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A Nice White War Movie

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Where were you when Adlai Stevenson died? It was the summer of ’65, and I was sitting in a dark movie theater in Plattsburgh, New York with some cousins, and we were watching a very long, complicated, black-and-white war movie called In Harm’s Way.

In Harm’s Way was way over my head. It was an Otto Preminger production, thus by 1965 standards it was racier than the average fare, chuggy-jam full of intricate subplots about rape, adultery, class-envy, and other grown-up business that left me cold.

(And did I mention it was in black-and-white? I think I did. Up until about 1967 that was how filmmakers differentiated movies for old people from musicals and kiddie fare.)

“Not really a war picture.”

Superficially In Harm’s Way is another World War II movie with John Wayne and an all-star cast, set in the South Pacific. But the war setting is just stage drapery, background and pretext. No attempt is made to make us think we’re really looking at the early 1940s. The women wear sheath dresses and flip hairdos straight out of 1964. There are some sea engagements with battleships and destroyers, but they’re pretty perfunctory too, done with rowboat-size miniatures that still occasion great hilarity among critics.

“It is not really a war picture,” said Preminger when it opened at Cannes.[1]  Neither is it an “action flick.” But it does have a great, if sometimes goofy, script. The characters know how to talk. Oh boy do they talk. Talk talk talk. As in a soap opera. Or a series for Masterpiece Theatre. As more than one critic has pointed out, In Harm’s Way often resembles a television miniseries that’s been squeezed into three hours of screen time.[2][3]

The film was not my cup of tea back in ’65, my tastes running more to Walt Disney offerings with Hayley Mills. Nor did it please the critics much. “A slick and shallow picture,” Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote; “a straight, cliché-crowded melodrama.”[4]

“He raped her, Rock!” Patricia Neal and John Wayne in In Harm’s Way

“He raped her, Rock!”
Patricia Neal and John Wayne in
In Harm’s Way

It came out the same season as Cat Ballou, Darling, and the Beatles’ Help!, and did not stick in the public memory. Today I ask people in their 50s and 60s if they know the film. Not a chance; not unless they’ve recently happened across it on Turner Classic Movies. Meantime, I’ve seen it twenty or thirty times, and have considerably revised my original estimate. I consider it one of my favorite films, one of the great unappreciated masterpieces of the 1960s.

Surpassing whiteness

Today one of the most pleasurable aspects of the film is its surpassing whiteness. Apart from some Hawaiians and Orientals on Oahu, and maybe a black mess-boy in a shipboard shot, all the characters in the film are white; and not merely “Caucasian” but honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon-Celtic high-caste officers-club white.

So are most of the actors. Kirk Douglas is Jewish of course (he underacts for a change, and is superb); and the gorgeous Paula Prentiss has some Sicilian blood. But that’s as exotic as we get.

There is no miscegenation. No half-breed children out of South Pacific or Mutiny on Bounty, no smarmy pleas for racial tolerance. The script has lots of lust and license, but, apart from some whorehouse R&R, it all takes place between people who are ethnically cognate. As in some small-town bourgeois drama out of John O’Hara, this gives us freedom to follow intricate subplots about class envy and infidelity, without crude distractions about race and ethnicity.

The leitmotif of wholesome white Americanness is struck in the opening scene, a soigné dinner-dance by a swimming pool at the naval officers’ club. A sign informs us it’s the evening of December 6, 1941. Past the ice-cream-white uniforms of the officers and their ex-deb consorts, the camera leads us to the very beautiful, very drunk, young Liz Eddington (Barbara Bouchet) whose husband (that would be Kirk Douglas) is nowhere in the vicinity. Dressed in a slinky white sheath, Liz dances lewdly against a torch-pole, then runs off with an Army Air Corps officer (Hugh O’Brian) to make love in the sand. She gets killed the next morning when the Japs strafe the beach. No tragedy here—Liz is a just a socialite slut. But her death spins a few subplots into motion.

LIFE 1941 The America we were promised.

