IN HARM’S WAY is a war film of contrasts, politics and morals; notably it is hardly about nationalism, self-righteousness or masculinity. And hardly about conquering. Two of my favourite moments are when Rock (John Wayne) demonstrates his “fragility”: his inability to articulate his desire for reconciliation with his son, and his acknowledgement of the normality of being “scared” before the critical fight.
Whilst the backdrop is the Pearl Harbour attacks during WWII, the film’s power lies in many contrasts: The contrast of Rock’s maturity and Eddington’s (Kirk Douglas) impulsiveness (and self-destructiveness); the power play between Rock and Broderick (Dana Andrews is amazing), and the way Rock and Eddington navigate against Broderick’s dominance. And then of course, the mature, moderated, considered romance between Rock and Maggie juxtaposed with the youthful and emotional love triangle among Eddington, Annalee and Jere. In many ways these contrasts serve to illuminate Rock’s character and his ability/judgement above the rest of the characters.
Rock certainly is a patriarchal figure. But if it is ever possible to have a positive patriarchal figure, that’s Rock. He is not without flaws, secretly he cannot come to terms with the fact that he has not taken up a father’s (and husband’s) responsibility (a choice, however, made as a revolt against the “institution” that his in-laws want him to surrender to); but he IS a father figure who embodies leadership skills, courage and principles, whilst not for a moment exploiting his position or imposing his masculinity. His demotion at the beginning of the film is a dignified defeat – when he casually proclaims, “I've been relieved of command”, an aura of elegance emanates from him.
And when it comes to critical moments Preminger was conscious, I think, of demonstrating his capability of being a “man” whilst also remaining in his professional role as the “admiral” (something that Stephen Fermoyle is unable to do so in THE CARDINAL): following a tragic event, he goes out of his way to show concern for Jere; as he is about to acknowledge him as his son, he ends up acknowledging him as “one of my officers”. I see this as his way of encouraging Jere to be a true officer and his recognition of him as one…(But, I am stilling finding this scene ambiguous)
Unlike the usual war film romances are not used as decorative backdrops and the female figures actually play very key roles in the narrative.
Saul Bass' end credits sequence is amazing and needless to say, the mise-en- scene in this Panavision film is stunning.
Editor's note: This is Kiki's second Preminger review. Her report on Advise and Consent (1962) can be found by clicking the link