The Great Strawberry Case of ‘44
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
1954, what a year for film! Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, A Star Is Born, On the Waterfront, Seven Samurai – to name a few. Among this year of outstanding films was The Caine Mutiny; a picture which has all the hallmarks of an event movie – based on a hit novel, an ensemble cast of big names, extremely lush production values. Aside from the high-end Hollywood spectacle on offer, The Caine Mutiny is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve had the joy of watching. I appreciate these message pictures which came from producer and later director Stanley Kramer which show that people and life itself is complicated and can’t always be simplified to basic narratives. There is never a dull moment during the two hour run time of The Caine Mutiny, although director Edward Dmytryk wanted the film to be three and a half to four hours long and with the film being as layered as it is in its current form, it probably could work drawn out to a much longer length.
There’s little which would make the production values of The Caine Mutiny better. The film likes to show-off those US Navy ships and their docks in the glorious new widescreen format. The only minor criticism would be the implemented stock footage which does stick out although considering such shots would have been near impossible to film then it’s an understandable compromise. Likewise, the typhoon sequence has some very impressive model work, convincingly making a pool (presumably) in the Columbia backlot look like the Pacific Ocean during a great storm. The music score is also one among one of composer Max Steiner’s best; romantic, exciting and even has a swashbuckling tone to it.
Actor Robert Francis is not a hugely charismatic presence with or without the other big-name stars but it’s fitting to cast an unknown and rather plain actor as the POV of the viewer. Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith is a character the average moviegoer can project onto as the average Joe entering the naval world for the first time. The romance subplot involving his love interest May Wynn (played by an actress who chose her stage name after this fictional character she played) is the one inclusion in The Caine Mutiny which is questionable; in other words, it has nothing to do with the main story and feels out of place. That said despite this I do enjoy these romance scenes as I am a sucker for this kind of 1950’s fluff such as the portion of the film in which they go out to Yosemite National Park – just about the most romantic location imaginable. Full of waterfalls, mountains, horse riding, an orchestrated version of the song “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”, and no sign that there is a war going on (not to mention May Wynn is not bad on the eyes).
The cast and performances in The Caine Mutiny are exceptional. I never felt like I was watching actors but rather actual naval personal (we even get a pre-fame Lee Marvin in a small part offering some comic relief). I do find their military etiquette makes for very pleasurable listening with there never being a moment when anyone sounds rude. Van Johnson, the boy next door himself is surprisingly commanding in the role of Lieutenant Steve Maryk. Even the scars on his face which he obtained from an accident when filming A Guy Named Joe (1943) are not hidden with makeup, helping to aid his performance. Fred MacMurray, on the other hand, is an actor I find far more interesting when he is cast against type as is the case in the role of Lieutenant Tom Keefer; an elitist snob who thinks the Navy is beneath him and is much more interested in writing his novel. The character is very much the opposite of Van Johnson’s. For example, his thing of playing an amateur psychiatrist was just a little game to him until it later dawns on him the seriousness of the situation. However MacMurray’s performance is very subtle, you barely catch onto these traits unless paying close attention to his performance, another aspect which really gives The Caine Mutiny such re-watch value.
However, let’s talk about the main star of the show – Queeg; a name as infamous as Bligh. The role of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg is one of the finest performances of Humphrey Bogart’s career (and the inspiration for one of my favourite Red Dwarf episodes). Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson all played tyrannical ship captains in what I view as the Tough Guy, Tyrannical Ship Captain Trilogy (The Sea Wolf, The Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts). Queeg is one complex character whom alone makes the movie worth watching multiple times in order to fully dissect him. There is a subtle, pathetic streak to Queeg (even his posture is rather bent at times); he fails to bond with his crew even though he earnestly tries. During the first meeting with his crew, he brings out a pair of clacking metal balls upon viewing a crew member with an un-tucked shirt; metal balls which just make things feel awkward and uneasy (he probably would have a fidget spinner if the movie were made today). From day one it’s not hard to see why the crew did not warm up to him. While it could be argued Bogart is too old for the role of Queeg (it is stated in the film he was an ensign only 8 years earlier), this can more than easily be looked over as Bogart is so good and synonymous with the role. Even a moment in which Queeg talks with such confidence in relation to the missing quart of strawberries while simultaneously buttering crackers is very entertaining to watch.
The question does have to be raised if the crew had it too easy before Queeg came on board? Like the vessel in Mister Roberts, The Caine is a slack, dead-end ship. Regardless Queeg plays by the book to an obsessive degree and he overreacts to the breaking of rules which are trivial in the grand scheme of things as seen in the famous missing strawberries scene. His obsessive pre-occupation with the rules also puts the ship in danger such as during the minesweeping sequence. Likewise, during the typhoon in which the actual mutiny on board the Caine occurs, Queeg is clearly terrified and becomes paralysed with this fear. Yet Queeg is not the villain of The Caine Mutiny, he does not act in malice and it’s easy to empathise and feel sorry for him. – “A captain’s job is a lonely one. He’s easily misunderstood”.
The final third of The Caine Mutiny is comprised of a court-martial and oh is it gloriously fascinating as I am glued to the screen and eating up every word of it. Unlike many other Hollywood courtroom dramas there are no over the top hysterics but rather the actors remain subdued. That doesn’t make it any less intense though, thanks in part to the powerhouse acting presences of Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall as Lieutenant Barney Greenwald and the prosecutor Lieutenant Commander John Challee respectively.
