The Caine Mutiny: What Lies Beneath a Man

Herman Wouk (who is remarkably still with us as of this post at 103), was the author of a book that garnered a Pulitzer Prize: The Caine Mutiny. This would have put it on the radar for a film version at any rate. But according to my research, it was optioned even before it became a hit with critics and the public.

Humphrey Bogart campaigned for the role of Captain Queeg, which was somewhat of a departure from his regular roles, although he had played characters verging on the point of madness before. (See The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for one of the better examples of this type of character). The all-star cast of the film included Van Johnson, José Ferrer and Fred MacMurray.

Fred MacMurray’s career was mostly as good-natured comedic characters such as Steve Douglas in the long-running TV series My Three Sons and a host of Disney films, but I personally think his best work was when he deviated from that niche and played flawed characters (read: villains) in such movies as Double Indemnity. In The Caine Mutiny, MacMurray plays what is essentially the real villain of the piece, despite Bogart’s bravo performance as an unhinged captain.

The Navy originally was reluctant to lend it’s support to the film because as they claimed “there has never been a mutiny in the United States Navy.” Wouk, for his part was distraught over this and offered to return the advance money paid him for the book rights, but Stanley Kramer, the producer, and writers changed enough of the story that eventually they got the Navy’s help, going so far as to let the production use Navy personnel and ships for filming of the action sequences.

The Caine Mutiny (1954):

The real star of this movie is Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis, who by the way only starred in four movies before his untimely death). Keith has just graduated the Naval Academy and is assigned to the USS Caine. The ship a minesweeper, but one that, to Keith’s shock, is run haphazardly by the commander, Captain De Vriess (Tom Tully).

Eventually De Vriess is relieved of his command and the Caine gets a new captain, Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). Things start out with a bang as Queeg observes a sailor with his shirt untucked and appoints Keith as a morale officer, with one of his specific duties to see that every sailor on board is in ship shape, “by the book” as Queeg says.

During a training exercise however, Queeg finds one of the sailors not dressed appropriately and dresses down both the sailor and Keith for lack of discipline. Unfortunately during the dressing down Queeg lapses on his command and the ship cuts a towline. But Queeg refuses to take responsibility, instead trying to blame it all on inefficient manufacturing.

Several other incidents occur on board which cause Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray) to pose the suspicion that Queeg has become mentally unstable, and tries to convince his fellow officers of this. But Maryk will have none of it, although he does decide to keep a log book on incidents. Eventually he agrees with Keefer and the three decide to report it to Admiral Halsey. But Keefer chickens out at the last minute.

The situation becomes critical when, during a typhoon, Queeg becomes erratic and Maryk takes steps to relieve Queeg of his command, using an article in the Navy code that gives him authority to take over when the captain has become obviously unable to perform his duties.

Back at base, Maryk and Keith end up on trial. Their defense lawyer, Lt. Greenwald (José Ferrer) reluctantly takes the case, after several other officers have refused to defend the pair. Things look bleak for the defendants throughout most of the trial until Queeg takes the stand. Bogart as Queeg really shines in this sequence as an officer who tries to put up a front but is essentially a little too far gone as a man.

Queeg, who at one point is compared to Captain Bligh (the villain of Mutiny on the Bounty) is the ostensible villain of the piece, but as stated by one commentator in the special features, and I agree, the real villain is Keefer. At one point in the trial he actually lies on the stand, claiming that he had no real part in the events that lead up to Maryk taking command, when in fact it was his efforts that instigated all the actions.

A final confrontation between Greenwald and Keefer after the trial nails this home when Greenwald says he wishes he could have been the prosecutor and would have gladly taken the role if Keefer had been the defendant.

This is a riveting film. It turns out that there is a lot to hold my interest. All the actors in the piece are excellent. Including the aforementioned star,s you’ll also see such familiar faces as Lee Marvin, E. G. Marshall, Claude Akins, Jerry Paris (Dick “Rob Petrie” Van Dyke’s neighbor in the TV series The Dick Van Dyke Show), Whit Bissell (a familiar character actor of the era), and several others.

The movie was nominated for seven Oscars. Bogart lost to Marlon Brando for Best Actor, Tully lost to Edmund O’Brien for Best Supporting Actor, and the movie lost to On the Waterfront for Best Picture. In fact, it lost in every category for which it was nominated. In a year without the competition offered by On the Waterfront, it probably would have won a few of those.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This article originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing 10th anniversary celebrations.