In Harm’s Way

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

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 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kirk Douglas portrays Torrey’s executive officer, Commander (later Captain) Paul Eddington, a wayward sort of career officer who has resigned as a Naval Aviator and returned to the Surface Navy because of an unhappy marriage. His wife’s numerous “love” 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 just 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, and exile as the “…officer in charge of piers and warehouses…” in what he calls a “backwater island purgatory.”

After several months of desk duty ashore in Hawaii and recuperation from a broken arm he suffered in the attack on his cruiser, Torrey finds his way into a romance with a divorced Navy Nurse Corps Lieutenant named 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 the overly cautious and micro-managing 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 B-17 squadrons. Shortly thereafter, Maggie informs him that her unit is to be shipped out to the same area in preparation for the offensive.

Maggie’s roommate, a young nurse, Ensign Annalee Dohrn (Jill Haworth), has been dating Torrey’s son. Jere is arrogant and conspiring with a superior officer, a former congressman named 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 PBJ 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 he will get a metal leg and then command a task force and ‘stump his way to Tokyo’ with the rest of the Americans forces. Torrey is happy for the moment and lapses into sleep.


On Friday, I lost a friend who actually fought in World War II. Oh, the stories that man, at 92 years young, could tell. It got me thinking, especially with everything going on in this country over race, gay rights, etc. The “greatest generation” is dying off, and this is what they are seeing in their final days? Ugh! At any rate, I felt I needed to go back to a WWII film, so this is we have In Harm’s Way.

What is this about?

This World War II epic focuses on the effect the Pearl Harbor attack had on military lives. After a failed counterstrike on the Japanese, Capt. Torrey gets shore duty, finds love with a nurse, reconciles with his son and is finally sent back to sea.

What did I like?

On the ground. History is well documented as to what happened December 7, 1941. In movies, pictures, etc., we see the planes flying over, boats ready to attack, and the military springing to action. What we don’t normally see is what happened to the normal people who lived on this island as the attack was happening. Many of them were killed just for living on the island, others ran in fear in hopes of finding someplace safe. I’m sure there are other films that show this aspect of the attack, but this is the first one that really accentuates it, at least that I’ve seen.

Stand still. Patricia Neal is not an actress I would consider “conventional leading lady beauty.” What I mean by that is that she falls somewhere between Peggy from Man Men and a mix of Lauren Bacall and Bette Davis. Not unattractive, just not on the level of the likes of Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, etc. With that said, one cannot question that she earned this role and held her own with it…and most of her scenes were with John Wayne!!! I was impressed that she was able to do the romantic stuff because the only other thing I’ve seen her in is The Day the Earth Stood Still. The main character in there is devoid of emotions and the man she starts out in a relationship with just has no chemistry with her. I guess nearly 15 years is enough to learn how to emote on screen a bit.

Cast of characters. This is an expansive and impressive cast with names like John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Caroll O’Connor, Burgess Meredith, Patricia Neal, Barbara Bouchet, etc. Those names are impressive on their own, but what is more of a feat is that the script was smart enough to give them each an independent story, without sacrificing screen time. Yes, Wayne is the star, but there’s plenty of room for Meredith and O’Connor’s characters, and more. Maybe some of today’s screenwriters should take note on how to budget out time for each character without losing valuable plot time.

What didn’t I like?

Fight. You would think that in this nearly 3 hour film, I would be chomping at the bit for the action scenes, right? Well, surprisingly, that would be a wrong assumption. Normally, I’d be getting antsy, just waiting for something to happen in a film like thins, but because it is written so well, I found the battle scenes to be nothing more than just some kids out there playing with their toys. Did this have to be? No, but the filmmakers obviously weren’t well-versed in filming action scenes and they just didn’t have that extra punch that was needed to get the audience into the climax.

Rape. There is rape in this film, or at least as much rape as one can get away with on-screen in the early 60s. Kirk Douglas’ character gets agitated at a young nurse on the beach and has his way with her. As it turns out, she gets pregnant and eventually kills herself. Believe it or not, it isn’t the rape that I have issue with, though let me be clear that rape is not something I condone. It is the fact that Douglas is able to get away with it without anyone even suspecting him of anything until it is too late. Basically, he gets away with it! WTF?!?

Period piece. The opening scene is a party of some sort. Ok, this is before the bomb drops on Pearl Harbor, so no big deal, right? Wrong! This is a film set in the 40s, but there were many modern (remember this was made in 1965) clothes and hairstyles to be seen, including the dress that Barbara Bouchet’s character was wearing. This isn’t the only time modern-day made it into this film. Some of the boats and weaponry weren’t period accurate, either. What kind of trick were they trying to pull here?

The last World War II movie, excluding documentaries, that I watched and really enjoyed was Pearl Harbor, I believe. In Harm’s Way may very well be a better film. I need to watch both films again to give a fair comparison. While a bit longer than I feel it needs to be, this a film that tells a tale from the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the US entering the war. John Wayne is a scaled back version of what we are used to, as he isn’t playing up the macho hero, instead he is flexing his acting chops (and showing he can do things outside of westerns). This is an incredible film with very few flaws that I highly recommend!

4 1/2 out of 5 stars


One Response to “In Harm’s Way”

  1. […] out In Harm’s Way (and this star – studded […]

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