“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