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Film Review - The Caine Mutiny (1954)
In 1951 the novelist Herman Wouk published a story loosely based on his experiences serving on minesweepers during the Second World War. The story - 'The Caine Mutiny' - went on to receive huge critical acclaim, topped by the award of the Pulitzer Prize. A stage play followed, and perhaps it was inevitable that a movie version would be made soon afterwards. And when it was released in 1954 the feature film of 'The Caine Mutiny' was also received with great enthusiasm with 7 Oscar nominations. The most deserved of all the nominations was for one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Humphrey Bogart, for his performance in the leading role of Captain Queeg. It is a stunning portrayal, and quite a brave one for such a film star to take on, because Queeg is a challenging and deeply unglamorous role, and this review is a tribute to that performance.
'The Caine Mutiny' is a war film. But much more than that, it is a drama of one man's struggle to keep control even as his mental stability seemingly is breaking down.
The outcome of the mutiny court martial is revealed in this review. There are no warnings in the text as there will be little doubt during the watching of the movie as to the legitimacy or otherwise of the mutiny. But if readers nonetheless wish to be kept in the dark, then I would urge that they watch the movie before reading the review. It is well worth watching.
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What makes a great film? Everyone will have their own views, but perhaps the only defining quality is quality itself. This, however, is my list of 100 of the greatest films ever made. The list also includes links to all my film reviews.
Keith's Story in Pictures
What's the Story ?
This movie begins with a passing out ceremony for newly enlisted ensigns in the American navy during the Second World War. One of these new sailors is Ensign Willie Keith, an idealistic young man looking forward enthusiastically to his first assignment. We don't know too much about Ensign Keith, save that he has a girlfriend who's a singer and he comes from an affluent family with a rather forceful controlling mother and an uncle who has influence in the upper echelons of the Navy. That's about all, but during this movie Keith will learn a whole lot more about himself, and about the service he's joined - not all of it good.
His first disappointment is that far from being assigned to the battleship or carrier of his dreams, he is sent to serve on a minesweeper called the U.S.S Caine, a ramshackle, rusty, uninspiring vessel. And he is very quickly relieved of any further illusions about this boat when he sees the less than prim crew at work scrubbing the decks and hanging out the laundry. Even the Captain, William DeFriess, advises him:
'The Caine is a beaten up tub. After 18 months of combat it takes 24 hours a day just to keep her in one piece ... Whether you like it or not Keith, you're in the junkyard navy.
It is a view shared by the crew, none more so than Communications Officer Lieutenant Keefer - an 'intellectual' man who is full of self-belief in his own abilities, and clearly of the opinion that the Caine is not worthy of his skills. He also has a rich line in sarcastic quips. He tells Keith:
'[The Caine] was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots ... To operate, all you need is any group of well trained monkeys. 99% of everything we do is strict routine. Only 1% requires creative intelligence.'
It's a sad situation for Keith. He's not happy with the Caine, or with the disenchanted Captain DeVriess, who for his part seems to be less than taken with the young Ensign's obvious distaste. He taunts Keith:
'Is the ship too messy for you?'
As Keith struggles to find a diplomatic answer, Keefer answers for him amid general laughter:
'It's a ridiculous question. The question is, is this mess a ship?'
Time goes on and the Caine is involved in several training exercises (it hasn't actually cleared one single mine to date). And one begins to recognise that despite all his apparent shortcomings, DeVriess does at least have the respect of his crew. Disillusioned he may be, but he is making the best of what he has. That is lost on Keith. So when DeVriess is finally given new orders which take him away from The Caine, there is general sadness from all except the young Ensign. Keith looks forward to a new and more efficient and correct Captain. What he gets is Philip Francis Queeg.
And after initial relief at Queeg's very different, more disciplinarian approach, Ensign Keith rapidly joins the rest of the crew in developing strong reasons for believing that this change of Captain has not been for the better. A series of incidents, coupled with some very odd speeches and erratic obsessions lead the crew to begin to doubt Queeg's competence or his mental stability. And then when The Caine finally faces hostile action, his courage also seems to desert him. Queeg's behaviour increasingly disturbs his senior officers, and after considerable hesitancy, the most senior of all his lieutenants decides in a moment of crisis that the time has come when he has to relieve his Captain of his command. Lieutenant Steve Maryk mutinies, and he does so with the support of Keith.
