When it comes to movies, drama is not my preferred genre but there are a few exceptions and The Caine Mutiny is most certainly one of them. Fairly accurately based upon Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, but foreshortened into a two-hour movie, it gave the enigmatic Humphrey Bogart the opportunity to once again show Hollywood how to act.
The story revolves around the US Caine a non-descript American minesweeper during World War II, but this is no action movie. In the book we are meant to see events through the eyes of Willie Keith a newly assigned Ensign however this is barely noticeable for much of the film, a shrewd feat achieved by Edward Dmytryk the Director once blacklisted due to the McCarthy ‘Red under the bed’ witch hunt. The ship appears ill disciplined and slovenly until its laid back captain is replaced by Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg (an interesting analogy for Red Dwarf fans). Queeg is a fastidious man of a neurotic and paranoid disposition. These traits have been made all the more severe due to long service in a stressful and dangerous environment. It’s a role just made for Bogart’s talent.
Queeg sets about to bring strict discipline and order to the ship but is not helped by his officers who see the Caine as beyond salvation. The Executive Officer is Lt. Maryk who has held the ship together in the past by stepping in and personally recovering mishaps whenever they occurred. He likes to believe the crew are better than they really are. Van Johnson that regular nice guy actor accurately portrays Maryk, a man of competence who inwardly lacks the confidence to make difficult decisions. The next senior man is Lt. Keefer the Communications Officer who is full of sarcasm and innuendos whilst always covering his backside. He is meant be to Maryk’s best friend but would sell his own mother to save his own skin. That smooth operator Fred McMurray plays the spineless Keefer with pure panache.
Pretty soon Queeg’s command qualities are brought into question when the Caine is sent to tow a target for more prestigious ships to fire at. Having received a well done from his superior Queeg orders the ship to starboard but then turns his attention to a rating whose shirt tails are hanging out. In bawling out the rating and then the officers for disobeying his orders on dress code he fails to realise the ship is still turning, as no course has been set. Eventually the target towline is cut as the ship turns full circle. In informing base of the event he lies by blaming the mishap on a defective cable. His next foul up comes when the Caine is sent to support an invasion. Required to escort landing craft to a departure point Queeg becomes agitated at their slow speed, which places him and his ship in a fire zone longer than he would like. So he orders full speed ahead, drops a yellow marker at the departure point, then scuttles back to safety just as fast the engines will allow. This apparent act of cowardice earns Queeg the label of Old Yellowstain, a name quickly spread by Keefer but only behind the captain’s back. In one of his more rational moments Queeg calls an officers meeting where he offers an olive branch, which in effect is a cry for help. Shamefully no one comes to the aid of the beleaguered captain as he sits there playing with his stress balls (no not them! these are steel ball-bearings juggled in the palm of your hand).
If ever there were clips placed in a time capsule for movie buffs of the distant future to experience the feeling of embarrassment they would have to include the missing strawberry investigation from The Caine Mutiny. In an effort to win back the support of the officers Queeg has tinned strawberries served at dinner. Later when he fancies a further helping he learns that the tin is empty and is convinced a thief has been at work. To prove he is right he has the tin filled with sand then, with the officers present, removes scoopfuls depending on how many helpings each officer revealed they had. With sand still left in the tin he presumes that someone had made a duplicate key to the officers’ pantry and stolen the precious remaining strawberries. As if that is not enough to order a straight jacket, he then has the entire crew and the whole ship searched for keys, which are then collected. On probing the ensuing mountain of keys he cannot find a duplicate for the pantry. Well I suppose it could have worked for Sherlock.
Keeler urges Maryk to take over command as Queeg must be mentally ill but the Executive Officer remains undecided. When the ship encounters a typhoon Queeg shows a lack of seamanship, placing the ship in danger of sinking. Maryk relieves him of command and steers the ship into the wind to ride out the storm. Keith as Officer of the Deck at the time supports Maryk’s action but Keeler remains silent. Subsequently Maryk stands trial for mutiny and is defended by Lt. Barney Greenwald an inexperienced seaman but a stand up principled lawyer. Greenwald is played by the articulate but fast talking José Ferrer. As each witness gives evidence the defence position becomes more precarious particularly after Keeler’s testimony for the prosecution where he argues that Maryk’s actions were unwarranted.
Greenwald declines to cross-examine the two-faced Keeler but does unravel the evidence of the prosecution’s star witness, a psychiatrist who had declared Queeg to be perfectly sane. When Queeg is called Greenwald recalls all the mishaps and strange behaviour that occurred on the Caine. As he becomes more and more agitated Queeg brings out his stress balls but they are of little help and by the time the duplicate key is mentioned his paranoia has reached such mega proportions that even the prosecutor (a cameo role for E. G. Marshall) is stunned.
Having been acquitted Maryk is celebrating with the ship’s other officers when an inebriated Greenwald enters who has been drowning out his sorrow for having to paint Queeg as the villain, when he believes him to be the victim. He then challenges the real villain by throwing his drink into Keefer’s face.
Although a brilliant movie there are a couple of aspects that make me cringe. The soap saga of Keith’s love triangle with a nightclub singer and his disapproving overbearing mother was, like the book, an unnecessary distraction with painful dialogue and wooden acting from all three. Thankfully their scenes were short and infrequent but all the same irritating like that betting advert with ‘you know who’ that breaks up a good detective story on TV. My other gripe is the main music score which is another brass banded ‘how America won the war march’ so common in those days. It’s good to see that Hollywood eventually moved away to a more melodious music score for their military based movies. These unhelpful aspects in no way detract from Bogart’s powerful interpretation of the neurotic Captain Queeg which proved beyond doubt that he was the finest American actor of his generation and remains unsurpassed by those which have followed since.