1965 | NR | 2h 45m | Drama, Romance, War
As fun (and often overwhelming) as it is to behold modern CGI visual effects, there's something special about war films from the Golden Age of Hollywood (1927 to 1969) that made these films stand out. Since the filmmakers of that era couldn’t rely on today’s technology, they were often more inventive; created tighter tension, invented innovative, hand-crafted effects; and focused on compelling dialogue.
“In Harm's Way” (1965), starring John Wayne (in one of his last war films), is based on the 1962 novel “Harm’s Way,” penned by author and journalist James Bassett, and adapted for the silver screen by writer Wendell Mayes.
The movie begins on the fateful night of Dec. 6, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. A wild sparkplug of a woman named Liz Eddington (Barbara Bouchet) is drunk and dancing seductively at a commissioned officer’s club for a man other than her husband. Eventually, she and her male friend drive down to the beach for a little coastal triste that evening and awake the next morning to the sounds of Japanese planes flying overhead.
As they try to escape by car, the planes fire at them and eventually cause them to crash. The Japanese proceed to attack a wide array of both military and civilian targets with calculated ferocity. It’s a pretty grim scene that conveys the savageness of the surprise attack.
U.S. Navy Capt. Rockwell "Rock" Torrey (Wayne) helms a large cruiser in the area. Torrey's right-hand man, Comd. Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), is going through some hard times. Not only is he having marital problems (his wife is the aforementioned drunk who was killed, although he doesn’t find out until later), but also has self-imposed career issues because of his alcoholism.
After scouting for a Japanese submarine that is supposedly off the coast of Pearl Harbor, Torrey’s cruiser gets struck by a pair of the sub’s torpedoes. Because Torrey wasn’t following proper military maneuvering protocols, he is relieved of his command by his superiors once his ship limps back to headquarters, and the sub gets destroyed by another U.S. ship.
Since Torrey is a second-generation Navy lifer, he takes his demotion hard and resents being reassigned to desk duty. However, his good friend Comd. Egan Powell (played by a very game Burgess Meredith) eventually helps him get back on track. Torrey also meets a goodhearted nurse, Maggie (Patricia Neal), who soon has him locked in her romantic crosshairs.
However, if there’s something that still troubles Torrey, it’s his son Jere (Brandon De Wilde) whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was 4 years old. Coincidentally, he discovers that not only is his son also a Navy man but is stationed close to the elder Torrey. The resultant father-son drama is an interesting subplot throughout the film and something that I felt was unexpectedly touching.
As is probably evident, there are a lot of moving parts to this near-three-hour war epic, but things never feel bogged down or superfluous. This is not only due to director Otto Preminger’s gritty portrayal of the Pacific Theater of World War II, but also from the rock-solid acting performances by the film’s ensemble cast. In addition, the slow-brew romance that develops between John Wayne and Patricia Neal’s characters seems particularly believable and entertaining to watch play out, even if Neal was slightly underutilized as far as screen time is concerned.
This great war drama will most likely take the viewer through a number of emotional states, as some of the characters and situations can be both harsh and contemptible, as well as heroic and redemptive. It’s an oddly under-lauded affair but one of Preminger’s better cinematic efforts.