Saturday, September 22, 2018

BOOK / MOVIE: In Harm’s Way (1965)




                “In Harm’s Way” is a WWII naval combat film based on the book “Harm’s Way” by James Bassett.  It was directed by Otto Preminger.  He envisioned it as a pro-Navy film and the Navy must have agreed because it gave extensive cooperation including allowing filming at Pearl Harbor.  The Navy also provided ships.  Wayne’s cruiser was played by the U.S.S. St. Paul.  However, the main battle was done with models.  It was the last war epic in black and white and John Wayne’s last black and white film.  He was diagnosed with lung cancer after the picture was finished and was coughing up blood during the shoot.  This did not prevent him from sticking with his six pack a day habit.  The title comes from the John Paul Jones quote:  “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast , for I intend to go in harm’s way.”  The movie received an Academy Award nomination for Cinematography.

                The movie covers the period from the attack on Pearl Harbor through early successes in the first year of the war in the Pacific.  Capt. Torrey (Wayne) is on duty off Hawaii when the attack occurs.  His heavy cruiser, called “Old Swayback”, is joined by the destroyer U.S.S. Cassidy, which managed to exit the harbor during the attack.  Old Swayback gets torpedoed and has to be towed back to Pearl.  Torrey’s career is on hold because of this, which allows the soap opera plot to develop without combat interfering.  There are three interlocking arcs.  Torrey courts an age-appropriate nurse named Maggie (Patricia O’Neal).  He is reunited with his son Jere (Brandon DeWilde) who is in PT-boats.  They are estranged because like in most American war movies, Torrey has chosen his career over his family.  Torrey’s exec Eddington (Kirk Douglas) loses his adulterous wife in the attack and he is now a bitter alcoholic, but still trusted by Torrey.  He gets involved with Jere’s fiancé, nurse Annalee (Jill Haworth).  Eventually, Torrey is restored to active duty and oversees the capturing of a Japanese-held island and then a campaign to attack another one.  This culminates in a huge battle with plenty of explosions.

                The soap opera aspects of the plot are reminiscent of “From Here to Eternity” and that was probably purposeful, although it does reflect the book’s plot.  The movie begins with a naval wife having an affair, but in this case, she gets what she deserves.  The movie is classified as a Pearl Harbor movie, but it only uses the attack as a jumping off point.  There is little of the attack in the film.  Heck, the main character is not even at Pearl at the time.  The film could have been the rare look at Navy actions in the first year of the war, but it is only a cursory history lesson and all of the islands are fictional.  The plot interweaves the subplots, but only the Torrey and Eddington characters really get satisfactory coverage.  This is not surprising considering the star power of Wayne and Douglas.  Both are fine in their roles.  Wayne does not stretch and plays Torrey as stoical and imperturbable.  His romance with O’Neal is tepid, but realistic.  Douglas has more fun as the caddish Eddington.  You could see him playing Torrey, but there is no way Wayne could (or would) have played Eddington.  Eddington gets to roller coaster from alcoholic has-been to trusted adviser to rapist to kamikaze redemption.  Whereas, with Torrey, it’s smooth sailing.  There is a shallow subplot involving a scheming politician/officer named Owynn (slimily played by Patrick O’Neal) and his incompetent admiral/mentor, but it is dropped when everyone realizes you don’t get the better of John Wayne. 

                The cast is minor league all-star.  O’Neal is perfectly cast as Maggie.  Tom Tryon plays the destroyer captain and has a few romantic interludes with his wife played by Paula Prentiss.  Although Wayne and Patricia O’Neal got along well with each other (after a rocky time on “Operation Pacific”) and they both liked working with the dictatorial director Preminger, Douglas had to get in Otto’s face and counseled the much-maligned Tryon to do likewise.  Unfortunately, Tryon (who had been tormented during the filming of “The Cardinal”) refused to stand up for himself and it got so bad that he retired from acting.  Henry Fonda warms up for his role in “Midway” by playing CINCPAC.

