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I've always felt that in these big budget all star epics, the trick is to give each of the star a role of substance as small as the part might be sometimes. That's one of the best things about In Harm's Way, Otto Preminger cast this film with a whole lot of big movie names and each one of them made their presence felt.
Case in point the three admirals played by Franchot Tone, Dana Andrews, and Henry Fonda. All three are very different type men. Tone is a man knowing he'll be sitting the war out because it was on his watch that the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. He's not bitter, he knows that's how things work in the navy. Dana Andrews is a publicity conscious admiral who employs the unctuous Patrick O'Neal in that regard. Henry Fonda plays the second commander in chief of the Pacific, Chester Nimitz in all but name. Oddly enough Fonda would play Nimitz again and by name in the film Midway a decade later. All three of these men make a deep impression on the audience despite having limited roles.
I'm sure that when Otto Preminger was casting In Harm's Way he must have seen Operation Pacific and saw the easy chemistry that John Wayne and Patricia Neal had 14 years earlier. Playing older and wiser versions of themselves from the previous film, Wayne and Neal show love ain't just for the young.
In Harm's Way has the Duke as a father figure for the first time. As Rockwell Torrey, the rock of ages as Kirk Douglas calls him, in addition to the Pacific War he takes on a whole lot of people's problems and they look to him for advice and comfort. In addition to his biological son Brandon DeWilde, the Duke also deals with Kirk Douglas and his problem concerning his tramp of a wife and the problems of young Lieutenant j.g. Tom Tryon and his wife Paula Prentiss.
One of my favorite John Wayne scenes is with Prentiss as he brings her the news about Tryon being missing in action. It is so well done from both players I'm still moved after having seen In Harm's Way a dozen times or more.
Acting honors however may go to Kirk Douglas as Wayne's chief aide who has the most complex role in the film. Douglas runs the gamut of emotions as he does in so many of his roles, from naval hero to maniacal rapist. Douglas actually hopes the war coming will help him put his personal problems on a back burner. For a while and it does, but only temporarily.
Another favorite I have here is Patrick O'Neal who if there is a villain other than the Japanese, he's it. He's a smarmy former Congressman who's looking as the war as a series of photo ops and is already planning his post war political career. O'Neal's not above jeopardizing a naval operation for the sake of a little publicity for his boss Dana Andrews. His confrontation with Kirk Douglas in the latrine is a classic.
In Harm's Way is a skilled blend of war drama and soap opera in the best sense of that term. It can be enjoyed and appreciated by fans of both.
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