‘In Harm’s Way’ – John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in the WWII Pacific, free on Kanopy

Otto Preminger’s sprawling World War II drama In Harm’s Way (1965) packs a lot in its 165 minutes, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor (which Preminger recreates in amazing detail) and ending a couple of years later with America’s return to the South Pacific in force.

John Wayne and Kirk Douglas star as a career naval Captain Rock and his self-pitying Commander Eddington in the peacetime navy in 1941 Hawaii. They are thrust into battle when Pearl Harbor is bombed while they are on maneuvers, but minutes into the declaration of war they are already scapegoated and demoted by the embarrassed military brass. Rock romances a WAVE nurse (Patricia Neal) and attempts a reconciliation with his estranged, spoiled son (Brandon De Wilde). Eddington sinks into the bottle after the death of his cheating wife until the American fleet rebuilds and gives him a mission when Rock leads one of the initial invasion forces.

Preminger is a master at organizing huge casts and busy scripts, sacrificing the expected rousing battle thrills for a detailed but removed look at the complexities (physical, emotional, and political) involved in launching a battle campaign. The script veers to melodrama a few times, but Preminger’s cool restraint, helped by Loyal Griggs’ handsome, B&W widescreen photography, keeps the film in check. Saul Bass’ impressive closing credits sequence, a rising cascade of crashing waves and rough surf reportedly paced to mirror the dramatic rhythm of the film, it’s a veritable short abstract film in its own right that transforms the power unleashed in the stormy sea into elemental drama.

Henry Fonda makes a brief but commanding appearance as the fleet Admiral but more fun is Burgess Meredith as a former writer turned witty Commander. It costars Dana Andrews as a showy but indecisive Admiral, Stanley Holloway as a genial Australian scout working with the American invasion forces, Tom Tryon and Paula Prentiss as newlyweds torn apart by the war, Franchot Tone, Carroll O’Conner, Slim Pickens, George Kennedy, Bruce Cabot, and Larry Hagman, among many, many more.

It earned an Oscar nomination for Loyal Griggs’ impressive cinematography and Patricia Neal won a BAFTA for her performance.

Streams free for a limited time on Kanopy

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
In Harm’s Way [Blu-ray]
In Harm’s Way [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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