REVIEW: The Caine Mutiny (1954) Dir. Edward Dymytrk

TheCaineMutinyI can finally check off The Caine Mutiny on my list of films I needed to see.  But to tell you the truth this won’t be the only time I watch this incredible, brilliant film.  For a film like this to be made in 1954, there are themes here I would have never expected of a movie made in this time period.  The title implies the event of the mutiny in the film, but the real mutiny is much deeper, which is the abandonment and destruction of one man during a crisis.  This is actually a film about a man who becomes mentally ill, and the misunderstanding and judgement placed on him as a result of his actions.  The people around him only see him for the diagnosis and not the actual man that led him up to this moment.  What’s brilliant about it is that up until the final moments of the film, we’re actually on the crews side.  Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) suffers a breakdown that puts crew in serious jeopardy during a typhoon.  But what matters is the build up to that moment as the navel crew comes to their own conclusions about what is happening to the captain, which is the primary influencing factor when the mutiny takes place and he’s relieved of command.  But when we get to Navy Lawyer Lt. Greenwald’s (Jose Ferrer) final telling off of the crew at the end, after in court he just destroyed the 14 year career of a respected navel captain, it’s clear that Queeg was really a victim of his own personal pain.  Nobody could see it except Greenwald, who was forced through circumstances to destroy this great mans reputation.

I have to say, I was misled in siding with the crew during Queeg’s building insanity, but all the while I kept thinking there was something wrong with the crews reaction to what was happening.  Our entry point into the film is through young Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) after just graduating from the Navel Academy.  He’s also a mama’s boy, a little stuck between mom and his girlfriend, and whose really the most important woman in his life.  But Willie is assigned to The Caine, which as far as battleships go is a rust bucket.  The crew is sloppy and undisciplined.  The first commander, Captain Blakely, struggles to keep the ship in order.  Willie doesn’t care for Blakely much because of all the disorder on the ship, and is relieved when Blakely is replaced by the much more strict and enforcer of discipline, Captain Queeg.  But while Queeg puts in a good effort to clean up the men and turn the ship around, his enforcing of discipline goes to far.  Queeg covers up for a training exercise gone wrong, makes the ship run away in combat, and then more disturbing things happen when he wakes up the core officers at one in the morning complaining about a quart of missing frozen strawberries from dinner, and more.  Ensign Keith and Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray) try convincing First Officer Maryk (Van Johnson) that the Captain is suffering from some Paranoid mental disorder and that he needs to do something to relieve him of command.  Maryk gets caught up in the confusion, and when Queeg puts the ship in danger during the typhoon, Maryk feels he has no choice but to mutiny with the crew and relieve Queeg of command.

On the surface all of the decisions of the crew make sense, and we sympathize with them for the majority of the movie.  When I was watching everything happening, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something else going on.  At first I thought Queeg might have been putting an act on the crew, playing the part of a ruthless tyrant to help turn around a ship that was considered a joke to the rest of the navy.  But as the film went on, I could see this wasn’t an act at all and that there was something going on with him.  I was actually deceived by the plot as well, because quite honestly I never expected a film from 1954 to actually take mental illness in a human being seriously.  During the court room scene, the prosecutor (played by the marvelous E.G. Marshall) makes a point in his defense that Queeg did in fact turn a broken ship and crew around and bring it up to military standard.  The whole point of the prosecutions case is that the crew failed to see Queeg as a man.  The crew gave him a mental illness diagnosis when they had no experience with psychiatry at all, except what they picked out of a book.  When Maryk is on trial for leading the mutiny and is put on the stand, the prosecutor hammered him  with questions like, “Do you know what a schizophrenic is? A manic/depressive?  A paranoid delusional?”, all of which the answer was no.  When you watch the prosecutor go after Maryk, it seems at first that he’s being too hard on him when we as an audience were actually there and sympathized with Maryk when he struggled trying to make the right choice, and was pressured into his decision to lead the mutiny.  But no one on the crew really allowed themselves to get to know the captain, or attempt to be friends with him when he was being such a taskmaster.

TheCaineMutiny2Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Queeg is phenomenal.  For someone who appears to be an antagonistic character, I sympathized with him deeply.  There was a moment where after his bad call in the training mission, he makes an attempt to apologize to his officers. He can’t get himself to actually say it, but in his own way tries to get them to understand him and tell them the pressure he’s under (and not just pressure from command).  In his eyes you can see how bad Queeg feels about what happened.  What you also see is the distance and the deep loneliness he feels.  This is a man who has suffered something harsh in his life.  Something happened to him which the film never explains.  We never know anything about his backstory until the courtroom scene, and we only hear about his accommodations and the respect the Navy held for him in his 14 years of service at the very end.  This is also the reason we see the story from the perspective of the younger officer, who doesn’t have the experience in life or the knowledge to know what it means to be an esteemed Navel officer.  The first officer should have actually known better, as well as Lt. Keefer.  But both he and Maryk make the mistake of listening to Keefer, and it’s Keefer’s own arrogance and self righteousness that blinds the two officers from what they can’t see about Queeg’s behavior.  Their own personal intuition is blocked by the self righteousness of one man.  Lt. Keith even admitted in court that he liked Captain Queeg at first when he met him, because he enforced much needed discipline on the ship.  But he was convinced by Keefer to turn against Queeg.