                All the drama would be worth it if the combat paid off, but it’s all saved for the finale (in a 2:45 movie).  When Torrey and crew get sent to Gavabutu to end the stalemate there, you expect some land combat, but instead it is all about the plan and little about the execution.  The final naval battle probably wowed audiences in the 60’s (before modern war films kicked in), but the models are obvious.  Not a single Japanese soldier or sailor appears in the movie.  Bizarrely, little effort is made to distinguish between the two fleets and you can’t tell who is who.  I have to give it credit for trying to  show the mayhem that can occur in a surface battle in the Pacific.  Considering the odds Torrey faces, the outcome is realistic.

                SPOILER ALERT:  How does it compare to the book?  Right off the bat, the movie gets credit for improving on the title.  After the title card, the script is amazingly similar to the book.  Wendell Mayes did not get very creative other than to consolidate some scenes for time purposes.  Much of his dialogue is from the book, but unfortunately, he does not use enough of it.  This is especially true in the Torrey/Maggie courtship.  O’Neal is let down by Mayes.  Maggie is a fascinating character that is exceptional in this type of film.  She is older and much plainer than cinematic nurses usually are.  Her banter with Torrey is filled with snark.  Their relationship is mature.  The problem is Wayne undoubtedly refused to play a lovestruck and shy divorcee.  The relationship is a highlight of the book, but Wayne had to be Wayne.

                The movie makes some minor changes for the better.  In the book, Torrey goes to meet Jere for the first time in years and oddly, Jere is not cold toward him and is enthused about being in PTs.  The estrangement and coldness of the relationship in the movie makes more sense, but then Mayes has Jere remarking about not wanting to go in harm’s way and enlisting to get a leg up for his future career.  He becomes a toady for Owynn in the movie and then changes on a dime.  The movie follows the book as far as Gavabutu is concerned, which is a shame because Bassett disappointingly has the whole secret, daring plan being anti-climactic because the Japanese were withdrawing anyway.  The final battle in the movie is substantially simplified.  In the book, there are actually two battles since there are two Japanese fleets.  The first is what the movie depicts and it’s fairly close.  However, in the book, Torrey is in the second battle.  This is also where the Yamato is.  This battle includes three baby carriers and their torpedo bombers, but no PT-boats.  The pummeling Torrey’s fleet takes is realistic, but could not be portrayed in a 1960s movie.  The same characters die and in similar ways.  Torrey ends up on the hospital ship with Maggie.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The book was not meant to be accurate.  It does not even claim to be “based on a true story”.  There was a destroyer that escaped from Pearl Harbor during the attack.  But the captain of the USS Alywin did not come as close to getting on board as the USS Cassidy’s.  Old Swayback is based on USS Salt Lake City which was away at the time of the attack as part of the USS Enterprise task force returning from Wake Island.  The force did sortie from Pearl to search for the Japanese fleet and did encounter submarines, but the Salt Lake City was not hit.  Gavabutu is vaguely reminiscent of Guadalcanal.  There were paramarines in the Pacific, but there were no parachute drops.  The final two battles are clearly based on the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.  The first is based on the Battle of Surigao Strait.  This was the battle where an American fleet of old battleships “crossed the T” on a Japanese fleet heading for the invasion fleet off Leyte in the Philippines.  The second is based on the Battle off Samar.  In this case, a powerful Japanese fleet led by the Yamato surprised a ragtag American fleet based on escort carriers.  The carriers’ planes and the destroyers and escort destroyers (there were no cruisers) put up an amazing fight, but took losses similar to the book.  Unbelievably, the Japanese (including the Yamato) did snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and turned away when they had clearly won.

CONCLUSION:  Those who read this blog might recall that I have a belief that movies based on novels should be better than the novel.  In this case, Wendell Mayes had a best-selling novel to adapt.  He could take that foundation and improved on it.  In some ways he did, the Eddington arc makes more sense.  Torrey’s awkward relationship with his son is an improvement.  However, overall the book is better than the movie.  This is particularly true of the romance between Torrey and Maggie.  It is a welcome change from the usual.  The Torrey of the book is no ladies man and in fact, is shy and awkward around women.  He is embarrassingly lovestruck at times.  He’s not John Wayne.  Maggie is even more fascinating.  She’s a feisty old maid.  The banter between them always has her leading.  Patricia O’Neal was shortchanged when most of this dialogue was eliminated.  The movie invents the collusion between Jere and Owynn and that is a misstep.  The main superiority of the novel is the final battle.  Bassett does an outstanding job setting it up and then depicting the pure chaos of modern warships battering each other.  As the book points out, it’s not like you can run away or even surrender.  Once superior warships with bigger guns and longer range zero in on you, you are royally fucked.   A 1965 war movie did not have the ability to recreate that scenario.

