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.