Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Duke, The Rock and other myths

Nobody could fill up the screen quite like John Wayne.

Well, maybe his pal Jim Arness could. At 6-7, Arness was even bigger physically than Duke Wayne. Guess that's why Duke recommended the young, then unknown actor for the part of Marshal Matt Dillon in a new CBS series called "Gunsmoke" in 1955. It worked out pretty well for all concerned.

I propped my feet up in the recliner Friday night just in time to catch the opening credits to "In Harm's Way," Otto Preminger's 1965 World War II epic, starring Duke and Kirk Douglas. You know you're in for a treat when Duke is playing a guy nicknamed Rock of Ages.

Rockwell Torrey is a Navy captain when Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese in December 1941. He is a man of action who shuns parties and other social events. Instead, he sits alone and stares at a faded photo of a woman and a boy. Turns out he left his wife shortly after the birth of a son. She wanted him to go into the family business. He went to the Philippines with the Navy.

Rock gives in one night and goes with his roommate, Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), to a social. There he meets Maggie (Knoxville's own Patricia Neal), a nurse who has known a little heartbreak herself. They leave the party and go back to her place for supper.

Maggie's roommate is seeing a young Navy ensign, Jere Torrey (Brandon De Wilde), who, of course, turns out to be Rock's son. He didn't even know Jere was in the Navy.

Rock goes out to see him on his PT Boat one night. But Jere is a conniving little weasel who has attached his star to a conniving politician-turned-solider (Patrick O'Neal). Rock doesn't stay long.

Into this web, Preminger weaves the tales of the charming-but-tormented Eddington (Douglas), a husband and wife (Tom Tryon and Paula Prentiss) split up by the war, and an incompetent Admiral (Dana Andrews), more interested in winning headlines than battles. If it sounds a bit crowded, well, let's just say Preminger needed the anamorphic widescreen to fit all these characters into the movie. But when even Henry Fonda shows up, you don't mind too much.

Rock Torrey is reprimanded after Pearl Harbor. He's relegated to a desk job. But Fonda sees the error of Dana Andrews' ways, and the Duke becomes an Admiral. Look out, Japan!

The Eastern press didn't care too much for Duke's movies. They said he couldn't act. Hated his Republican politics.

But we knew better. If the Duke seemed to play the same parts, well, we liked what we saw. He was comforting and predictable, a Gibraltar in the middle of the raging sea. And, besides, who the hell's watching Laurence Olivier movies now?

By the end of the nearly-three hour picture, Rock had lost a leg and most of his crew are dead. But the war in the Pacific had turned around, Tryon was going to make it back home to Prentiss, and Rock had patched things up with his son before he got killed fighting the good fight. Patricia Neal told Duke she'd be right there for him every step of the way.

If only real life could work itself out into such a nicely-wrapped bundle.

At the end of the movie, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne said that when "In Harm's Way" was released in 1965, Neal had just recovered from a series of massive strokes and Wayne was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his life in 1979.

Turns out he wasn't the Rock of Ages after all.

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