                I had enjoyed the movie when I was a kid and then we I rewatched it for this blog a few years ago, I turned full circle and gave it a scathing review.  This recent viewing, paired with reading the novel, has boosted my appreciation of the film.  The book is good and the movie is faithful in screening it.  It’s still not a very good movie, but it is hard to do naval war movies well.

GRADES:  Book  =  B
                                            Movie  =  C 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE #38


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

3.  What movie is this?

It is a war movie that is set in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It takes place in Honolulu.  It was directed by Fred Zinnemann and was based on the famous novel by James Jones.  It was released in 1953 and is black and white.  The movie was a huge hit and is still very popular.  It won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay, Sound, Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Supporting Actress (Donah Reed).  Lancaster and Clift were nominated for Best Actor but their split votes helped William Holden win for “Stalag 17”.  Kerr was nominated for Best Actress.  Sinatra’s win was the culmination of a campaign by him to get the role.  Apparently the myth of Mafia involvement (the basis for a subplot in “The Godfather”) is not true.  He got the role through persistence and help from his wife Ava Gardner who was friends with the studio head.  He accepted a salary of only $8,000.  The movie was filmed on location at Schofield Barracks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

CRACKER? The Naked and the Dead (1958)




                “The Naked and the Dead” is the film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s bestseller.  Mailer served in the Philippines in WWII and his experiences inspired a 721 page novel.  Many thought a novel of that size could not be brought to the screen at a reasonable running time.  But you know Hollywood was willing to try.  Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the novel for the astronomical sum of $250,000.  Raoul Walsh (“They Did With Their Boots On”) was assigned to direct.  Screenwriters Denis and Terry Sanders adapted the book and took out all the four-letter words and added “tits” (as studio head Jack Warner demanded) in the form of a strip tease.  The Jewish character Roth was downplayed.  Some of the deaths were altered.  Mailer’s themes of abuse of power and the ideological conflicts in warfare were downplayed.

                The movie jumps the shark immediately with the bar scene.  It starts promisingly with the appearances of Richard Jaekel (Gallagher) and L.Q. Jones (Woody) and the top-billed Aldo Ray (Sgt. Croft).  In case you are wondering if Ray will be stretching, Croft spits beer in the face of a woman.  (Later, he bites the cap off a beer bottle and kills a baby bird.)  Beware that before the strip teaser can truly tease, the MPs break it up.  Boo!  Why was this added?  To frustrate the males in the audience?

                Headlines on newspapers are used for background on the war situation.  Incredibly, two of them are:  “New Guinea Falls” and “Coral Sea Battle Disastrous”!  Christ, the movie was made in 1958.  Had people forgotten the basics by then?  Croft and his charges are below deck off an unidentified Pacific Island.  We get cursory soldier banter and behavior.  No cursing, of course.  The beach landing is the opposite of “Saving Private Ryan”.  They move inland.  Croft scouts ahead and spots a mortar.  He returns and leads the men forward without bothering to tell them!  Croft murders a prisoner even after looking at a picture of his family and is about to kill a bunch more when the bleeding-heart Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson) arrives.  Damned liberal!  He doesn’t stop Croft from taking gold teeth, however.  In his defense, he does not have an ear necklace.  After five minutes of combat, the unit is pulled back to a camp (they already have a camp?).  We are introduced to the third leg of our character tripod.  Gen. Cummings (Raymond Massey) is a tough-love type who sides with the Croft types over the Hearns.  Hatred makes men fight harder.  If so, Croft is great leader and Hearn is naïve.
               
