It was one of the last black-and-white World War II epics, and the last black-and-white John Wayne film. It has had a mixed response over the years as a war film that had a simple story, a charge also leveled against Preminger's other later movies. The screenplay was written by Wendell Mayes, based on the 1962 novel Harm's Way, by James Bassett.
The film recounts the lives of several US naval officers and their wives or lovers while based in Hawaii as the US involvement in World War II begins. The title of the film comes from a quote from an American Revolutionary naval hero:
I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way.
The film presents a relatively unromantic and realistic picture of the American Navy and its officers from the night of December 6, 1941 through the first year of the US involvement in World War II, complete with bureaucratic infighting among the brass and sometimes disreputable private acts by individuals. Its sprawling narrative is typical of Preminger's works in which he examined institutions and the people who run them, such as the American Congress and the Presidency in Advise and Consent, the Catholic Church in The Cardinal and the British Intelligence Service in The Human Factor.
John Wayne stars as U.S. Navy Captain Rockwell "Rock" Torrey, a divorced "second generation Navy" son of a career Chief Petty Officer. A Naval Academy graduate and career officer, Torrey is removed from command of his heavy cruiser for "throwing away the book" when pursuing the enemy and then being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Torrey's executive officer, Commander (later Captain) Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), is a wayward sort who resigned as a naval aviator and returned to the surface navy because of an unhappy marriage. His wife's affairs and drunken escapades have become the talk of Honolulu and her death during the Pearl Harbor attack—in the company of an Army Air Corps Officer (Hugh O'Brian), with whom she had a wild fling on a local beach—drives Eddington into a bar brawl with a group of other Army Air Corps officers, a subsequent stint in the Pearl Harbor brig, then exile as the "... officer in charge of piers and warehouses ..." in what he calls a "backwater island purgatory."
After months of desk duty in Hawaii and recuperation from a broken arm he suffered in the attack, Torrey begins a romance with divorced Navy Nurse Corps lieutenant Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal), who tells him that his estranged son Jeremiah (Brandon De Wilde) is now an ensign in the Naval Reserve on active duty, assigned to a PT boat, and dating Maggie's roommate, a Nurse Corps ensign. A brief and strained visit with Jeremiah brings Torrey in on a South Pacific island-hopping offensive codenamed "Skyhook," which is under command of overly cautious Vice Admiral B.T. Broderick (Dana Andrews). On additional information from his BOQ roommate, Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), a thrice-divorced Hollywood film writer and Naval Reserve intelligence officer recalled to active duty, Torrey guesses that the aim of Skyhook is to capture a strategic island named Levu-Vana, whose central plain would make an ideal airfield site for Army Air Forces Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress squadrons. Maggie informs him that her unit is to be shipped out to the same area in preparation for the offensive.
Maggie's roommate, Ensign Annalee Dohrn (Jill Haworth), has been dating Torrey's son. Jere is arrogant and conspiring with a superior officer, former congressman Commander Neal Owynn (Patrick O'Neal), to do as little as possible in combat. Dohrn's romance with Jere ends and Eddington develops an interest in her. In the meantime, Torrey's loyal and resourceful young flag lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander William "Mac" McConnell (Tom Tryon), uses a 30-day leave to get reacquainted with wife Beverly (Paula Prentiss), a civilian observer for the Navy who worries that Mac will be killed in action and wants a child.
Come the summer of 1942, Torrey is promoted to rear admiral by the Pacific fleet's commander-in-chief (Henry Fonda), who then gives him tactical command of Skyhook, an assignment requiring the same sort of guts and gallantry he previously displayed as commanding officer of his cruiser. Torrey personally selects Paul Eddington to be his Chief of Staff, and infuriates Broderick by immediately planning and executing an operation to overrun Gavabutu, an island to be used as a staging base for the invasion of Levu-Vana. Owynn is now Broderick's aide, with Jere still by his side.
The Japanese have withdrawn their garrisons from Gavabutu, making it an easy capture. But as Torrey turns his undivided attention to Levu-Vana, his attempts to secure more material and manpower are frustrated by General Douglas MacArthur's simultaneous and much larger campaign in the Solomon Islands. Reconnaissance aircraft prove especially difficult to come by, and surface combatant forces amount to little more than several cruisers and destroyers, including Torrey's former command. When the mission succeeds, Jere recognizes the disloyalty of Owynn and Broderick and gains a new regard for his father.
Eddington's instability drives him to rape Dohrn, who is now engaged to Torrey's son. The traumatized nurse, fearing she might be pregnant, tries to tell him but he doesn't believe her. She then commits suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. As the truth is about to be revealed, Eddington—still a qualified aviator—commandeers a North American PBJ Mitchell patrol bomber and flies solo on an unauthorized reconnaissance flight to locate elements of the Japanese fleet. Engaged, shot and killed by Japanese Zero fighters, he goes down in a fiery death in a redeeming act of sacrifice, finding and giving advance warning of a large Japanese task force centered around the super-battleship Yamato, on its way to blast Torrey's much smaller force off the islands.