It’s surprising the United States Navy would be involved in a film which portrayed a mentally unbalanced man as a captain as well as involving a mutiny (albeit a legalistic mutiny and not a violent one). The word “Mutiny” is even in the title of the film although I’m sure they would rather have played play linguistic semantics and called it an “Incident”. The film even opens with the disclaimer “There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy” – itself a disputable historical fact. Mayrk initially has difficulty obtaining a lawyer to defend him as the Navy’s lawyers refuse to be in the position of having to testify against a commanding officer. While a film like this can be interrupted in many different ways, I’m left feeling it doesn’t paint a great picture of the navy establishment due to the ignorance on display with the dismissing of the crew’s actions based on a preliminary investigation. As Greenwald puts it bluntly, “I think that what you’ve done stinks”.
I remember during my first time watching court marital, the moment which really stuck with me was the point brought up by the prosecutor asking Maryk how he was able to diagnose a mental illness without having the qualifications to do so. This struck me as an incredibly thought-provoking point although watching the movie years later it’s become apparent to me the prosecutor’s use of sophistry when questioning those at the stand. In relation to the aforementioned point, the prosecutor asks Maryk if he has had training in psychiatry or medicine to which Mayrk answers “none”. He also asks Mayrk to define the terms “schizophrenia“, “manic-depressive” and define the difference between “paranoid” and “paranoia”, all of which he fails to do. Isn’t it obvious to determine if someone is mentally unwell even with little knowledge of the subject matter?
Mayrk clearly does not have the ability to effectively defend himself on the stand and looks weak as a result. He is also asked immaterial questions about his school grades which his lawyer Greenwald raises no objection to (nor does he object to anything during the trial). Due to his unpreparedness, Mayrk reluctantly accepts the prosecutor’s narrative that himself and not Captain Queeg is in the wrong (“Isn’t it possible that, under pressure, you became erratic and couldn’t understand the captain’s sound decision?”). We also see the prosecutor put words in the mouth of the Lee Marvin character after he referred to the Captain’s actions as “strange”. The prosecutor then proceeds to straw-man him before he has a chance to defend himself which he clearly doesn’t the intellect to do so and accepts the mischaracterisation of what he may have been attempting to say.
Similar lines of questioning are used when the prosecutor asks Keith “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” followed by asking who is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering; an ensign who has spent little over a year abroad a ship or an experienced captain of eight years? Isn’t such a question irrelevant when the sight of a foundering ship is obvious? Keith does deal nicely with the lines of questioning he receives such as when the prosecutor asks condescending questions such as “did the captain rave and make insane gestures?” while waving his hands about, to the prosecutor’s sarcastic response of “Thank you for your expert opinion” in relation to Keith’s response about the captain’s state. At one point Keith is asked “Are you aware that the captain has been pronounced completely rational by three qualified psychiatrists?”, to which he responds “They weren’t on the board the Caine during the typhoon sir”. – Oh! #ThugLife.
Greenwald does a far more honourable job at questioning and is much more of a class act, not taking part in fallacies. He also knows how to play the game when it comes to the delicate matter of questioning a Naval officer of whom to disrespect would be a punishable offence. He states: “It’s not the defence’s contention that Lieutenant Commander Queeg is a coward. Quite the contrary. The defence assumes that no man who rises to command a United States naval ship can possibly be a coward. And that, therefore, if he commits questionable acts under fire, the explanation must be elsewhere”. That said I’m not a legal expert so I’m happy to be corrected or challenged on these observations.
When Queeg does take to the stand, Bogart’s acting is the stuff of legend. A confident and cocky Queeg gradually lets himself go and of course, he brings out the clacking metal balls. When you use a term like “geometric logic” to describe how you intended to prove the theft of strawberries then you know you’ve just dug your own grave. The culmination of this breakdown is filmed in a single, uncut, close up shot and is one of the most riveting pieces of acting I’ve ever witnessed. We are never actually told what Queeg’s verdict is but the crew of the ship celebrate the outcome at a party afterwards. Greenwald joins the procession only to give a monologue on how the crew where at least some degree complicit in the situation, pointing to the time when Queeg came to them for help and they “turned him down”. Needless to say, Greenwald is successful in changing their feelings over the situation and killing the mood of the party. This monologue is successful in being immensely thought-provoking and raising many of questions of any similar situation. Who is the victim? Who is the guilty one? Who disrespected who first? The one issue I would take with this monologue though is that it absolves Queeg of any personal responsibility.
Many people will say that movies are a mean of escaping reality; The Caine Mutiny shows how movies can be a means of understanding reality. Grab your ice cream and strawberries and enjoy!
2 thoughts on “The Caine Mutiny (1954)”
Excellent look at a movie that can truly be called a classic. Caine is an endlessly engrossing movie, an endlessly satisfying experience that never seems to satisfy until you see it again.
Such great acting in this film, with the exception of Robert Francis…but, like you said, we need his POV.
I’m surprised to learn the original plan was to have the movie run 3+ hours, but I agree it could probably hold up with a longer run time.
Terrific film, and your review has done it justice. 🙂