In Harm's Way [1965]

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss
Genre: Drama, War
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 165 minutes

John Wayne gave his first complex performance in a Paramount picture: 1941's Shepherd of the Hills, a quirky Ozark "Western" directed by Henry Hathaway, who 28 years later would shepherd the Duke to his Oscar in True Grit. It's somehow appropriate, then, that most of the notable films of the star's final two decades were produced and/or released under Paramount's aegis--something borne out proprietarily by the overall high quality of this largest-yet collection of his work. Might as well get the soft spots out of the way. There are two, both directorial swan songs. Big Jake (1971) is credited to George Sherman, who used to direct Wayne in Republic's "Three Mesquiteers" series in the late '30s; however, biographers agree that Wayne himself pretty much took over. It's a scrappy affair, with Wayne and Maureen O'Hara briefly reunited one last time, then Wayne and old stalwart Bruce Cabot heading into the badlands to rescue a missing grandson from outlaws. Rio Lobo (1970) is better--but more seriously disappointing in that it was the final film from Howard Hawks, the giant who had made Red River, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado. There's a thrillingly spare main-title sequence, and a terrific Civil War commando assault on a Union train (largely the work of ace second-unit director Yakima Canutt). But once the story jumps to the postwar, with Wayne's Yankee officer and his former Rebel foes making common cause to clean up a Southwest bordertown, Hawks and Wayne run afoul of feeble costars, a ragged script, and dismayingly slipshod camerawork. So much for the downside. Among the eight other very satisfying titles, let's focus first on what, for many, will be the real discovery of this collection. Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way, a fine 1965 film that never got its just deserts, features an excellent Wayne performance that sounds notes unheard anywhere else in his career. The ultraliberal director and the ultraconservative star made a political odd couple, but they got along great as fellow pros. Preminger's studiedly cool, objective style set a tone unlike any Wayne had worked in before, and the actor rewarded his director with a beautifully low-key study of a career Navy officer whose personal and professional lives have been filled with disappointment. Set in the Pacific theater of World War II and shot in lustrous Panavision black and white, this intelligent epic focuses on commanders rather than combat. Its large cast (Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Dana Andrews) includes Patricia Neal as a Navy nurse of a certain age to whom Wayne's character credibly warms. But the best, sometimes startling moments involve his encounters with long-estranged son Brandon De Wilde. The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), a typically solid Western from director Henry Hathaway, was the Duke's welcome-back vehicle after his initial bout with cancer. That shadow would return, of course, and in Donald Siegel's The Shootist (1976), which became Wayne's final film, the star plays a legendary gunfighter dying of cancer on the cusp of the 20th century. The movie begins with a montage of images from "John Bernard Books"'s violent career--i.e., clips from classic Wayne Westerns--and surrounds the star with an aptly valedictory supporting cast: James Stewart (clearly anguished at the real-life parallel), John Carradine, Big Jake adversary Richard Boone, and Lauren Bacall (who'd watched cancer take another legend two decades earlier). Hatari! (1962) finds Wayne vigorously in charge of a crew that catches wild animals on the African veldt. Director Howard Hawks had his cast--Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger, Gérard Blain, Bruce Cabot, et al.--do the actual catching, as Russell Harlan's integral camerawork bears out time and again. Hawks admirer François Truffaut took Hatari!, with its easygoing alternation of scenes with the on-location "family" at work and play, as Hawks's metaphor for the joys of moviemaking. A comparable spirit informs John Ford's Donovan's Reef (1963), a very broad comedy about an extended family of World War II veterans who've found paradise on the Pacific island where they fought in wartime. Kauai supplies the unimpeachably paradisaical setting. Happily, Hawks and Ford--Wayne's most important directors--are also each represented in the collection with a late-career masterpiece. El Dorado (1967) is carelessly discounted as Hawks's self-plagiarizing remake of the 1959 Rio Bravo--and since Rio Bravo (not in this collection) has a place on the movies' All-Time Ten Best list, that's understandable. But El Dorado is a highly self-aware revisit by a director and star acutely conscious of being eight years closer to mortality, from which they wrest heroic, often gloriously comic, poetry. James Caan, a Hawks discovery in the 1965 Red Line 7000, is excellent as the young vagabond who thinks he's hipper than the old crocks he's fallen in with (a brilliant case of Hawks making Pirandellian magic out of his performers' own personalities); Wayne and Robert Mitchum (in "the Dean Martin part") are both superb; and Christopher George, not much of an actor in other circumstances, has his finest career moment as a gunslinger who's every bit the man Wayne or Mitchum is, but has picked the wrong side. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is famously the film with the line "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Some take that as a credo for John Ford and the rationale for (or rationalization of) the director's mythmaking career. But Ford deconstructed myths as much as he celebrated them, and Liberty Valance--framed with allusions to Wayne's 1939 starmaking vehicle Stagecoach, and blatantly passing off the aged Wayne and James Stewart as younger men--is his most reflective meditation on the genre where he reigned supreme, and what the westward march of Progress had brought to the "cactus Eden." Lee Marvin never etched a more malevolent portrait than the title role here. The cumulative power of this movie, over its two-hour running time and every year since its release, is awesome. A wonderful/rueful running gag in El Dorado involves the Edgar Allan Poe line "Ride, boldly ride" being mangled by toupee-wearer Wayne into "Ride, baldy, ride." Two years later, in True Grit, Wayne put the joke in italics by donning an eyepatch and several inches of girth to play cantankerous territorial marshal Rooster Cogburn. Critics belatedly noticed that he could be a marvelously entertaining actor, and Hollywood finally gave him the Oscar they'd failed to nominate him for in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, et al. But make no mistake: True Grit is a splendid movie, with lovingly textured storytelling and sturdy characters, Henry Hathaway's finest high-country action set-pieces, intoxicatingly ornate frontier language, and a couple of formidable bad guys (Jeff Corey's Tom Cheney and Robert Duvall's "Lucky" Ned Pepper). It's a compliment to say that, from a technical standpoint, the movie could have been made any time in Hathaway's 40-year career, yet its feeling for the reality of violence ceded no ground to The Wild Bunch, released around the same time. Still, the film's most sublime passage falls between bursts of gunplay: Rooster sitting on a hilltop at night recounting his life story, as John Wayne metamorphoses ineluctably into W.C. Fields. --Richard T. Jameson

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