LIFE 1941
The America we were promised.

That set-piece opening at the officers’ club presents the same stylish Americana that you might see in the Life magazine of the 1940s or 50s—the country we were promised, and up until about the time this film was released in 1965, pretty much still had. The film never strays from that vision or betrays our trust.

Mr. Roosevelt’s Trumped-Up War

Extraordinary as it sounds, the script says nothing whatever about the war in Europe, or Nazis or Soviets. Or Jews. This is purely a film about Americans in the Pacific, fighting the Nips. And even that conflict is of doubtful virtue. Fresh Harvard boy Brandon de Wilde taunts his father by referring to it as “Mr. Roosevelt’s trumped-up war.”

Japanese themselves are almost an afterthought. They are glimpsed only once, in a long shot, to the accompaniment of “Oriental” music. That’s in a comical scene in which Stanley Holloway, as an Australian planter and doughty spy, sits in a tree and makes notes on a Jap encampment.

So if In Harm’s Way is not really about the Second World War, or an advertisement for race-mixing and cultural Marxism, what exactly is it about? Well, it’s about sex, snobbism, and political opportunism. There are two main plot threads. One concerns Paul Eddington (that’s Kirk Douglas), an unstable drunk and cuckold who’s always on the verge of getting cashiered. Deep into the film, he rapes a young, virginal navy nurse (Jill Haworth), who then kills herself out of shame. To make amends, Eddington himself then commits suicide while attempting a kamikaze run into a Japanese battleship.

Eddington’s friend and protector Admiral Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne) is the main reason Eddington hasn’t been kicked out of the service. Rock Torrey is no stranger to marital distress, having been dumped by his Boston Brahmin wife Athalie 20 years earlier. The wife’s family expected him to settle down on and work for the family investment firm, but Rock wouldn’t give up the Navy. Rock and Athalie had a son, Jere, but Rock hasn’t seen him in twenty years. Now the son turns up, a little blond punk ensign fresh out of Harvard (Brandon de Wilde). There is a delightful, chilly unease when father and son finally meet. (“Hello Jere. You . . . look like your mother.”)

Jere Torrey is an unlikable snotball who’s attached himself to a whole team of politically opportunistic snotballs, including vain ex-congressman Neal Owynn (Patrick O’Neal) and cowardly careerist Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews). Owynn and Broderick play croquet on the lawn of their ack-ack defended HQ while discussing how they’ll manipulate press coverage.

Jill Haworth and Brandon de Wilde

Jill Haworth and Brandon de Wilde

Jere eventually breaks with them and learns to worship his father, right about the time that his navy-nurse fiancée commits suicide (this is the one who’s been raped by the Kirk Douglas character). So Jere goes off into sea battle and gets himself killed. The only main characters to survive in the film are John Wayne’s Rock Torrey (who nevertheless loses a leg) and his inamorata, a witty, hard-bitten navy nurse named Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal, fresh from her role as the witty, hard-bitten housekeeper in Hud).

Bosley Crowther in the New York Times did some head-scratching over the scene where Eddington (Kirk Douglas) rapes Annalee (Jill Haworth) on the beach.[5] The rape may just be Otto Preminger’s inside joke about Hollywood’s most legendary rapist. According to lore, Kirk Douglas once had his way with the virginal 15-year-old Natalie Wood.[6] The innuendo parallels Preminger’s lewd backstory for the Sal Mineo character in Exodus, who turns out to have received special privileges in Auschwitz in return for being someone’s bitch.

The supporting cast is a Hollywood wax museum of movie old-timers and upcoming television stars, including Bruce Cabot (of the King Kong movies), Burgess Meredith, Larry Hagman, Carroll O’Connor, Slim Pickens, George Kennedy, Tom Tryon, and the aforementioned Dana Andrews, Paula Prentiss, and Henry Fonda. 1930s star Franchot Tone plays Adm. Husband Kimmel. While he is chronologically the right age (59), Tone is here dying of cancer and looks older, with some kind of Bell’s Palsy that’s making the left side of his forehead slide down over his eye.

