Thankfully devoid of the empty triumphalism that marred In Harm’s Way (1965) and Pearl Harbor (2001) and the gritty backs against the wall heroism and snatching some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat of The Alamo (1960) and Zulu (1964), and with a documentary-style approach much more acceptable these days than then, there is an immense amount to appreciate and absorb in this last-gasp 70mm roadshow from a financially flailing Twentieth Century Fox.
Shorn, too, of the traditional all-star cast bar Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, 1967) – who might not count – nor the regiment of rising talent stuffed into such epics in the hope one might catch the eye and float to the top. And there’s no room to ram in a distracting romance such as in the previous and future films focusing on the military disaster. Instead, stuffed with dependable supporting players like Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965), E.G. Marshall (The Chase, 1966) and James Whitmore (The Split, 1968) stops audience rubber-necking in its tracks, unlike producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s previous The Longest Day (1962), in favor of forensic analysis of what went wrong in the defence and what went so brilliant right in the attack.
Like most of the best war epics – The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge (1965), taking an even-handed approach in presenting both sides of the battle, except here you could argue considerably more time is spent with the Japanese, beginning with the opening credits where the camera floats in and around a giant battleship. Despite the sudden attack which went against all the traditions of war – a timing error apparently – the Japanese are presented as honorable and even arguing against going to war as well as worrying about the consequences of poking the tiger.
And there is none of the endless owing and scraping and not attempting to rise above your station in the traditional Western-view of the Japanese. Here, from the outset, superior officers are questioned possibly in manner that would be permitted among the opposing forces.
The first half is given up to the superb organisation of the attack, including the bold use of using aerial torpedoes – proven to work by the British in an earlier assault on a harbor without the apparent depth of water required – and contrasting it with the general U.S. ineptness, bureaucracy, interdepartmental battles and overall lack of preparation even though several personnel believed an attack imminent. The Yanks had even broken the Japanese codes so could easily have taken heed of obvious omens, had working radar on site though its employment was handicapped by being limited to three hours a day and initially lacking a means of communicating findings. Someone had even worked out that the Japanese would need six aircraft carriers to mount an attack and that the ideal time would be early morning on a weekend, someone even predicting an attack down to the exact time except a week out.
Of course, the U.S. at this point was not at war and so could be excused switching off in the evening or being uncontactable in the morning because they were still out carousing from the night before or sedately riding a horse. While there is a growing sense of alarm, the chain of command is woefully stretched often in the wrong direction and at one point stops before it reaches the President.
Fearful of sabotage, the Americans shift planes away from the perimeter of airfields smack bang into the runway where they can be more easily destroyed. Perhaps the greatest irony is that in shifting the U.S. fleet from its home base in San Diego, the Americans made such an attack possible.
When it gets under way, the battle scenes are superb, especially given none of the CGI Pearl Harbor could call upon, and yet with the U.S. aircraft carriers by luck still at sea failed to deliver a killer blow for the Japanese.
It’s handled superbly by director Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler, 1968), Kinju Fukasaku (Battle Royale, 2000) and Toshio Masuda (The Zero Fighter, 1962). The American flaws are dramatized rather than being dealt with by info-dump. Larry Forester (Fathom, 1967) and long-time Akira Kurosawa confederates Hideo Oguni (Ikiru, 1952) and Ryuzo Kikushima (Yojimbo, 1961) fashioned a sharp screenplay from mountains of material.
Long rumored to be a box office flop it turned out to have made a decent profit, albeit not in the U.S.
The documentary approach adds immensely to the movie and it remains one of the all-time greats precisely because of the lack of artificial drama.
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.
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.