Wednesday, May 19, 2021

#2,570. In Harm's Way (1965) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


During a 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Kirk Douglas took a few moments to discuss fellow actor John Wayne, whom he appeared with in a number of movies. “We have never seen eye-to-eye on a lot of things”, Douglas said, “but… I think he’s one of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with”. He went on to say how he and Wayne (“Everyone calls him Duke”, Douglas chuckled, “but I’ve always called him John”) never talked politics (a topic on which they were polar opposites), but Kirk admitted “He’s the first guy on the set, he’s the hardest worker I ever worked with, and I think he’s quite a character”.

Both men co-starred in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, a 1965 black and white WWII epic that manages to sandwich some effective melodrama between its battle sequences.

Wayne is Navy Captain Rockwell “Rock” Torrey. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Torrey and his executive officer Commander Paul Eddington (Douglas) were out at sea. Both would face disciplinary action in the wake of the attack; Torrey, who was tasked with assembling the remaining fleet and tracking down the enemy, issued an order that resulted in his ship being destroyed by a Japanese sub, while Eddington got into a barroom brawl after learning that his promiscuous wife (Barbara Bouchet) was killed during the attack along with her lover, an Air Force Major (played by Hugh O’Brian).

Torrey and Eddington find themselves on the sidelines as the war in the Pacific escalates, with Rock using his time to romance nurse Maggie Haines (Patricia Neal) and get re-acquainted with his son, Jeremiah (Brandon De Wilde), a Navy ensign whom he hasn’t seen in 18 years (he and Jeremiah’s mother divorced soon after he was born).

Alas, the war is going badly; U.S. forces, under the command of Vice Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews), have been bogged down, unable to take the island of Levu-Vana from the Japanese. Acting on a recommendation made by Rock’s good friend and fellow officer Cmdr. Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), the Navy promotes Rock to the rank of Admiral and sends him to the Pacific to head up a fresh offensive.

Taking Eddington along as his second-in-command, Rock successfully captures several key areas, only to discover the Japanese have been sending in heavy reinforcements. With most available troops and equipment tied up elsewhere, Rock, Eddington, and a select few must somehow defeat the Japanese and take Levu-Vana, no matter the cost.

While the battle scenes range from adequate (the final confrontation with the Japanese Navy has its moments) to mediocre (the attack on Pearl Harbor isn’t given much attention, and a few of the sea skirmishes suffer from poor effects), In Harm’s Way proves a very effective wartime drama. Wayne delivers a subdued performance as second-generation Navy man Rock Torrey, and his relationships with Patricia Neal (quite good as the romantic interest) and Brandon De Wilde (as the son who is nothing like his father) are enough to keep us watching until the action picks up again.

Adding a darker element to the story is Douglas’s Eddington, who turns to booze as a way of dealing with his unfaithful wife’s death, then later has a fling with Nurse Annalee Dorne (Jill Haworth), which ends badly (the scene on the beach, where Annalee tells Eddington that she’s engaged to Jeremiah Torrey, is easily the film’s most disturbing moment).

Also strong in support are Burgess Meredith, Dana Andrews, Tom Tryon (as Lt. McConnell, a young Commander who is reported missing in action), Paula Prentiss (as McConnell’s distraught wife), Stanley Holloway (as an Australian who scouts Japanese positions for the Navy), and Patrick O’Neal (as Broderick’s slimy subordinate, who intends to run for office after the war).

In addition to its cast, In Harm’s Way features sparkling cinematography (the work of Loyal Griggs, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work) and a great score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Wayne (who, a few months after production had wrapped on In Harm’s Way was diagnosed with lung cancer) would become a polarizing force in Hollywood in the years that followed; he won his only Academy Award in 1969 (for True Grit), only to incur the wrath of his peers after an explosive 1971 interview with Playboy magazine (Wayne called Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboyperverted films” and justified the stealing of land from the Native Americans, who were “selfishly trying to keep it for themselves”).

Whatever your opinion might be of John Wayne (and I certainly can’t bring myself to defend his positions or statements, many of which are indefensible), he did manage to shine in the right role, and while Kirk Douglas (like many of us) may not have liked the man, he respected the actor.

Together, these two Hollywood legends helped make In Harm’s Way a truly memorable motion picture.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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