                The movie settles into a pattern of combat scenes (which are not as often as you would think because they are an intelligence and recon platoon that is not used much), camp life (e.g. building a still), discussions between Hearn and Cummings, and flashbacks to explain Croft and Hearn.  This leads to the big mission to go behind enemy lines and set up an observation post.  And to get some of them killed.  And to play out the command dysfunction between Croft and Hearn.  The mission is rife with head-scratching moments.  Don’t expect any semblance of realistic tactics. I would think an intelligence and recon unit would be more competent.  Veterans must have chuckled.

                This is a weird movie.  The message is murky.  For instance, Cummings is supposed to represent the tendency toward fascism in higher command, but he comes off as insane.  He explains that we fight wars because countries have “latent powers” and they may be our allies in the future.  Power flows downward.  Huh?  Neither of the command conflicts (Hearn/Croft and Hearn/Cummings) works well.  The characterizations are too stereotypical.  Croft is actually more realistic about the war than Hearn and Cummings, but his character is just too bonkers for this to stand out.  The movie certainly gives us and his men ample reason to hate him.  The acting is average, by an average cast.  The script does them no favors.  The banter sounds like it was written by a nonveteran.  I do not know how much was pulled from the book, but I assume not much.  It hurt that the bad language was omitted and thankfully the four-letter words were not substituted for (no “loving” like in “A Walk in the Sun”).  The actors do not behave like soldiers.  No boot  camp for them.  Apparently, no technical adviser, either.  Hearn carries a carbine, a private carries a Thompson.  The combat is underwhelming.

                “The Naked and the Dead” is a disservice to the novel, but more importantly, it is a disservice to the men who fought in the Pacific.  Even worse, it is inferior to the similar  “The Thin Red Line”.  It’s good for some unintended laughs.  At least its not predictable.  Except that it will leave you shaking your head a lot.

GRADE  =  D

Saturday, September 8, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? Talvisota (The Winter War) (1989)



       “Talvisota” is a Finnish movie set in the Winter War with the Soviet army in 1938-39.  It was released in the 50th Anniversary of the war.  It was the most expensive movie ever made in Finland.  The movie was directed by Pekka Parikka and was based on a novel by Antti Tuura.  It is “dedicated to the Finns in the Winter War” and they certainly deserved a movie.  The fight the Finnish army put up against the Red Army when it invaded Finland is legendary.

                The film begins on October 13, 1939.  Two brothers named Martti and Paavo (played by brothers Taneli and Konsta Makela) are called up.  They go off to war in a horse and buggy.  They lack uniforms, but the soldiers of their reserve platoon are naïve and optimistic. They are also smack in the fog of war as they have little knowledge of the big picture.  “In war, you never know, you just go where they tell you.”  Their unit is tasked with defending a trench line.  The movie is from the “last stand” subgenre and soon the men are being whittled down.  They come under artillery barrage and attacks from fighters and bombers.  Later, Russian tanks assault them.  This goes on for months.  Paavo and Martti each get to go home so we can learn that the home front is as clueless as it was in “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  Speaking of which, the scenes at the front are similar in vibe to that classic film.  So is the mortality rate of the platoon.

                “Talvisota” is a disappointing movie.  The soldiers that defended Finland so valiantly and against such heavy odds deserved better.  I mentioned it is similar in plot to “All Quiet” but it is certainly not in a league with that movie.  Both movies concentrate on a small group of soldiers.  “Talvisota” does not really develop these men very well.  It is sometimes hard to tell who is who.  The acting is good, especially by Taneli Makela.  The rest of the cast is not really given the chance to shine because there is no dysfunction in the platoon.  Even the officers, with one villainous exception, are nice guys.  I know you are trying to honor the soldiers, but it’s a bit boring in that respect.  The enemy is faceless so we have no Russian perspective.

 The strength of the movie is in its combat.  It has both quantity and quality.  The bombardments are well-done, if unrealistically accurate at times.  There is some visceral and graphic hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches of the modern “Saving Private Ryan” style.  The vehicles and weaponry are either original or excellent replicas.  The producers got hold of some authentic Soviet T-26 tanks.  The trenches and dugouts are true to the war and the soldier behavior is natural.  At first, the deaths are refreshingly random, but after the first few surprises, it becomes obvious who is doomed next.  There is a “who will survive?” theme to the film.  Answer:  not many.

GRADE  =  C