One reason why the film comes across better today than it did in 1965 may be that it no longer looks like a TV show. In the 1960s most programming was still in black-and-white—CBS didn’t introduce color till the Fall 1965 season—and prime-time was cluttered with nautical sitcoms (Hennesey, Ensign O’Toole, McHale’s Navy, Broadside, Mister Roberts, et al.). Against that background, In Harm’s Way seemed to be cut from the same cloth, only much, much too long.

Visually it is un-cinematic and undistinguished. Most Navy feature films make extensive use of lordly seascapes and grand convoys, but this one is mainly shot on a soundstage with models in a special-effects tub.

The sophisticated dialogue sometimes seems just a little too ironic or self-parodying for the circumstances. Explaining Annalee’s suicide, Patricia Neal gasps, “He raped her, Rock!” Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Kirk Douglas as Eddington grins and goes, “Old Rock of Ages, we’ve got ourselves another war! A gut bustin’, mother-lovin’ Navy war!”

*   *   *

So I saw this film the first time in a small-town Upstate movie house, and then emerged after three hours into the too-bright afternoon light of July 14, 1965. My aunt was right there, waiting to pick us up in her sky-blue 1963 Cadillac.

The first thing she told us, as we slammed the doors and the blast of frigid A/C hit us, was that Adlai Stevenson had died. Just now. In London. He keeled over, smacked his head on the pavement—went just like that. The news had just come over the radio. Biggest news since the Kennedy Assassination.

“And how was the movie?” my aunt asked me. I was sitting shotgun.

“Oh it was great,” I lied.

“Oh terrific. I thought it would be, because I saw it was an Otto Preminger movie. Too bad about Adlai Stevenson, though.”


1. Foster Hirsch, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would be King. 2007.

2. From Rotten Tomatoes: “In Harm’s Way, based on James Bassett’s novel Harm’s Way, has enough plot in it for four movies or a good miniseries (when it was shown on network television in prime time, it was broken into two very full nights).”

3. The 1962 novel, authored by Admiral Halsey’s wartime press officer, combines the ring of authenticity with the clunk of amateurish prose: “Thoughtfully, he wiped the last trace of soap from behind his rather generous ears.”

4. Bosley Crowther, NY Times, April 7, 1965.

5. Crowther, ibid. “What isn’t explained is why this fellow suddenly rapes the virginal nurse… Wendell Mayes, who wrote the script from the stalwart novel of James Bassett, has neglected to motivate … lots of things.”

6. Suzanne Finstad, Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, 2001.

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One Comment

  1. R_Moreland
    Posted September 13, 2015 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    After seeing In Harm’s Way some years back, I found a copy of James Bassett’s novel in a second hand bookstore and read it. I still watch a battered VHS tape of the film every couple years. If nothing else, it’s a different role for John Wayne, one which is more cerebral. His Captain/Admiral Torrey not an action hero but a strategic naval planner, a mastermind as it were, perhaps the type of leader needed by the White World these decadent days.

    And yes, the movie does show that White World. There’s a real dynamic there, where White people can play out there passions and their intellects freely. There’s no ballast of having to work through racial “problems.” There’s no hallelujah moment when everyone in the rifle squad or B-17 crew realizes that people of all colors can work together. Since everyone was White from the get-go, it was not an issue in the first place.

    I noticed a similar thing on a second viewing of Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line. You put a bunch of White guys on a jungle island and up against a cunning enemy…and stuff happens! There’s a real dynamic, even if only played out by actors. They win the battle both physical and spiritual.

    (Thin Red Line is an underrated movie, to some degree because it is compared with Saving Private Ryan which appeared around the same time. It’s an ode to the struggle of man against man and his inner self, and nature against all.)

    You see this pattern in other “Whites Only” movies. There’s Public Enemies, where the good guys and bad guys are all White. Regardless if at the end of the film the G-Men or gangsters win, it’s still a White country.

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