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Cinema: World War Twosome

5 minute read

In Harm’s Way. As a man adept at turning big brawny books into big brawny spectaculars, Producer-Director Otto Preminger (Exodus, The Cardinal) often makes ostentatious movies, but he almost never makes dull ones. This epic based on the novel by James Bassett is among Preminger’s liveliest. Its clear, unequivocal message is that World War II was fought to make the world safe for wide-screen melodrama.

Harm’s Way opens at a Pearl Harbor naval officers’ dance on the evening of Dec. 6, 1941. While boozy Commander Kirk Douglas is at sea, his wife (Barbara Bouchet) is at play, behaving like a one-woman luau. She shakes her hips at an Air Force major, lures him away for a nude swim, wakes up on the beach next morning in bleary panic as enemy planes strafe the sand and the holocaust at Pearl Harbor begins.

The action shifts to a Navy cruiser where Captain John Wayne greets two Japanese torpedoes with relish, warmed by the prospect of “a gut-bustin’, mother-lovin’ Navy war!” First as captain, then as Admiral “Rock” Torrey, whose ultimate mission is to oust the enemy from the fictional islands of Gavabutu and Levu-Vana, Wayne delivers a bedrock performance that provides anchorage for the shipshape supporting cast. Pick of the lot is Nurse Patricia Neal, who enlivens Wayne’s hours ashore with straightforward passion. Wayne woos his long-estranged son (Brandon deWilde) away from the public-relations war mounted by a former Congressman (Patrick O’Neal) and an incompetent admiral (Dana Andrews), then has to send the boy on a fateful attack. Big, tough decisions are made and carried out by such luminaries as Franchot Tone, Burgess Meredith, Stanley Holloway and Henry Fonda.

With half a dozen plots to juggle, Preminger keeps all of them interesting for at least two of the three hours spent In Harm’s Way. At one moment he shrewdly plays the grimness of war against the undeniable glamour of it, next diverts the flow of sentimental clichés into a vein of snappish humor. “I’d enjoy meeting your son,” says Meredith. “Naw—you wouldn’t,” grumbles Wayne, eying the lad across a messroom with eloquent distaste. Other scenes crackle comfortably: O’Neal cravenly having his backbone slapped into shape in the men’s washup; Andrews placidly playing croquet on his front lawn under the snout of an anti-aircraft battery. The film is marred by wearisome repetition and by a climactic confused sea battle between miniature U.S. and Japanese fleets. But even toy battleships do not seriously impede the progress of a slick, fast-moving entertainment aswarm with characters who seem quick-witted, courageous, and just enough larger than life to justify another skirmish in the tired old Pacific.

Operation Crossbow, shifting to the European front, distorts the facts about an actual wartime crisis to fit a ludicrous tale of espionage. At the outset, the film seeks to establish its authenticity by popping in at 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister Churchill (Patrick Wymark) asks Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) to head Operation Crossbow, an Anglo-American unit assigned to pinpoint and destroy Germany’s V-1 buzz-bomb and V-2 rocket projects. Director Michael Anderson sedately re-creates some rather tumultuous sessions of British officialdom in 1943, reducing history to a few thoughtful demurrers from Churchill’s scientific adviser, Professor F. A. Lindemann (Trevor Howard). “It’s a balloon,” he remarks, peering through his pipe smoke at photographs of the Peenemünde launching site. And: “If it were a rocket, it could never get off the ground.”

To generate suspense, Crossbow occasionally switches over to the Nazi side. Peenemünde, before the massive allied attack, is a hive of hard-working scientists and tight-lipped SS men, so earnest about perfecting their flying bomb that they put a cockpit in it and sacrifice four brave pilots in trials.

But the film’s heroes, unmistakably, are American Engineer George Peppard and Dutch Engineer Tom Courtenay, both smuggled into Germany with false papers to volunteer for work at a secret underground rocket center. Courtenay runs afoul of the Gestapo while Peppard struggles with cumbersome explanations as to why everyone can safely speak English. He gets help from Innkeeper Lilli Palmer, spends an edgy night with Sophia Loren because he happens to be impersonating her dead husband. Loren’s brief role seems little more than a favor to her real-life husband, Carlo Ponti, who is Crossbow’s producer.

Peppard plods heroically along, becomes the trusted aide of the mastermind behind the V-2 program—a character not unlike Wernher von Braun —and is all set for a preposterous last-reel countdown. He shoots it out with the Gestapo, slaughters scores of guards, finally pulls the switch that opens the doors that let out the light that serves as a signal to Allied planes. The bombardiers drop in their eggs just in time to abort an intercontinental missile called “the New York rocket,” lifting off for parts unknown. In fact, Germany’s underground rocket factory was never bombed. Operation Crossbow probably won’t be so lucky.

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