer.

The picture is packed full of incident, many characters coming alive in a single shot or with one line of dialogue. A woman tramps on her husband’s foot to prevent him challenging Tadlock’s authority. A woman with a baby retorts that she is afraid when bolder settlers facing potential Native American attack assert the opposite. The bravest man in the camp, the first volunteer to be lowered down a canyon, dies when his rope snaps.  

There are any number of reversals. Buffalo, instead of being a danger and prone to stampede, create a dust cloud to hide behind. Rivers are crossed at sensible points, rapids avoided. An African-American whips a white man. A boy becomes a man through honor rather than violence. Stories, large and small, play out in a succinct script.  

Kirk Douglas (The Arrangement, 1969) is superb as a man whose iron core deserts him. Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968), in almost a supporting role, excellent in full awareness that the sight on which his reputation and job depend will vanish, brings a subtlety to his performance that would be recognized as ideal for Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1965), who is generally simmering, gets to mix in a bit of fun in with the simmering.

Lola Albright (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) swaps seductiveness for sense. In her debut Sally Field (Smokey and the Bandit, 1977), filled with zip and zest, sparkles as the lusty young woman and it’s astonishing to realize she would not make another movie for nearly a decade while another debutante Katherine Justice (Five Card Stud, 1968) finds her inner fire when it’s too late.  There’s supporting talent a plenty – Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated, 1969) and William Lundigan (The Underwater City, 1962) in only his second film of the decade.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (The Rare Breed, 1966) captures the correct tone for the film, making up for the essential slow pace with brilliant use of widescreen, coaxing great performances from all concerned. Screenwriters Ben Maddow (The Chairman, 1969) and Mitch Lindemann (The Careless Years, 1957) compress Guthrie’s tome with considerable skill.  

Woefully underrated at the time and since, this deserves reassessment. This is a truer version of how the west was won. And I surely can’t be alone in demanding that McLaglen’s talent be more properly recognized.

The Brotherhood (1968) ****

Minimal violence and no sex was the wrong recipe for this Mafia picture – as proven at the box office – but this is an absorbing, underrated drama nonetheless.

It bears a surprising number of parallels to The Godfather (1972). Pure coincidence, extraordinary though that may appear, because The Brotherhood premiered in December 1968 while the Mario Puzo novel was printed in March 1969 (and delivered to the printers long before), so no opportunity at all for plagiarism.

The two films could be opposite sides of the same coin. For a start, both begin with a wedding. Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord), brother of Mafia kingpin Frank (Kirk Douglas), is marrying Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of another Mafia chief Dominick (Luther Adler). Like Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Vince is just out of the army, well-educated and primed for a life outside the business. And like Michael is called upon to commit an act of supreme violence. There’s even a hint of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in the relationship between the brothers, Frank having brought up the much younger Vince after his father’s premature death.

And just as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) refuses to join the other Mafia families in a new business venture (in that case, drugs) so Frank bows out of an incredibly high risk (but amazingly prescient) scheme to invest in electronic firms involved in military work for the government, a deal that not only promises huge profits but a potential hold over the powers-that-be.

Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) is like Don Corleone’s wife, not wanting to know anything about the business, but both Emma and Frank’s daughter Carmela (Connie Scott) are thematic cousins to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) as initial implicit trust is wiped away. When Frank dances with Carmela at the wedding, that is reflected in Don Corleone dancing with his daughter at her wedding. Like The Godfather our first sight of the other Mafia chieftains – including Jim Hagen (Murray Hamilton) and Don Peppino (Eduardo Cianelli) – is at the feast where they are viewed with suspicion by Frank’s clan. And the scene where Frank uses a banana to tease his nephew will remind you of Don Corleone spooking his grandson with an orange.

However, the twist, if you like, is that, unlike Michael, Vince is desperate to join the Family and is instrumental in developing legitimate enterprises, which is echoed by Michael Corleone’s strategic shift to Las Vegas. In some respects, Frank is more like Sonny (James Caan), happy to assume personal command of murders which the other Mafia chiefs now scrupulously delegate to “mechanics” in Los Angeles. He is more old-school whereas the others act as respectable businessmen.

And then it becomes a question of loyalty. Which side the ambitious Vinnie will take is crucial to the story. Frank is under pressure on all sides, from the other Mafia leaders, a government investigation, Vinnie, and the need to exact revenge on the man who caused his father’s death.

