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In Harm's Way
Reviewer: Richard Tara
Director: Otto Preminger
Cast" John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss

A great classic movie by Otto Preminger. Real people, locations and events are partially fictionalized in this movie.

The Story

The movie starts a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It centers around the main character, a Captain Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne) and people associated with him during a critical period of the Second World War. Torrey comes from a long line of Navy officers and as the movie opens he is a destroyer commander and has an easy life in Honolulu sharing a house with his friend, a commander Powell (Burgess Meredith), who is a Hollywood screenwriter and has been called to active duty as an intelligence officer. Torrey discovers that his estranged son, Jeremiah (Brandon de Wilde), has joined the Navy and is stationed in Honolulu. The ensuing meeting between father and son makes them dislike each other even more.

Then there is Commander Paul Eddington, Captain Torrey's executive officer, married to a floozy who openly flaunts herself with other men, while her husband is not looking! Torrey's love interest is Maggie Haines (Patricia Neal) an aging Nurse who is looking for her last chance at a true romance and tries to get her hooks into him.

There are other actors in this plot! Neal Owynn (Patrick O'Neal) is a wily ex-congressman who has joined the Navy to advance his career and has selected Torrey's impressionable young son Jeremiah as his stooge. Admiral Husband Kimmel as the unfortunate commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet during those dangerous days is played by the veteran actor Franchot Tone.

The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and sink a multitude of Battleships, cruisers and other sea going craft. Just before the attack, Captain Torrey, who is aboard his destroyer, discovers a submarine in shallow waters off Honolulu and manages to sink it. However, one of the US ships is torpedoed during this episode and, on account of that incident; Torrey is almost court-martialed and given a desk job. Paul Eddington's unfaithful wife is killed in the air raid in the company of another man.

A new commander in chief, Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda) takes over in Hawaii and decides to go on the offensive against the Japanese. He selects the Japanese held Island of Gavabutu. However, his plans are thwarted because Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews) who is in charge of the invasion is over-cautious and not aggressive enough to push the Japanese off the island. At Commander Powell's prompting, Nimitz promotes Captain Torrey to a rear admiral and sends him on his way as the tactical commander of the invasion operation with a mandate to ignore Admiral Broderick, who is technically his superior officer, and take the island at all costs.

Torrey take charge and recalls Eddington from a French controlled South Seas base where he is leading a carefree life as a supplies officer, and assigns him as his Chief of Staff. Torrey, end runs Vice Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews) and his snake-in-the grass aide, ex-congressman Owynn, who in cahoots with Torrey's son, is always snooping and reporting on Torrey, and completes the invasion of the Island.

The embittered Eddington goes on a date with Torrey's fiancé, Amalee Dohrn (Jill Haworth), who is a Navy nurse and rapes her. Unable to face betrayal and her violation, she commits suicide. The last part of the movie is about a great sea battle. Eddington, full of remorse, goes on a scouting mission and is shot down by the Japanese. Torrey's son, who is part of a PT boat crew, is killed in action. Torrey's close friend, commander Powell is also slain during the battle and Torrey is badly injured, only to wake up to the smiling eyes of Nurse Maggie Haines.

Direction, Acting and Cinematography

There has been speculation about who the fictitious characters were based on. We don't know who James Bassett the author of the Novel had in mind. Nimitz, Roosevelt and Admiral Kimmel are real. As a historian, I think Torrey's character could be a combination of three admirals; Raymond Spruance, Norman Scott and a bit of Admiral Halsey. At critical times, they were catapulted above more senior officers and won the respective battles of Midway and Cape Esperance. Admiral Broderick on the other hand could be based on the do-nothing Admiral Ghormley, nice guy Admiral Callaghan and Frank Fletcher, who were over-cautious and non-aggressive with disastrous results.

Otto Preminger was one of the groups of central and eastern European Jews who were brought to Hollywood during the 1920's and 1930's. He started life as an actor and after several run-ins with Daryl Zanuck, the head of Fox Studios, eventually made his mark as a great director. He broke ground on taboo subjects. Homosexuality (Advice and Consent), rape (Anatomy of a Murder), illicit sex (The Moon is Blue) and drug use (The Man with a Golden Arm.) Some of his other great movies were Laura, Carmen Jones and Exodus. He usually produced and directed his own movies when he could.

Preminger did not like to shoot in color. It could have been because he was color defective. In 1965, color stocks were so inexpensive that even cheapo Italian Westerns were filmed in color. Otto Preminger chose Black and White for the stark realism and contrast that it provided. In fact, most his great films were shot in black and white. This is unfortunate because black and white movies are seldom shown on TV and whole generations of movie watchers have been denied the opportunity to enjoy his wonderful works, except on channels like the TCM Network. For this movie, he selected Loyal Griggs as the cinematographer. Loyal was an expert in handling lights and shadows and depicting the deep contrast between them. The cinematography was so expertly handled that Loyal Griggs was nominated for the Academy Awards.

Acting came easy to Henry Fonda. He did not need directions and fell into any role with ease, in a way like Laurence Olivier. John Wayne played himself, as usual. He is great in most of the movies made after the 1940's, but he seems to portray the same tough outstanding non-corruptible character. Kirk Douglass, on the other hand has been a man of many characters and we have always enjoyed watching his movies. As for the rest of characters, Maggie Haines the nurse and John Wayne's love interest could have been played by any middle-aged actress. I have always found Paula Prentiss who plays a distraught Navy wife sensual, but she is really peripheral to the story as are the other actors.


This is a marvelous four star movie and a must see!