In Harm's Way ★★★★½

A slow tracking shot to a formal party of soldiers takes us right into the 1960s when the band hits a new note and a young blonde launches herself to the foreground of the frame with her new dance moves while everyone looks on in horror. Or: Mad Men done in about three minutes. Then it's off to Pearl Harbor, the Japanese planes almost never seen, only the bombs on the ground. The fluidity that Preminger captures the attack has a rare excitement/fear I've rarely seen before—his tracking shots with multiple explosions going off are confident, and remind me of some of the van scenes in Spielberg's War of the Worlds (and Jaws is reminiscent in other ways of this as well).

It's Preminger's revisionist take on WWII; somewhere in between They Were Expendable's hollowed ground of the mission and Air Force's masculine camaraderie as its own sacrament, with a dash of cynicism only a director 10 years younger could add, as well as making it two decades later. The majority of the film is Wayne, old battered eyes looking both back and forth at the destruction that he must take some responsibility for. Preminger could have easily gone to the war—he was a ripe 35 at the start, around the same age as George Stevens—so you see both the critique of the military from an outsider with fresh eyes, as well as a ambivalence toward the youthful ideas through Wayne's estranged son, who doesn't know a damn thing about the army but a lot about politics, which never wins wars.

The military doesn't get the best portrait here, from Dana Andrews's media-fueled attempts to ruin the mission, to Douglas's own awful misogynist ways (the way he shoves Jill Haworth below the frame is haunting—and Wayne's reprimand ["No recommendations"] is a deserved fuck you to a life wasted), to Wayne's final moment with Henry Fonda, an honorable admiral who is revealed to be simply ignorant of the costs of real war. Preminger isn't anti-military as much as he sees how institutions can be turned by some bad apples, while the righteous ones, who do fight for good, turn out their deeds for little reward.

So what's a man to do? Have a sweet romance with Patricia Neal (she slips her shoes off for a nice night after Wayne calls his roommate to let me know he's about to be sexiled). The military material feels stunningly accurate, not in the least for the lack of back-rear projection in favor of on location shooting. The Japanese remain a unseen force—their faces only seen once—otherwise left as an unknown enemy, a backdrop for the Navy's own world. The widescreen frames eliminate much of the need for shot-reverse shot, folding out the story through dynamic camera movements and gestures, leaving Wayne in isolation as he reads a list of deaths in a PT-Crusier attack. Shot in black and white and it really feels the blackness of the water, less a ocean shore than a prepared grave. The film ends with victory, but one told in a quiet hospital room, with Wayne going back to sleep, Neal watching over him. Get some rest, soldier, the next war in the Pacific is going to be much uglier than anything you just saw.

Report this review