There is authentic detail here as well – religious procession in Sicily, Frank playing boccia (the Italian version of the French boules) with his old pals, family dinner, canary stuffed in the mouth of a stool pigeon, but it is less spaghetti-drenched than The Godfather. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Fox, 1967), also listed as technical adviser, claimed to be drawing on his intimate knowledge of organized crime.

There are only three moments of violence – four if you count a shocking moment of someone spitting on a corpse at a wake – a pair of straightforward murders that bookend the film, plus a scene of Godfather-style brutality in which a man slowly strangles himself to death after being hogtied. Everyone is happily married, Ida very old-school to the extent of removing her husband’s clothes (and shoes) when he returns home drunk, Vince in a good relationship.

Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) is excellent in a difficult role that presents a fully rounded character, playful with his daughter, loyal to his wife, holding his own against the other mob bosses, enjoying the company of the old-timers who resemble his father, and the changing nature of his relationship with brother Vince. Alex Cord, whose work I initially dismissed (Stiletto, 1969), I have come to more fully appreciate, especially here, where, in a masterpiece of restraint, he makes the transition from adoring brother to threat.

The supporting cast is terrific, a rare Hollywood sojourn for Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Luther Adler  (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) as one of the hoodlums exasperated by Frank’s recalcitrance,  Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, 1967) but, except at the start, Susan Strasberg (The Trip, 1967) is underused.

While director Martin Ritt (Hombre, 1967) is at times guilty of melodrama, his rendering of family life is much more nuanced than Coppola’s. There are very tender moments between Frank and his wife and Frank and his daughter, as well as moments where Ida plays a more maternal role.

For nearly half a century, The Brotherhood has lain in the shadow of The Godfather simply because they both deal with the Mafia. But this is an excellent movie in its own right.

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) ***

In some respects a sequel to the film Exodus (1960) as Israel, on the eve of independence in 1948, prepares to repel invasion from neighboring Arabs. Colonel Mickey Marcus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited to help organise the Jewish forces even though he has little actual combat experience, having sat out the Second World War behind a desk until D-Day, and having already resumed his legal career.  

To facilitate entry to Palestine, he is met at the airport by Magda (Senta Berger), herself a soldier, pretending to be his sister. The journey from the airport in armored bus reveals the perilous reality of the situation, the vehicle strafed as they pass through towns. He finds a rabble of a fighting force, lacking in weaponry, disorganised, and made up of various groups at each other’s throats, and focused on defense rather than attack. Initially, Marcus is strictly an advisor, writing training manuals until he encourages a commando raid and is eventually, at the behest of Asher (Yul Brynner) put in complete command of all the units, effectively the country’s first general.

In the background, General Mike Randolph (John Wayne) is helping organise support in the United States to recognise Israel’s independence. Marcus organises a campaign to lift the siege of Jerusalem, first through direct attack, but then through an incredible foray into impassable mountains, building the “Burma Road,” equivalent in the tactical sense to Lawrence of Arabia’s trek through the desert to attack Aqaba.

A fair bit of the early part of the picture is flashback to establish Marcus’s military credentials, which are scant, in sum total no more than a week of active combat, and it would have been better to concentrate on why he was recruited in the first place, because of the name the real-life Colonel had made for himself in organizing the war crimes trials in Germany.

Apart from the action and military politics, the drama concerns Marcus abandoning wife Emma (Angie Dickinson) in New York, embarking on a romance with Magda and establishing a sense of identity with his adopted country. The action is particularly good, audacity the Israeli’s major weapon.

It is mostly through Magda that we view the Jewish experience. She married Andre (Michael Shillo) in order to save his life, although she did not love him. A veteran of many skirmishes, she suffers a breakdown when trapped in her vehicle during one particularly vicious battle. In what is possibly the most imaginative scene in the film, when Marcus encourages her to keep driving her stalled truck with cries of “Come on, Magda,” in cruel torment the surrounding Arabs take up the cry until it echoes round the hills. Once she falls for Marcus, of course, she never knows if he will return safe from battle.

Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) leads mostly with his chin, never letting subtlety get in the way of his performance, but given the character assigned he has little option and is nonetheless effective as a leader and believable as a man torn between wife and lover. Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) has never been better (or not so far in the films thus reviewed) with a meaty role that shows soldiering from a female perspective in a country where sacrifice is a given.

