Classic Films: The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Columbia Pictures, Technicolor, 122 minutes, Not rated.

Add this one to your bucket list of Hollywood classics you should see. It is the morally ambiguous tale of a U.S. Navy minesweeper crew’s rebellion against its commander–a sort of World War Two era Mutiny of the Bounty, if you will. The Caine uprising is fictional, though, and is based on a 1951 Herman Wouk novel of the same name. The Caine Mutiny was critically praised and was nominated for numerous Oscars. In most years it would have been a big winner, but it came out the same year as On the Waterfront and settled for a few lesser awards.

A modern viewer needs to know a few things to best appreciate this film. First, the psychology of the day was a bit different. Freudianism was all the rage, though most people’s understanding of it was a bit like that of Caine communications officer Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray, who later starred in TV’s My Three Sons). In other words, it was much discussed, but little understood–sometimes even by psychologists themselves. There are a few now-embarrassing sequences of mother-fixation/girlfriend conflict that only make sense within the pop culture reading of Freud en vogue in the early 1950s. PTSD fell into the same category, an unfortunate consequence of which was that battle fatigue and mental illness were often misdiagnosed as cowardice.

To introduce still another matter, director Edward Dmytryk was one of the original Hollywood Ten indicted in 1947. He was accused of being a communist at a time in which the Second Red Scare had broken out and early Cold War paranoia and swept across the land. Dmytryk served time in jail for Contempt of Congress for refusing to testify. In 1951, however, he changed course, fingered several alleged communists, and resurrected his directorial career. Dmytryk’s life and times make it hard to escape the parallel levels of suspicion in the film script and those raised by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose reign of error reached its apex at the same time as The Caine Mutiny was being filmed.

The film is a character study and drama. Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis), a child of privilege, has just be assigned to the U.S.S. Caine, a motley rust bucket with a lax crew under the command of William DeVriess (Tom Tully). The timeframe isn’t pinned down, but we can tell it’s the waning days of the War in the Pacific. Willie is shocked by the lack of proper military discipline and initially welcomes the change in command that brings Lt. Commander Phillip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) to the helm to crack the whip on sloppy sailors such as “Meatball” (Lee Marvin) and “Horrible” (Claude Atkins). Queeg’s behavior, however, becomes increasingly erratic and Keefer begins to plant the seed–based on having read Freud in college–that maybe those ball bearings he twirls in his hand when he’s nervous are his missing marbles, if you catch my drift. He also goads Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), an ill-educated but fine officer, to consider he might have to take over if Captain Queeg cracks.

The ball bearings, an incident with a towed target, an investigation into missing strawberries, an escort duty, and a raging typhoon factor into the story, and are famed scenes within the film. When Queeg is finally removed from command, the film cuts to the court-martial trial of Maryk, Keith, and Keefer to determine whether they are heroes or if they illegally mutinied. Ironically, the prosecutor is E. G. Marshall, who three years later would co-star in another famed courtroom saga: 12 Angry Men. But The Caine Mutiny trial’s star is José Ferrer as Lt. Barney Greenwald, who defends the Caine crew–though not as you might imagine.

Bogart was nominated for Best Actor, but looking at the film now, we see it’s actually MacMurray’s film more than Bogart’s–even though Bogie left us with an enduring portrait of a man who cracked under too much pressure. The Caine Mutiny certainly shows its age in its stereotypical sequences, mannered acting, and telescoped narrative arc, but it remains one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films because it is such a timepiece, not to mention that it was something of a template for a what-you-see-isn’t-necessarily-what-you-get movie. In The Caine Mutiny, lots of questions are open for interpretation: cowardice, loyalty, and even insanity. Plus, it’s filmed in Technicolor and I’ve yet to see digital color that can match it.

Rob Weir

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