Filming “In Harm’s Way” aboard USS SAINT PAUL in 1964
“Hey I know, let’s get the Navy and make a movie! It’ll be great!”
Hollywood and the U.S. Navy have had a long and often fruitful relationship and, just as in warfare, there are hits and misses. 1986’s Top Gun remains a classic on numerous levels, while the 2001 klunker Pearl Harbor was quickly (and rightly) consigned to the bargain bin, despite its tremendous publicity buildup and strong Navy support.
Blockbuster busts are nothing new. Back in the mid-1960s another megaproduction involving the Navy, a passle of major stars, and a famous director was getting the major-buildup treatment. With a cast topped by John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Patricia Neal, director Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way was expected to set a new standard for naval action flicks.
Well, it did. Despite spending an enormous amount of money and effort to build a model fleet of U.S. and Japanese warships replicating (under a fictional name) the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Preminger managed to give the world some of the worst movie miniatures ever produced. They looked like just what they were – rowboat-sized craft driving around on a huge lake shooting toy guns with toy splashes.
And the plot – - – but we digress…
The Navy was fully on board with the picture’s production, and provided the USS SAINT PAUL (CA 73), one of the world’s last active heavy cruisers, as a set. The SAINT PAUL was a genuine World War II cruiser, having been commissioned in early 1945. She saw combat off Korea and Vietnam before finally being decommissioned in 1971.
Preminger and his crew came aboard in the late summer of 1964. The movie’s scenarios, while based largely on real events, changed the names of nearly everything. The cruiser’s name was never mentioned, only referred to by a nickname – Old Swayback or Swayback Maru.
Wayne, however, was the real thing, a true movie star. The Duke’s commanding presence is evident in these photos, taken by the ship’s photographer during onboard filming in August and September 1964. The photos – it’s believed that until now they’ve remained unpublished – were sent to Washington when the ship was decommissioned in the early 1970s. Your humble author scanned them a few years ago courtesy the fine folks at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
There are those who think this is a pretty good movie. I’m not one of them. But I’ll grant that the film – primarily because of its huge publicity campaign and cast – should always be mentioned when discussing movies about the Navy.
A note about these images. Scanned from contact prints (a staple is visible in a couple of the shots, giving an idea of the size of the originals), they contained only a minimum of information. It’s not known who many of these people are. If you think you know, please comment and let us know too.