Despite the new seaborne threat, Torrey nevertheless mounts the invasion of Levu-Vana and proceeds with a nothing-to-be-lost attempt to turn back the enemy force. Tragically, his son Jere is killed during a nighttime PT boat action when he is rammed by a Japanese destroyer. The following morning sees a pitched surface action off the shores of Levu-Vana, with the Americans drawing first blood and the Yamato decimating much of the U.S. force in response. Many lives are lost, Powell's among them. Severely injured at the height of the battle, resulting in the amputation of his left leg, Torrey is rescued by his flag lieutenant, LCDR McConnell, and is returned to Pearl Harbor aboard a Navy hospital ship under Maggie's care. Expecting to be court-martialed, Torrey is instead congratulated by CINCPAC for successfully repelling the Japanese advance and allowing his Marines to take Levu-Vana. Although Torrey has lost a leg, he is told by CINCPAC he will get a peg leg and then command a task force and "stump his way to Tokyo" with the rest of the Allied forces. CINCPAC and McConnell leave Maggie and a drowsy Torrey. Maggie pulls the blinds which slightly surprises Torrey who calls out "Maggie!". She responds in a calming voice "I'll be here, Rock" and Torrey lapses into sleep. The last shot is of Maggie warmly smiling back at him.
(in Credits Order)Uncredited Cast
The character Commander Egan T. Powell, USNR, played by Burgess Meredith, is based on Commander (later Rear Admiral) Gene Markey, USNR.
Franchot Tone's character, "CINCPAC I", was based on Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, USN, the commander-in-chief Pacific during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Commander Burke, played by Carroll O'Connor, is based on Captain (later Admiral) Arleigh Burke.
Henry Fonda's character, "CINCPAC II", is based on Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN.
It has been speculated that Wayne's low-key performance was due to the fact that he was seriously ill with lung cancer when the film was made. Shortly after filming ended in September 1964, he was diagnosed with the disease and a month later underwent surgery to remove his entire left lung and two ribs. Co-star Franchot Tone was soon to develop lung cancer and died of the disease in September 1968.
Many of the non-military costumes and hairstyles worn by the women throughout the film were contemporary to the mid-1960s period during which the film was made, rather than of the early 1940s. This is particularly noticeable at the dance which opens the film. Many of the extras in this scene were, in fact, active duty officers and their spouses assigned to various commands in Oahu.
The film was shot in black-and-white by Loyal Griggs, who composed his scenes in a wide-screen Panavision format often using deep focus. Griggs was nominated for a Best Cinematographer Academy Award for his work. Jerry Goldsmith's musical score is also notable, as is the work of Saul Bass in the credit titles sequence (this sequence actually comes at the very end of the film, an interesting departure from the norm in a major Hollywood production at the time).
The film received extensive cooperation from the Department of Defense, especially the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. One of many problems encountered during production was that at the time of the filming (late 1963–1964), very few ships in active Navy service resembled their World War II configuration. Only one WW II vintage heavy cruiser; the USS Saint Paul (CA-73) still retained most of her wartime configuration (and as a result she stood in for a couple of unnamed cruisers during the movie), and an accompanying destroyer, USS Philip (DD-498), that took on the role of USS Cassiday were extensively filmed on. Other U.S. Navy ships that participated included the cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) (though only the forward 2/3's of the ship could be shown as she had missiles aft), destroyers USS Braine (DD-630), USS O'Bannon (DD-450), USS Renshaw (DD-499), USS Walker (DD-517), submarine USS Capitaine (SS-336) and the attack transport USS Renville (APA-227). All of the destroyers had to have their modern (1960s) ASW gear covered over with fake gun-mounts or deck houses. Additional smaller vessels were provided in support, as well as an HU-16 Albatross amphibious aircraft, even though said aircraft did not enter the U.S. inventory until 1949. The HU-16 likely substitutes for a PBY Catalina, of which no flyable examples were likely available for the film schedule.
Another anachronism is the widespread use of the M151 light utility vehicle as a World War II jeep instead of the World War II-era Willys MB and/or Ford GPW, the M151 having not even entered production until 1959. Also used were a few 1950s vintage 63 ft U.S. Coast Guard rescue launches that were made over to resemble Elco 80 ft torpedo boats, as the few that existed were not available for use.
In Harm's Way was nominated for the 1965 Academy Award for Cinematography (Black-and-White) for cinematographer Loyal Griggs. It was also screened at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition.
Patricia Neal received a 1966 BAFTA Film Award as Best Foreign Actress for her performance in the film.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times panned the film, observing, "This is a slick and shallow picture that Mr. Preminger puts forth here, a straight, cliché-crowded melodrama of naval action in the Pacific in World War II ..." and characterized it as "a film that is virtually awash with flimsy and flamboyant fellows with all the tricks of the trade of Hollywood."