When Maryk is on trial for his actions and Lt. Greenwald (Ferrer) decides to defend him, he realizes during the trial what the crew really had done.  Knowing Queeg’s incredible reputation, he is forced by the system to destroy this great mans career.  During the crews celebration of the victory of the trial, Greenwald comes in and shuts them all down, telling them what they had just done.  The ending of the film makes a powerful and brilliant statement.  It’s not only a statement about judging a person because of mental illness, but it also tells us what happens when we fail to follow our own intuition because of fear and misunderstanding.  When we feel we can’t make our own decisions, we allow other people to make them for us, which can lead to disastrous consequences.  In this case, it was Ensign Keith and First Officer Maryk who stopped listening to themselves, and started listening to Keefer instead, which influenced their decision to relieve Queeg.  And then in the courtroom when Keefer is on the stand, he turns against his crewmen, lying to save his own skin.  It’s not until the penultimate moment at the party after the trial, the crew realizes what they did and they finally see Keefer for who he really is.

For some of you reading this review, you might be wondering exactly what kind of film The Caine Mutiny is.  From the title alone, you would expect its a serious drama.  Things do get serious in the story, but if you’d really like to know…the film is actually very funny.  The beginning scenes introducing Ensign Willie Keith are hilarious and wonderful.  Many of the crew members are a colorful bunch of characters, and they are a lot of fun.  There’s a great scene in the beginning when Keefer is giving Keith and another ensign a tour of the rust bucket ship they’re assigned to, and Keefer says: “Well that’s the tour.  Any Questions?” Ensign:”Just one.  When do we surrender?”
It’s hilarious moments such as this that invite us into the world of the film and its crew.  We like them all right away.  It also helps that screenwriter Stanley Roberts had both the Abbot and Costello comedy, Who Done It?  as well as Death of a Salesman to his resume, showing how he could create the perfect balance of humor and drama, especially when the film needs to get serious.

“The Caine Mutiny” is a terrific film as well as an important one, which is just as relevant today as it was almost 60 years ago.

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4 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Caine Mutiny (1954) Dir. Edward Dymytrk”

  1. You talk about the film’s deception and not knowing who to side with, I think a big part of that deception was the casting. One might be led to believe that Bogart is turning in another heroic role, or Fred MacMurray is the likeable comic relief, but their roles are so much bigger than such simple labels. It was a movie that didn’t have a true villain and the casting did such a terrific job of emphasizing that. I like the review, I just wanted to throw in a bit about the cast contributing to the confusion over who to root for, especially because, like you say, in 1954 big time actors and their studios were fiercely defensive about their image, it must’ve taken some convincing to take on roles where their characters are in less than heroic light and deal with thematic elements that few movies of the period tackled.

    1. Hi Derek,

      I totally agree about the casting throwing off your expectations, which was a smart move on the filmmakers part. What’s funny too is that there’s a scene that teases the audience about Bogies introduction, where Ensign Keith comes in to meet the captain, and we hear the captains voice off screen he sounds a little like Bogart, but the guy without his shirt on turns around and it’s Captain Blakely, the guy in charge before Queeg arrives (I think it was tounge in cheek gag to make us think it was Bogie’s Captain Charlie from The African Queen!). It’s a funny moment, and possibly a subtle hint like you suggest that the actors won’t be playing the characters you expect. I don’t know the history of The Caine Mutiny, but I know while MacMurray occasionally played comic characters, he actually made a good reputation after this playing pompous self-righteous jerks (see The Apartment). We all know Bogie is no stranger to playing hard-asses. But what makes him a phenomenal actor is that regardless if his character does the right thing or not at the end or if that character becomes a victim, he makes it real by revealing to us the characters pain. He knows these men are wounded inside and that they’re trying the best they can to hide it from everyone else with his tough exterior. His reputation was made on this character type, but he was so good at it, the audience can’t help but fall in love with his persona. Casting him as Queeg’s was perfect, and the reason he was cast was because the audience knew his hard ass character type, making it easier for them to love him despite all the harsh things he would do. Any other actor would make it more difficult for the audience to invest their emotions in Queeg, especially when we’re not supposed to understand his behavior until the end of the movie. The one thing we can count on with Bogart is that there is no black and white with his characters. Especially in this film, there’s a lot of gray area with everybody, where characters unintentionally make mistakes and have to live with the consequences of their actions. That’s a sign of really well rounded and mature storytelling, and a film that has something important to say.

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