Friday, January 25, 2013

"The Caine Mutiny" with Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer (1954)


This is another one of my all-time favorite classic movies, and I have to wonder how the geniuses at Columbia Pictures ever let this one be re-released with Van Johnson’s name misspelled on the cover!  Seems as if someone should have caught that one…

“The Caine Mutiny” is the brilliant screen adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1950 best seller of the same name. It is billed as a work of fiction, but the whole story is actually grounded in some truth. And that truth includes the fact that Admiral Halsey completely ignored all storm warnings which had been issued to the fleet, taking them into the heart of a typhoon which cost ships and lives at a time when we could least afford them. As a matter of fact, the Admiral was actually brought before a Naval Court of Inquiry concerning the matter. The full story can be found in the book “Halsey’s Typhoon”, which I reviewed here in October 2009 shortly after its release. 

The film takes place during the Second World War in the Pacific aboard a minesweeper named the Caine. The crew is tired and worn out from heavy operations in support of the continuous island hopping necessary to win the war against the Japanese. Their skipper is as tired of the war as his crew is, and is very happy to be relieved by a new captain, Commander Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart.

The old skipper, Cmdr. DeVriess, ran a lax ship; he did very little by the book; allowing the crew to do its job with as little interference as possible. But the new Captain is a “by the books” man, with very little imagination of his own. He has seen long service in the North Atlantic and is clearly on the verge of mental collapse. The rule book, along with his own personal problems; which would today be labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; have  conspired to leave him very little room, or patience, for anything which falls outside of the “norm”. Every shirt tail must be tucked in, and there are no acceptable explanations for any breach of the rules; no matter how insignificant. His efforts to immediately reform the crew only serve to make then resent him even further.

To complicate matters even more, the Captain’s three main officers, including his executive officer Lt. Maryk, played by Van Johnson; and his Operations Officer, Tom Keefer; played by Fred MacMurray; do little to advise him, contributing to the building drop in morale. When the crew finds itself lost in the typhoon, with the Captain seemingly incapable of making the simplest of decisions in order to save his ship from the storm, Lt. Maryk takes decisive action and relieves Captain Queeg of his command. His intentions are noble, but he has been misled by his Ops officer into thinking he has the legal authority to take command of the vessel.

When the storm is over, the ship is called into port for a Court Martial of the officers involved in the “mutiny” aboard the Caine. In one of the most exciting courtroom scenes on film, Lt. Maryk’s attorney, Lt. Barney Greenwald; played by Jose Ferrer; challenges the courts assertion that Captain Queeg is not mentally ill. Although the evidence points to cowardice on the part of the Captain, the defense maintains that “an officer in the United States Navy cannot possibly be a coward, and so the explanation must lie elsewhere.”
This is one of the most dramatic films about the pressures of life aboard a naval ship in wartime, and how they affect both those who are in command, as well as those who are serving beneath them.

For those with any lingering doubts, this film will dispel any notion you may have concerning whether; or not; Jose Ferrer is the father of actor Van Diesel. Mr. Ferrer’s role in this film; although short; is one of the most important ones. The screenwriters shortened his siliqouy a bit, taking out the part about the Germans wanting to turn his “grandmother into soap”, which was one of the most effective portions of the scene in which he confronts the mutineers with the reality of their crime after having won the case against them.

Fred MacMurray is wonderfully cynical as the would be author Ton Keefer, who plants the seeds of mutiny in Lt. Maryk’s head, and then does nothing to aid in his defense at trial. Mr. MacMurray would later shed his darker roles in films like “Double Indemnity” and “The Caine Mutiny” for lighter, more family friendly parts in Disney films such as “The Absent Minded Professor”, “ Flubber “ and “The Shaggy Dog”,  all of which led him to becoming type cast as the perennial father type, as evidenced in the television series “My Three Sons”, which aired for several seasons in the 1960’s.

Of special note is that future President Ford was a seaman serving aboard one of the ships caught in the real life typhoon depicted in this film. Also, look for Lee Marvin playing "Meatball", a crew member who later appears at the trial.

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