Overlooked & Underseen: In Harm's Way (1965)
Initially, I had another film in mind for today’s column but I was reminded it was Memorial Day and we should write about our favorite war film. Although I had only watched it once before, I knew I wanted to revisit In Harm’s Way.
Based on the 1962 book Harm’s Way by James Bassett, the film follows the lives of several characters at the beginning of the US Navy’s involvement in World War II in December of 1941. Among the actors involved in the film are John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Kirk Douglas, Dana Andrews, and Burgess Meredith.
There are several different plot lines flowing throughout the film, really, too many to try and mention here. Wayne is, of course, the lead and he plays Captain (later Admiral) Rockwell “Rock” Torrey. All of the other characters lives are attached to him in some way, whether they are his superiors in Washington DC or his part of his staff in Hawaii.
At nearly 3 hours, In Harm’s Way is chock-a-block full of quality film goodness. No real opening credits here, the Saul Bass credits, oddly enough, come at the end of the film. Jerry Goldsmith handles the score here. The gorgeous black and white photography is courtesy of Oscar winner (for Shane) Loyal Griggs. No slouch himself, Preminger’s work here is worthy of praise.
Praise, however, is not what this film received when it was released in 1965. Reviews were mostly poor. Critics felt the stories didn’t have any weight and many complained about Wayne’s performance. Now, I’m not generally that big of a Wayne fan myself, but I feel his work here is some of his best. His on-screen relationship with Pat Neal is one of my favorites in all of film. For her part, Neal was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. She’s really tremendous here and it’s worth watching the film just for her. Another stand out is Burgess Meredith. I forget sometimes just how great of an actor he really was. Kirk Douglas, for the most part, generally plays a good guy but here he plays, well, for lack of a better term, a scumbag. Yes, his character has a lot to deal with including a wandering wife (Barbara Buchet!), alcoholism, and whatever else is going on but he does something nearly two hours into the movie that shocked the shit out of me the first time I saw it. Later, he does try to redeem himself (at least Torrey doesn’t give him a medal) but really, too little too late.
The battle sequences are nicely done. They filmed a lot of the movie on actual ships belonging to the US Navy. In this case, I feel like Preminger didn’t really try to glamorize the war here, if anything, he shows how monotonous it can be. Torrey has to deal with all kinds of nonsense in trying to get his job done, whether it was interference from top brass or pettiness and jealously from his equals.
It never ceases to amaze me the absolute sacrifice and bravery the men and women of the United States military (and her allies) during World War II. Films like In Harm’s Way remind us just how amazing their sacrifice was and that we should never forget it.