But then there is the aftermath. Maryk and Keith must face the consequences of their actions in a court-martial. And Captain Queeg must hold his head together and try to convince the court he is a competent and sane officer.
Main Cast & Characters
Lt. Cmdr Philip Francis Queeg
Ensign Willie Keith
Lt. Steve Maryk
Lt. Tom Keefer
Facts of the Film
DIRECTOR : Edward Dmytryk
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- Stanley Roberts (Screenplay)
- Michael Blankfort (additional dialogue)
- Herman Wouk (Novel)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1954
RUNNING TIME : 124 minutes
GENRE : Drama, War
GUIDENCE : None required
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Stanley Kramer (Best Picture)
- Humphrey Bogart (Best Actor)
- Tom Tully (Best Supporting Actor)
- Stanley Roberts (Best Writer/Screenplay)
- William A Lyon, Henry Batista (Best Film Editing)
- Max Steiner (Best Music)
- John P Livadary (Best Sound Recording)
Key Characters and Performances
At a time when Hollywood's film stars could usually be pigeon-holed into typical glamorous hero roles, one of its very biggest stars was anything but orthodox in his choice of lead roles. Humphrey Bogart did play the hero, but he also played the villain, and in several of his most successful films he had the versatility to play some deeply unglamorous characters. One such role was that of Philip Queeg in 'The Caine Mutiny'; and Queeg is a sweaty, frightened man, at times bullying, at times lonely and insecure. He is struggling to keep control of his own emotions whilst holding down a vital responsibility as Captain of a ship at war. The stress is causing his mental state to dangerously deteriorate. It's a difficult role, and Humphrey Bogart was one of the few stars who could pull it off. He does so brilliantly, and perhaps the resultant nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards should have been transformed into the Award for Best Actor.
Ensign Keith is played by Robert Francis. There is little to say about the character - the script didn't allow Francis to bring too much depth to the portrayal and despite the introduction of a girlfriend and a domineering mother, we don't really get under his skin and discover much about his deeper thoughts, or his turmoil when presented with the dilemma of a Captain whom he at first admires, but then loses confidence in. None the less, Francis was a young actor showing great promise, and his clean cut handsome looks led to several more co-leads. But in 1955, at the age of 25, and already with a pilot's licence as well as an acting career, he took off from Burbank airport in his private plane. The plane crashed soon after in a car park and Francis was killed.
Fred MacMurray - one of the most distinctive of all film actors - played the part of Lt. Keefer. If anything this is an even less glamorous role than that of Queeg. Keefer is a wise cracking but deeply cynical individual who isn't afraid to bad-mouth his seniors behind their backs. But when it comes to the crunch and actually standing up for what he believes, Keefer has a yellow streak far wider than anything Queeg displays. If there is anyone who comes out of this story with no integrity and no sympathy, it is Keefer, not Queeg. Although he also appeared in many light comedies, Fred MacMurray was great at playing unpleasant, duplicitous characters, and the role of Lt. Keefer could have been written just for him.
Other roles of significance include that of Lt. Maryk, a decent hard working officer who tries to show loyalty to his commander whether it be the rather disillusioned DeVriess, or the mentally disturbed Queeg. Only when the safety of the Caine and its crew are at stake is he forced to break that loyalty. It's a good honest performance by Van Johnson. A similarly professional job is done by Jose Ferrer in the role of the defence counsel Lt Greenwald at the court martial of the mutineers.
Finally mention must also be made of Tom Tully, whose portrayal of the outgoing Captain DeVriess is full of world-weariness and disenchantment. He turns in a good performance, and it was felt worthy of the second acting nomination for this film at the 1955 Academy Awards - that of Best Supporting Actor.
