• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:November 15, 2021

The Caine Mutiny: Cracking Under Pressure


cainemutinyThis classic film, which became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1954, opens with a statement declaring that there has never been a mutiny aboard a U.S. warship. Apparently, writer Herman Wouk found the subject intriguing enough to explore, but when the time came to turn his novel into a major Hollywood picture, some of the most controversial aspects were toned down. Some might call it a sell-out, but the filmmakers actually made the story more complex, particularly by including a sequence where the infamous Captain Queeg admits that his behavior has not been stellar and asks his officers for help, but is given the silent treatment. It’s a complicated choice to view Queeg as a villain, because there are few real heroes serving on the Caine.

Running an undisciplined crew
In 1944, young Willie Keith (Robert Francis) has just signed up for midshipman school with the Navy and is assigned to the destroyer minesweeper USS Caine. Keith learns that the ship has seen better days and is currently captained by Lieutenant Commander William De Vriess (Tom Tully) who runs a very undisciplined crew. Keith disapproves of De Vriess and is happy to learn that he’s being replaced. The new captain, Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), has spent two stressful years in the North Atlantic fighting German subs and the experience has taken a toll. Queeg instantly tries to bring back discipline to the crew of the Caine, but his behavior soon has everybody on the ship talking. During gunnery practice, Queeg spends too much time yelling at Keith for allowing a crewman to walk around with his shirttails hanging out and botches the Caine’s part of the mission.

The incident is followed by another where he seems too scared to make a decision. His behavior is increasingly questioned and discussed among Queeg’s closest men, Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray) and Keith.

One of Bogart’s very best
The film became one of director Edward Dmytryk’s most prominent (a grand comeback after the horrible McCarthy years), featuring one of Bogart’s very best performances. He made a career out of playing anti-heroes, people who normally refused to do the right thing unless there was something in it for them. Some of his characters walked a fine line between sanity and mental illness, particularly in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but none of them has become such a symbol of paranoia as Captain Queeg.

Bogart makes the most out of the man, constantly rolling steel balls in his hand, giving his officers suspicious looks, appearing unshaved, sweaty and even somewhat hunched. That final scene where he cracks during the court-martial hearing is spell-binding and certainly an inspiration for that equally mesmerizing courtroom scene in A Few Good Men (1992). But Bogart also knows how to make Queeg look human, a war hero who has suffered too much pain lately. He leads an outstanding cast, featuring great performances by Johnson and especially MacMurray, who initially contributes a humorously laidback, cynical attitude but eventually turns out to be a conniving coward, perhaps the real villain of the piece.

Less interesting is Francis and his relationship with May Wynn, which takes up too much screen time. Still, Dmytryk’s direction is first-rate, employing a varied use of newly-shot and archival footage.

The Navy took some convincing before they decided to endorse the film; after all, the story could have set a dangerous precedent. But this is one of those occasions where the filmmakers actually succeed in creating something ambiguous and challenging thanks to the constrictions.

The Caine Mutiny 1954-U.S. 125 min. Color. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Screenplay: Stanley Roberts. Novel: Herman Wouk. Music: Max Steiner. Editing: William A. Lyon, Henry Batista. Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Philip Queeg), Jose Ferrer (Barney Greenwald), Van Johnson (Steve Maryk), Robert Francis, May Wynn, Fred MacMurray… E.G. Marshall, Lee Marvin. 

Trivia: Followed by a TV movie, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988).

Last word: “You elicit your strong performances two ways. First, you give the actors confidence that they can do something. You’re working in the most insecure business in the world. I always say that the director is the biggest actor on the set because he’s got to act like he knows what he’s doing, even though half the time he doesn’t. He’s just as insecure as the others, but he can’t let the crew know that because if the crew senses that he’s insecure, he’s in serious trouble; they won’t work as hard. The thing you have to do is give them and the actors confidence. You do that by letting them know that you love them.” (Dmytryk on directing Bogart, MovieMaker)



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