John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has a small role as a grumpy general and Frank Sinatra (The Naked Runner,1967) a cameo as a commercial pilot who finds himself dragged into the war. Angie Dickinson (Fever in the Blood, 1961) is the long-suffering wife and singer Topol (Sallah, 1964) has a small role. The smattering of Brits includes Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966), Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967), Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963).

Melville Shavelson wouldn’t be your first choice for an action picture given he made his name with comedies like It Started in Naples (1960), but does a fair job of directing, especially the action, the “Come on, Magda” scene and the confrontation with the British when immigrants land. He wrote the screenplay based on the biography by Ted Berkman.

The Arrangement (1969) ***

It might have been better if director Elia Kazan had handed over the screenwriting chores for this adaptation of his bestseller about the midlife crisis of advertising man Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas). Anderson’s attempts to juggle wife Florence (Deborah Kerr) and mistress Gwen (Faye Dunaway) coupled with growing disgust at selling a new brand of cigarettes, Zephyr (“The Clean One”), in a way that pointedly avoids their cancer potential, leads to a suicide attempt.  

During convalescence he determines to quit the advertising world and go back to his first love, writing, but in fact he ends up sabotaging his career. Florence represents impossible seduction and conscience. Slinky, in dark glasses, hot-tempered rather than submissive or demure, she accuses him of self-deception in his job. The picture flits back and forth between his various choices – different job, return to wife, settle down with mistress, or what seems his ideal world, cossetted by both Gwen and Florence.

Gwen is an excellent study of the modern woman (of that fast-changing period, I hasten to add), who needs a man for sex but not necessarily love, and can use the opposite gender as ruthlessly as any man. What she actually requires in her real life is quite different to what she seeks in the fantasy love she enjoyed with Anderson, sex on the beach, the buzz of controlling a high-powered man. Florence could be seen as an old-fashioned portrait of the adoring wife except for capturing so well the bewilderment of betrayal.

Kazan conjures up some wonderful images: the tension before the suicide attempt as Anderson plays chicken between two trucks, Gwen emerging wet from the pool to eat dangling grapes or with her legs up on Anderson’s desk, Anderson’s mother lighting votive candles in her house before using the same match for her cigarette, Kerr’s futile attempts to win back her fallen husband, Anderson flying solo.

In parts well-observed and directorially savvy, quick cuts between the present and the past, however it sinks beneath its own self-indulgence. My guess is that author Kazan could not bear to kill off a single one of the characters he had created for his acclaimed novel and the upshot is a vastly over-populated picture, few of whom cast any real light on Anderson’s predicament. So we are not only introduced to mother, dying father, brother, sister-in-law and  analyst but priest and a bucket of clients and guys from the office. And there are some plot oddities – Anderson gets time off apparently to write journalistic pieces – and what is clearly intended as hard-hitting satire of the advertising world does not come off.

Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) is the standout as Gwen, living life according to her own rules, and with an unexpected vision of domesticity but Deborah Kerr (Prudence and the Pill, 1968) does pain like nobody else and is extremely convincing. Strangely enough, I didn’t go much for Douglas (Seven Days in May, 1964). He could have been leading a cavalry charge for all the range of emotions he exhibited. Douglas is no Montgomery Clift (Wild River, 1960), James Dean (East of Eden, 1955) or Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, 1954) who was Kazan’s first choice. Kazan had not made a picture in six years and it had been eight years since his last hit Splendor in the Grass (1961). Not quite out-of-touch in concept and delivery, nonetheless it was shunned by the Oscar fraternity.

Yul Brynner vs. Kirk Douglas: The Battle for ‘Spartacus’ *****

When I wrote my book some years back on the making of The Magnificent Seven (1960) I was aware that Yul Brynner had attempted to set up a project called The Gladiators in direct opposition to rival Kirk Douglas venture Spartacus. What I didn’t know until I came across this fascinating new book, telling the untold story of The Gladiators vs. Spartacus, Dueling Productions in Blacklist Hollywood by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper, was just how close Brynner came to derailing the Douglas production. Indeed, at first it appeared Brynner’s The Gladiators, based on the novel by Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, The Ghost in the Machine), was a cinch to be first past the post. After winning the Best Actor Oscar for The King and I (1956) and starring in box office behemoth The Ten Commandments (1956), Brynner was set to become a movie mogul after being handed a record $25 million – $230 million at today’s prices – from United Artists for 11 pictures. His first project was The Gladiators on a $5.5 million budget, Meanwhile, Douglas, rejected for the title role in the forthcoming Ben-Hur, his picture Paths of Glory (1957) producing dismal returns, struggled to find funding for Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast.   

