Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review – Mister Roberts

July 9, 2010

Mister Roberts – U.S., 1955

Most of John Ford and Marvin LeRoy’s film adaptation of the 1948 Tony-award winning play Mister Roberts takes place on a cargo ship oddly christened the USS Reluctant. I suppose the name is intended to be symbolic, to say something about the men on the boat or perhaps about the man who captains it. Still, I can’t think of a scenario in which someone in the military would look at a photo of the ship and say, “Let’s call it the Reluctant.” He’d likely be greeted with incredulous expressions and requests for confirmation that what he had just said was not a joke. In the film, the crew of the Reluctant has come to call their sea home “the Bucket,” which I’m not sure is not much of an upgrade.

The crew is made up of the usual hardworking bunch that we’re used to seeing in war films. They follow orders when they are given, although not always in the most professional way. They complain to each other, try to get out of cargo duty, and often come close to engaging in fist fights. They are clearly stressed, and much of the tension they feel is the result of not having had shore leave, here referred to as “liberty,” for a year. They receive support and understanding from Lt. JG Douglas Roberts (Henry Ford) and the ship’s doctor – referred to only as “Doc” (William Powell). However, neither of these two men have the power to change the crew’s situation. That power resides in the hands of Captain Morton (James Cagney), who like Captain Francis Queeg a year earlier in The Caine Mutiny runs things by-the-book even though doing so has a detrimental effect on the morale of the crew.

In most war films, members of the armed forces simply can’t wait to get into battle. Filled with patriotic fervor, they are usually willing and ready to fight against their country’s enemies. In Mister Roberts, only Lt. Roberts expresses such sentiments outwardly. In the beginning of the film, he sees a formation of battleships and carriers through his binoculars and pictures himself there with them. Roberts worries that the war will be over soon and that he will not have been a part of it. His solution to this is to repeatedly put in requests for a transfer. However, his requests must go through Captain Morton, and he repeatedly denies them. He sees too much value in keeping Roberts on board. After all, it’s not everyone who can command as much respect and admiration from his crew as Roberts does.

The main drama in Mister Roberts has to do with Roberts trying to win his crew their much needed liberty. This requires great sacrifice on his part, and there are plenty of strings attached. One of them is absolute silence about both the details and the existence of the deal. This creates problems, as the men misinterpret Roberts’ new demeanor.

Mister Roberts contains impressive performances by each of the film’s lead actors. This includes Jack Lemmon’s performance as Ens. Frank Thurlowe Pulver, for which Lemmon won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this character. While he’s entertaining and funny, he’s also lazy and unmotivated. There’s no evidence that he shares Roberts’ desire to be on the front lines, and yet I have a feeling that Ensign Pulver is meant to be seen as a sympathetic character, as the kind of man that Roberts confesses his deepest respect for later in the film. Warner Bros. apparently thought so highly of the character that they brought it back in 1964 in a sequel appropriately entitled Ensign Pulver. Lemmon did not return for that film, however.

In 1948, Henry Fonda won a Tony for his portrayal of Lt. Roberts in the original Broadway production of the play, so I imagine he knew the play and its characters rather well. According to IMDB, Fonda felt the film version lacked the quality of the stage version. He may have been right. I have not seen the stage version, but I have a feeling that some of the dialogue and choreography in the film would seem more believable in a play. In a play, characters can recite long speeches much more easily than they can in films. The stage also allows characters to move in somewhat unnatural ways. In films, long speeches, snappy dialogue, and unexpected physical movements, such as a character suddenly marching in an invisible line without anyone around to observe him, which Lt. Roberts does, may seem rather unrealistic, while appearing completely natural on stage.

Still, Mister Roberts is a very moving film. We see the goodness of the crew and feel for them. In addition, we admire Roberts’ courage and concern for the crew, while still coming to understand Capt. Morton and his methods. It’s said that the U.S. Navy disapproved of the film because of the way Capt. Morton was portrayed. It’s easy to see why they would have this viewpoint. However, by the end of the film, there’s enough patriotism in the air to dispel any negative feelings that Capt. Morton’s personality may have created. Mister Roberts is worth taking a chance on. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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