The Caine Mutiny

Watched The Caine Mutiny (1954) on TNT last might.  A great film in spite of its dated (and to modern viewers, even primitive) special effects.  It is based on the novel by Herman Wouk, which is based on his experiences on a U. S. Navy minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II.   The U. S. Navy helped out by providing some really nice aerial views of the USS Caine‘s maneuvers at sea (especially the incident in which the Caine sails over its own towline while Queeg is occupied with disciplining a sailor who has his shirttail out). Humphrey Bogart gives a truly excellent portrayal of the neurotic Captain Queeg.

The court-martial scene at the end of the film is impressive, especially after Bogart loses his self-control, pulls out his steel balls, starts rubbing them together, and gives a rambling account of the actions of disloyal officers who interfered with his methodical investigation to determine who ate the strawberries in the officers’ mess.  The full-room shot of the shocked and silent naval officers who have just witnessed Queeg’s melt-down is one of the most impressive in the film–a truly classic cinematic moment.

Mel Ferrer, who plays Van Johnson’s defense lawyer, Barney Greenwald, provides an equally impressive performance as well.  The tactic that he uses to unsettle Bogart, who is on the stand, is to ask Bogart whether it is really necessary to bring one of officers who had been on the ship during the strawberries incident to testify at the trial.  This officer had seen the mess stewards eat the missing strawberries and had refrained from telling Queeg until he was about to leave the ship (he was released from duty because his wife was ill).  Even though Queeg now knew the truth about the incident, he persisted in his plan to have all the men on the ship turn in their keys (even to the point of stripping naked), because he was certain that one of the keys would open the mess compartment where the strawberries had been kept, and the man who owned the key would have been the guilty party.

I was reminded of a similar legal tactic in A Few Good Men, when defense lawyer Lt (j.g.) Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) brings in two airmen from Andrews AFB whom he suggests that he will put on the stand to rebut the testimony of Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson).  Although the airmen do not have any unusual information, their presence in the courtroom similarly unsettles Jack Nicholson.

The only complaint I have is with the end of the film, in which Mel Ferrer chastises the officers of the Caine for not making an effort to support Queeg when (in his own indirect way) he asked for their help and they did not provide it.  I share the view that the officers would have had, that any efforts to “help” Captain Queeg, would not have helped the situation.  Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray play subordinate officers on the Caine, Thomas Keefer and Stephen Maryk.  Maryk/Van Johnson is the officer brought up on charges of mutiny when he takes command of the Caine in a typhoon (the typhoon really happened).  Van Johnson, never a strong actor (in my opinion) plays the role well, probably because the character of Maryk is hesitant and uncertain, a perfect match for Van Johnson’s acting abilities.


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