I would suggest that the complicated love-tussle for Ensign Willie Keith's affections between his mother and his girlfriend, is all rather odd and not very credible. A conversation between Keith and May Wynn in which they decide to end their relationship while he is on shore leave suggests that their love is very flimsily held together. What's more, it is difficult to fathom out the relevance of these relationships to the events on board the U.S.S Caine - if indeed there is meant to be any relevance. Others clearly felt so too - in 1952, the New York Times revealed that two scripts had been prepared for the forthcoming film - one which included the romance, and one which concentrated solely upon the events on board the Caine and the subsequent court-martial.
Originally Richard Widmark was ear marked for the role of Captain Queeg, before producer Stanley Kramer decided Bogart was the better option.
Lee Marvin, who was to become a big film star in his own right in later years, played the minor role of 'Meatball' in this movie. He also served as an unofficial consultant on the movie, as he had previous experience of serving in the United States Marine Corps.
One of the performers in this movie was actress Donna Lee Hickey. But In 1954, she adopted the stage name of May Wynn after the character whom she played in this movie. May Wynn is the name of Willie Keith's girlfriend, and May Wynn is how the actress's name appeared in the credits (and in 8 subsequent movies).
Van Johnson's forehead scars in the role of Lt. Maryk are genuine. While working on an earlier film 'A Guy Named Joe', Johnson had been involved in a car crash and he'd been thrown through the windscreen. In many of his later films these scars were cosmetically covered up, but for this movie it was felt they added something to his character.
The U.S Navy only sanctioned filming on its vessels on condition that a notice was added to the opening credits pointing out that this was a work of fiction and that in fact no mutiny had ever taken place on a U.S vessel.
Although the story is fictional, certain elements were authentic. Admiral Halsey, referred to in the script, was a real U.S Admiral, and his fleet did suffer the loss of three destroyers as described in the film on 17th December 1944, when Typhoon Cobra struck. What's more, despite the unsympathetic nature of the role, Tom Keefer has clear echoes in writer Herman Wouk's own life. Not only did Wouk serve on two minesweepers, but during his off duty moments, like Keefer, he was also busy doing some creative writing - a novel called 'Aurora Dawn'.
There was a young aspiring actor in England called Maurice Micklewhite who decided on a new screen name after watching this movie - he decided to call himself 'Michael Caine'.
The Appeal for Support Scene
The Strawberry Scene
The Courtroom Scene
There are three great scenes in this movie, and they all have one thing in common - they are all tour-de-force monologues by Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg. All allow him to give free reign to his abilities to play the part of a man on the brink - or maybe falling over the brink - of a mental breakdown. Furtive glances around the room, eyes rolling, uncomfortable fidgeting, and paranoid ramblings. It's all there in these three speeches.
In the first, Captain Queeg has just experienced his first hostile action in charge of the Caine, and he's made a serious mistake, laying himself open to a charge of cowardice. He gathers his senior officers around him and attempts to rationalise what happened with a mixture of self-justification and an appeal for support. His words are included in the next section on this page, 'Favourite Quotes'.
The second scene is one of the most memorable in any drama of this kind. Queeg has discovered something very disturbing, and he feels the need to address his officers in the small hours of the morning. And the object of his concern? It is the conviction that someone has stolen the last of the strawberries which had been served as a desert earlier in the day. He proceeds to question everyone about how many spoonfuls of strawberries they had consumed, and then he works out with a can of sand and mathematical precision that some strawberries have gone missing. The result is a triumphant proof that some fruit has indeed been stolen, and Queeg's solution is revealing:
'I've worked out a very simple plan. First we collect every key on this ship and tag it with the name of the owner. Second, we strip all hands to make sure we've got all the keys. Third we test each key on the ice box padlock.'
It's a re-enactment of a crowning moment from Queeg's past when as a young ensign he received a commendation for uncovering a petty theft on his ship. What makes this scene so special is Queeg's attention to detail, his all-consuming obsession with proving his point, and his over the top reaction to a most trivial matter.