Promotional ad in 1958 for Yul Brynner as Spartacus in ‘The Gladiators.’

There are instances of two studios embarking on similar projects at the same time – sci fi adventures Deep Impact and Armageddon appeared within months of each in 1998 but Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox decided to combine competing movies about a skyscraper on fire into The Towering Inferno (1974). Here, as much as efforts were made to combine the projects both actors were determined to continue the battle despite the potential competition. At another point, Brynner sought to recruit Douglas for The Magnificent Seven. The race to the screen went back and forth for a couple of years, Brynner unable to choose between the historical drama and the western, while Douglas had the luck to have as his agent  Lew Wassermann, in the process of buying up Universal who determined that Spartacus would be the ideal prestige vehicle to relaunch the studio.

What gives this volume special significance is that the films were being produced against the backdrop of the blacklist, the anti-Communist hysteria stirred by HUAC in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Screenplays for both films were the work of blacklisted writers, Abraham Polonsky on the Brynner side and Dalton Trumbo for Douglas. Polonsky was writer-director of Force of Evil (1948) as well as writer of another quintessential film noir Body and Soul (1947), for which he was Oscar-nominated, before his career was prematurely interrupted. Trumbo was held in even greater esteem, Oscar-nominated for Kitty Foyle (1941), and with A Guy Named Joe (1943) under his belt. While blacklisted, both wrote under “fronts”, Trumbo responsible for the Oscar-winning screenplays for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), Polonsky successfully switching for a time to television. Both productions proceeded with the need to keep secret the real screenwriters, Ira Wolfert fronting for Polonsky, author Howard Fast unknowingly doing the same for Trumbo.

The parallel tales of two ambitious producers dueling for supremacy and of two blacklisted writers fighting for survival make a thrilling read. At any moment, either production could be killed by revelations about the screenwriters, while the planned films faced a succession of what seemed sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Both movies pursued, for example, the same three stars – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Martin Ritt, initial  director for The Gladiators, dropped out while Anthony Mann, in the same position for Spartacus, was fired. Script problems dogged both pictures. Rivalry was conducted openly in the trade press while the productions clashed over the title. Even when Spartacus nudged ahead in the production process, the spiraling budget almost put paid to the endeavor, while The Gladiators hovered in the background, intent on capitalizing should, as appeared for a long time the most likely outcome, the Douglas film flop at the box office.

The third riveting element of this book is a scoop. The authors have located the original Polonsky screenplay for The Gladiators, believed lost for over 60 years, and so are able to contrast the different approaches to the subject of the Spartacus revolution. (In a separate volume, the entire screenplay has been published with annotations and critical commentary by Fiona Radford and background essays by MacAdam and Cooper). Koestler was a cult figure, far better known than Howard Fast, and has remained in the literary consciousness ever since his suicide in 1983. With The Gladiators failing to reach the screen, Polonsky remained under the Hollywood radar for several years before his career revived with the screenplay for Madigan (1968) and as writer-director of modern western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) starring Robert Redford.  The revelation that Trumbo had written Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960) and the involvement of Polonsky in The Gladiators helped break the blacklist. Trumbo went on to enjoy a successful official comeback, biopic Trumbo (2105) depicting the tribulations he suffered as a blacklistee.

The book is available from Cambridge Scholars.

Seven Days in May (1964) ****

Donald Trump and the recent insurrection bring this picture bang up to date. Democracy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the people. Can they be trusted to make the correct decision? That’s in part the thematic thrust of this high-octane political thriller that pits two of the greatest actors of their generation in a battle to decide the fate of the world. This was the era of the nuke picture – Dr Strangelove (1962), Fail Safe (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) – all primed by the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing threat of the Cold War. But since that threat has never gone away – if anything it has worsened – the movie is as relevant today.

