James Bassett

Genres - War

Share on

James Bassett (also known as James E. Bassett) only made one contribution to movies as a novelist; his 1962 book Harm's Way was the basis for Otto Preminger's 1965 epic war movie In Harm's Way, which is generally regarded by World War II buffs as one of the finer Hollywood movies dealing with the surface navy in the Pacific. Born in California in 1912, Bassett entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, in 1930, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1934. That same year, he joined the staff of the Los Angeles Times as a reporter, serving for three years in that capacity before becoming the newspaper's aviation editor; during that period, he married Wilma Moreland. In 1941, Bassett joined the United States Navy and was commissioned a lieutenant (j.g.); he was assigned to the staff of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey as the public relations officer for the admiral and the United States Third Fleet, which he commanded. Bassett served in that capacity for the duration of the war, from the Guadalcanal campaign until the Japanese surrender, and was, undoubtedly, successful and effective at his job. (This was much to the chagrin of many naval and military history scholars for generations to come, to whom Halsey -- who later became a Fleet Admiral -- was the most overrated and unjustly lionized of all the major theater commanders of the war.) Bassett retired from the naval reserve with the rank of captain, and was awarded the Bronze Star for his wartime service. He returned to the Los Angeles Times in 1947 as the paper's science editor, but left after a year to join the Los Angeles Mirror as their political editor.

In 1952, Bassett left journalism to become the press secretary for Senator Richard Nixon in his campaign for vice president. In 1954, after a brief return to the Los Angeles Mirror, Bassett joined the Republican National Committee as its head of public relations, and in 1956, he rejoined Nixon's staff as the director of his re-election campaign. Bassett returned to the Mirror as assistant managing editor, but in 1960, he once again joined Nixon's staff as the director of planning for his presidential campaign. He found time during this period to complete his first novel, The Sky Suspended, which was published in 1961. Bassett returned to journalism that year as the political editor and later the editorial page director for the L.A. Times, where he would work until his retirement.

In 1962, soon after his return to the Los Angeles Times, Bassett published his second novel, Harm's Way, a complex, engrossing, and genuinely exciting novel that vividly depicts the Pacific War from the points-of-view of senior and junior officers. It was one of the best books of its kind, based on actual incidents and real-life characters. (Curiously enough, one of its most villainous and loathsome characters was the press officer working for a three-star admiral whose press releases are far grander than his war record.) Whatever the internal dynamics of the book's plotting and characters, it was an intrinsically compelling work that appeared just at the tail-end of a decade-long popular culture cycle of World War II interest that had manifested itself in movies such as Battleground, Battle Cry, The Enemy Below, Run Silent, Run Deep, and The Longest Day, and was beginning to play out on television series such as Combat, Convoy, and McHale's Navy. Events in Vietnam were to change and, finally, mute the public's interest in war movies (and television series), but in 1962, there was still an audience for such pictures, and producer/director Otto Preminger licensed the film rights to the book in tandem with Paramount Pictures.

The filmmakers spared little or no expense in bringing Harm's Way to the screen as In Harm's Way, with John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Tom Tryon, and Henry Fonda leading the cast, surrounded by top acting talent, including Patricia Neal, Burgess Meredith, Brandon de Wilde, Stanley Holloway, Franchot Tone, and Henry Fonda, and a brace of up-and-coming stars, among them Carroll O'Connor, Paula Prentiss, and George Kennedy. There were some necessary simplifications made by screenwriter Wendell Mayes in the 446-page story in order to fit it into what proved to be a 167-minute movie. Critics responded in mixed fashion upon its release, overwhelmed by the plot complexities and length (it would have made an ideal miniseries a decade later), but in the decades since, the movie has aged well and it is highly regarded by aficionados of war films.

Bassett published Commander Prince, USN in 1971, but Harm's Way proved to be the only one of his books to interest movie producers. He retired from the L.A. Times in 1977 and passed away the following year.