Two wooden houses erupted in flames in Palama as dozens ran for their lives. Bombs exploded, splintering coconut trees. A speeding Navy admiral’s black sedan turned on its side as another bomb fell.
“Cut!” yelled movie producer/director Otto Preminger. A camera truck had hesitated too long at a critical moment, and the entire two-minute scene had to be re-shot.
Such was the chaos in Hawaii 54 years ago this summer when the movie “In Harm’s Way” was being filmed. Preminger had invited journalists from around the world to cover the filming, and they were given unprecedented access.
It was front-page news in Honolulu for three months in 1964. Skip Lambert, who was then a 19-year-old production assistant on the film, suggested I put it in my Rearview Mirror.
The film was about the men and women involved in World War II in the Pacific. Preminger said it wasn’t really a war picture. “It is a picture about people who are trapped in a war.”
One of its messages is, “While we don’t seek war, we know how to defend ourselves,” Preminger said. “Life doesn’t stop during a war, but people keep on living and loving.”
The motion picture starred John Wayne, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal and Kirk Douglas.
Filming locations included Pearl Harbor, Kaneohe, Makapuu, Sand Island, La Pietra, Palama, Aala, Dillingham Ranch and the Damon home in Moanalua.
Preminger estimated the production would spend $3 million in Hawaii ($24 million today) — twice the highest amount previously spent by a movie made in the islands.
Most of the cast and crew stayed at the Ilikai, and some suggested it should be renamed the Hollywood Hotel.
Here are some of the more interesting stories about making the film:
Hiding Diamond Head
How do you make Sand Island look like a South Seas atoll? Hint: You have to hide Diamond Head.
To do so, Preminger painted a boat gray and parked it in front of the 761-foot-tall extinct volcano. The film was in black and white, and the gray boat hid Diamond Head, at least some of the time.
In another scene, shot at Kualoa Ranch, Chinaman’s Hat is plainly visible, even though they were supposed to be in the South Pacific. I guess Preminger thought only locals would know.
‘In Ham’s Way’
Preminger liked to use real people instead of actors for authenticity. At one point the script called for war correspondents, so he hired real journalists — Bob Krauss, Eddie Sherman, Tom Moffatt and several others.
The problem was, they couldn’t act and mugged in front of the camera too much. Sherman wanted to be noticed, so he wore binoculars, carried a briefcase, typewriter, flight jacket and camera.
That was a problem because the script called for them to scramble out of an amphibious plane onto a boat in the atoll’s lagoon, and Sherman almost fell into the water lugging all those props. Cut! Leave them on the plane, he was told.
He later joked that the film should be called “In Ham’s Way.”
Filming also had to be stopped when jets took off from the airport. There weren’t jets in 1942.
Sherman wrote that he generally assumed that movie acting was easy. “Nothing to it. Just stand in front of a camera, speak a few lines, grab the money and run. Duck soup.” It didn’t quite turn out that way.
One scene in a steaming hot Quonset hut was supposed to be his big moment. The correspondents surrounded John Wayne (the captain), Kirk Douglas (his executive officer) and other bigwigs as Wayne explains that the tide of war had shifted in their favor. All 16 actors in the scene have to be in the right place at the right time.
They rehearsed the scene 15 times. Filming didn’t start until 4 p.m. “A cue is missed, something wrong here, there, over and over again … shirts are drenched with perspiration … makeup men dab sweaty faces … jets drown out the dialogue.”
“Preminger — man of a thousand moods, actor supreme, the absolute ruler of all, completely aware of every word, movement, observing everything, missing nothing, not even the blinking of an eyelid,” Sherman said.
“Preminger coaxing, roaring, smiling, glaring — manipulating all to his wishes and commands.
“It is beginning to get dark,” Sherman said. “On the 14th take, the magic words are heard — ‘Cut! Prrrint!’ Everybody heaves a huge sigh of relief … Otto beams. He personally thanks each ‘correspondent.’ ”
Sherman was happy to be standing between Wayne and Dana Andrews for the scene, but then realized the audience would be watching them, not him.
He compared it to paddling a surfboard alongside a battleship. You’ll get the idea, he said.
Actually, the best actor in “In Harm’s Way” won’t be seen on the screen at all, Sherman surmised. “He is Otto Preminger. It is impossible not to have the greatest respect for him. He dominates completely.”
Imagine you’re an actor who is slapped in the face three times as part of a movie scene. Now imagine the director is fussy about authenticity, so the slaps have to be real.
Add to that 11 takes before the director is satisfied with the final result. That meant the actor, Patrick O’Neal, had to take 33 slaps from Douglas, who was athletic. I would assume when he slapped, it hurt.
It wasn’t so bad, O’Neal said as he shook hands with Douglas afterward. “Getting slapped by an actress can be worse. They swing from left field and often catch you over an ear.”
Over 500 locals earned $10 a day as extras ($80 today). Reporter Drew McKillips was one of them. At 7 a.m. he showed up at Camp Catlin, near the airport. He was handed an Army second lieutenant’s uniform. The pants were a little too long, so he stood in his underwear while a tailor took them in.
“Otto notices these little details,” the tailor said.
A bus took him and 350 other extras to the Damon home in Moanalua. A production person approached and asked him his age. “Thirty-one,” McKillips said.
That’s a little old for that rank, he was told. “Suppose we make you a first lieutenant. Otto notices these little details, you know.” McKillips received a field promotion!
McKillips is one of three officers chatting outside the home when Wayne and Burgess drive up. Preminger wants to re-shoot the scene, and moves McKillips and the other officers slightly.
“I am now facing the camera and feel that ‘O.P.,’ as some called him, has finally recognized my talent.” They shoot the scene again. And again.
“Then O.P. notices my glasses have plastic frames. They were not around in 1942. The glasses come off,” McKillips said. After a dozen takes, O.P. is satisfied. “Cut! Prrrint!”
John Wayne said he got his start as a prop man for Fox Films. He became fast friends with John Ford, the producer, and that led to work in front of the camera.
Wayne could often be seen between filming playing chess with Cliff Ralke, the assistant prop man.
One scene called for a nurse to listen briefly to a “Tokyo Rose” broadcast. Preminger wanted to use a real recording of the propagandist, for authenticity. Nat Rudich, Preminger’s executive assistant, could not find one on Oahu, in Hollywood or in New York.
Finally he tracked one down in Washington, D.C., and flew it to Hawaii. Rudich proudly gave it to Preminger. “You’re one day late,” the director told him. The scene already had been shot.
The voice could be added later, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Singer Bob Dylan said a girlfriend at the time had a role in the film, and he visited on-site once or twice. He met Wayne, who told him he could be in the film if he wanted. Dylan declined.
The film was flown to Hollywood to be developed each day, then rushed back to Hawaii. Preminger and his staff viewed the rushes at the Varsity Theatre, often around midnight. The editors worked from a ground-floor suite at the Ilikai.
“In Harm’s Way” was nominated for an Oscar in cinematography.