Promoting a male-oriented film about politics was always going to be a hard sell despite the distinguished cast. One route Paramount marketeers went down was a massive tie-in with publisher Bantam’s bestseller paperback . Over 1.5 million copies of the book had been rolled out and Bantam had arranged cross-over publicity in supermarkets, five-and-dime stores, booksellers and wholesalers stocking the book. “Look” magazine ran a six-page article by one of the book’s authors Fletcher Knebel.

Just as the President (Fredric March) is about to sign a nuclear treaty with the USSR, much to the fury of the majority of Americans judging by opinion polls, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) uncovers signs of a military coup headed by hawk General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).

The movie divides into the classic three acts. In the first, Douglas investigates the existence of a secret army unit in El Paso comprising 3,600 men trained to overthrow the government and needs to persuade the President the country is in danger. The second act sees the President hunting for proof of the imminent coup and identifying the conspirators. The third act witnesses showdowns between March and Lancaster and Lancaster and Douglas.

About $65 million out of the U.S. national budget of $90 million was allocated to the military, according to director John Frankenheimer writing in the above magazine. Frankenheimer combined with Kirk Douglas’s company to purchase the book and hire writer Rod Serling. The original script was too long so, without losing a scene, the director went through it cutting phrases and sentences here and there till it was down to the required two-hour length. Paramount put up extra money to get Ava Gardner join the cast.

At the heart of the story is betrayal – Lancaster of his country’s constitution, Douglas of his friend when he takes on the “thankless job of informer.” Douglas proves rather too ruthless, willing to seduce and then betray Ava Gardner, Lancaster’s one-time mistress. Both Gardner and March prove to have higher principles than Douglas. For both Douglas and Lancaster who operate at a high threshold of intensity and could easily have turned in high-octane performances the tension is even better maintained by their apparently initial low-key confrontations. Douglas has a trick here of standing ramrod straight and then turning his head but not his body towards the camera.   

As a pure thriller, it works a treat, investigation to prove there is a conspiracy followed by the the vital element to conspiracy theory – the deaths and disappearances of vital people – and finally the need to resolve the crisis without creating public outcry. The only flaw in the movie’s structure is that Douglas cannot carry out all the investigations and when presidential sidekicks Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien are dispatched, respectively, to Gibralter and El Paso the movie loses some of its intensity. But the third act is a stunner as March refuses to take the easy way out by blackmailing Lancaster over his previous relationship with Gardner.   

Of course, there is a ton of political infighting and philosophizing in equal measure and speeches about democracy (“ask for a mandate at the ballot box, don’t steal it”), the American Constitution and the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. But these verbal volleys are far from long-winded and pack a surefire punch. The coup has been set up with military precision and must be dismantled by political precision.

A hint of the future: one unusual aspect of the picture was the use of closed-circuit television which was seen as being used as method of general communication between politicians and the Pentagon.

The film is awash with Oscar talent – Burt Lancaster, Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) and, at that point, twice nominated; thrice-nominated Kirk Douglas; Fredric March, twice Best Actor for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) plus  three other nominations besides; Ava Gardner nominated for Best Actress (Mogambo, 1953); and Edmond O’Brien named Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

None disappoint. March is especially impressive as a weak President tumbling in the polls who has to reach deep to fight a heavyweight adversary. Lancaster and Douglas both bristle with authority. Although Lancaster’s delusional self-belief appears to give him the edge in the acting stakes, Douglas’s ruthless manipulation of a vulnerable Ava Gardner provides him with the better material. Edmond O’Brien as an old soak whose alcoholism marks him out as an easy target is also memorable and Ava Gardner in recognizing her frailties delivers a sympathetic performance.

Fashion might have seemed to offer limited marketing opportunities for such a picture but that did not stop Paramount’s publicists. On the back of one of the subsidiary characters being seen combing her hair with an Ajax comb the manufacturer was inveigled into a nationwide campaign. Director John Frankenheimer was pictured wearing a custom-made Cardinal suit in an advert in “Gentlemen’s Quarterly” and designer Mollie Parnis created a suit for women which could be simply altered every day to provide enough outfits for seven days.

Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) does a terrific job of distilling a door-stopper of a book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.  But the greatest kudos must go to director John Frankenheimer – acquainted with political opportunism through The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and with Burt Lancaster through The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – for keeping tension to the forefront and resisting the temptation to slide into political ideology.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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