Tuesday, August 16, 2016

From the Rental Vault: In Harm's Way (1965)

In Harm's Way is a curious movie in a lot of ways. It was made in 1965 but full of rah-rah WWII bluster. It's has an epic feel to it but was made in black-and-white when Technicolor was the rage. Between the director and the cast, it's packed with Hollywood star-power that generates little or no firepower. And though it clocks in just a quarter-hour shy of three full hours, it only sketches its storylines, leaving too many gaps for the audience to figure out and too much space for them to lose interest.

Director Otto Preminger apparently wanted to make a big-budget, big-deal war movie that presented a more or less positive view of the United States Navy, rather than the more revisionist kind of story being told more often in the 1960s. When he planned to film James Bassett's 1962 novel Harm's Way, he brought in John Wayne for the central role of Captain, later Rear Admiral, Rockford Torrey. With Kirk Douglas as Captain Paul Eddington and Patricia Neal as love interest Lt. Maggie Hayes, Preminger had some of the biggest and most talented guns he could get for his epic, but the story that screenwriter Wendell Mayes drew from the novel can never get enough traction to keep from lurching through its paces instead of sailing along.

Torrey captained a ship on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and although his cruiser escaped the Japanese bombing he was second-guessed about a command decision and beached to an office. His friend Paul Eddington suffered a personal tragedy that day and without Torrey to cover for his erratic behavior, finds himself running a distant supply outpost. During treatment for his injury, Torrey meets nurse Maggie Smith, a Naval Reserve Lieutenant called to active duty for the war. They begin a low-key romance that's paralleled by a much rockier relationship between Torrey's estranged son Jeremiah and Maggie's roommate, Ensign Annalee Dohrn. All of these characters and the rest of the cast will get themselves eventually into the South Pacific. The real action starts when Henry Fonda, stopping in for a cup of coffee and a few lines as an ersatz Chester Nimitz stand-in, gets Torrey promoted and sent to a group of islands the Navy and Marines are trying to wrest from the Japanese to build a bomber base.

Wayne, of course, is in the icon phase of his career, where he is pretty much just being John Wayne in a different outfit for each movie. Douglas has the intensity for the troubled Eddington, but the story spends a lot of time with that character being the sort of devil-may-care humorous sidekick. The dark turns he takes make little sense in light of the other 90 percent of the time he's onscreen, and there's no nobility in his attempts to make up for his wrongs. Patricia Neal, who also starred with Wayne in Operation Pacific, makes a great foil for him and offers yet more evidence that the macho Duke knew he worked best opposite strong female leads. He didn't lobby for Neal specifically, but he did campaign for an older actress (she was 38) after a string of improbable onscreen romances with women as young as his own children.

In the end, In Harm's Way winds up as a disjointed collection of too-much-but-not-enough -- I haven't even mentioned a subplot between Tom Tyron's William McConnell and his wife Beverly, played by Paula Prentiss, because it's basically a stick-figure drawing of the "cost of war" set piece where Prentiss gets caromed back-and-forth between sadness, joy and more sadness. We never spend enough time with the McConnells to be able to invest a lot of interest in them, and so their scenes are leached of color and vitality and their heaviest lines much more cliché than anything else.

Which is about what the rest of the movie winds up being as well.

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