The third scene is the court-martial in which Queeg betrays his mental instability for all to see. He faces cross-examination by the defence lawyer for Lieutenant Maryk, Barney Greenwald. He begins to defend himself, at first with some rationality, but gradually his paranoid belief in persecution by all on board the Caine begins to surface, and his defence becomes more rambling and delusional by the minute. And the courtroom becomes quieter and sadder as his breakdown becomes clear. Bogart - one of Hollywood's 'tough guys' - brings tragic pathos to the scene, and the viewer switches from wishing only to see Maryk and Keith acquitted, to feeling sympathy for the character of Captain Queeg.
The very nature of Queeg's state of mind means that although the acting by Humphrey Bogart is powerful and the speeches are absorbing, most do not read well on the page. They are just too rambling and confused.
One which reads slightly better is the following monologue in defence of his decision making. More importantly in respect of later events, it is an appeal for help. Soon after the Caine's first hostile action, the Captain addresses his officers in a most uncomfortable meeting:
'I know some of you are perhaps a little afraid of me. Well I'm not that terrible. I have a wife and a child and a dog, and they're rather fond of me. Even the dog doesn't think I'm a monster. Perhaps certain things happened today ..... I always say command is a lonely job. It isn't easy to make decisions. Sometimes the captain of a ship needs help, and by help I mean 'constructive loyalty'. What I'm trying to say is that a ship is like a family; we all have our ideas of right and wrong, but we have to pitch in for the good of the family. If there was only some way we could help each other? I - um - if there's anything any of you would like to say? ..... I mean, I'd be glad to listen.'
Throughout this speech Queeg is fumbling with some metal balls which he keeps perpetually in his pocket and which he always brings out as a kind of a pacifier to be used whenever he is feeling ill at ease. Throughout, he is desperately looking for some sign of encouragement. The man is like a lonely child who knows he's done wrong and wants someone to comfort him. But no response is forthcoming. No offer of support or advice. Just silence.
After Queeg has left the room, Lt Maryk acknowledges:
'It wasn't exactly an apology, but it was as close as he could get to one. We could have backed him up.'
Even this speech written down on paper does not appear particularly memorable. But the words, coupled with the mannerisms and the intonation of the character, betray the obvious signs of a man under stress and in need of help. It is one of Humphrey Bogart's finest moments as an actor.
What's so Good About It ?
What's so good about this movie is first and foremost Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest roles. Most famous for playing dry witted private eyes and gangsters, Phillip Francis Queeg is the kind of film part which really tests the mettle of an actor, and Bogart truly demonstrates his abilities playing him.
Of course alongside the acting, it is the script which makes a movie great, and here we have a story which is really quite bold for the decade in which it was written. This was the 1950s, so soon after the Second World War and the Korean War and in the midst of the Un-American Activities witch hunt, and this was a movie which tackled failings in the U.S Navy and its leadership, including issues of chain of command and the following of orders, mental strain and cowardice. Certainly 'The Caine Mutiny' provides a thought-provoking examination of a man who is alone in his position of responsibility, and who buckles under the stress.
The script makes an interesting point in the closing scenes when military lawyer Barney Greenwald chastises the officers - Maryk, Keith and above all, Tom Keefer, for their failure to help out Queeg on the occasion when he most needed - and indeed pleaded - for their support. He points out Queeg's fine service record, his contribution to the navy which exceeds that of any of his subordinates, and he suggests that Queeg's downfall is nothing to celebrate. One may argue that the mutineers had little choice in their actions and that supporting Queeg would only have delayed the inevitable crisis which his captaincy decisions created. Nonetheless, it is a bold way to end this movie implying that almost no one comes out of the affair with real credit.
Mention should also be made of the music. Too often full orchestral scores of this era intrude into and overwhelm the action in an inappropriate way, but here the score, which plays intermittently throughout the movie, adds much, and its composer Max Steiner earned an Oscar nomination for it.
Conclusions and Recommendations
There are many sound reasons for watching 'The Caine Mutiny'. The quite daring storyline is one good reason. The intriguing personalities of Captain Queeg and Lieutenant Tom Keefer are further good reasons - two complex characters of a kind one doesn't often see in mainstream films. Above all there is the performance of Humphrey Bogart in his portrayal of Queeg, the words which he delivers, and the script which tells his tale.
Whatever reason one chooses, this is one of the great films of the 1950s and it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
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