Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review – The Caine Mutiny

June 1, 2010

The Caine Mutiny – U.S., 1954

I have never been in the military, but as a teacher, I know how it feels to suddenly be asked to teach a group of students that had great chemistry with the teacher you are replacing. On that first day, you wonder whether you should start off with a joke, perhaps tell them about your background, or simply try to dazzle them with your efficiency. In fact, we often tell first-time teachers to be firm at first, to establish order before showing the students your softer side. It is perhaps not surprising then that many new managers use the same tactic with adults. Promotions are often handed out along with instructions to make things more efficient or whip them into shape. Supposedly, it establishes one’s authority. However, it’s just as likely to cause deep resentment, which is unfortunately what happens to Lt. Cmdr. Phillip Queeg in Edward Dmytryk’s excellent film The Caine Mutiny.

The Caine Mutiny is primarily about Ens. Willis Seward Keith (Robert Francis), a recent graduate of the naval academy on his first assignment at sea. He is not pleased to be assigned to the Caine, a minesweeper that even some crew members describe as a walking death trap. One remarks that the ship is being held together by rust. Willis, or “Willie” as he is called by everyone, clashes with his new captain, Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), whom Willie sees as being unprofessional and allowing the crew to be equally so. Willie is therefore quite pleased when DeVriess is replaced by Lt. Cmdr. Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), for Queeg brings the kind of philosophy that Willie has come to expect naval captains to uphold, one that emphasizes discipline and rules. The crew of The Caine does not share Willie’s feelings, and after a few instances of questionable decision making, one crew member in particular, Lt. Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray), begins to openly question whether Queeg is fit to command the ship.

In addition to this plot, there is a subplot involving Willie, his overly protective mother, and May, the nightclub singer that Willie is involved with. It may look at first like this part of the film has little to do with the drama that is unfolding on the Caine, but both of these storylines have to do with Willie’s reluctant adherence to authority figures and his having to learn to decide what it right for oneself. However, I suspect that what is desirable and respected in one instance may in fact get someone in a heap of trouble in the other, for it is possible that respecting the chain of command means not expressing one’s opinion, especially if it contradicts with that of a superior officer. This is a perspective that only Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson) seems to understand. To Lt. Maryk, it doesn’t matter who the captain of the Caine is – that person is to be listened to and respected, no matter what. And this is why what happens later is the film is so surprising.

Towards the middle of The Caine Mutiny, Queeg looks at Tom, Steve, Willie, and some of the other men who serve under him and in a soft uncertain voice speaks of family and the need to talk to each other as if they were indeed one. He seems to be trying to break the barrier that exists between himself and his lieutenant, yet when he opens the floor for comments, not one of his men speaks either for or against him. There is just an eerie, uncomfortable silence that leads to the meeting coming to an abrupt ending. The message is clear. Lt. Cmdr. Queeg does not have their support or their confidence. Should they have spoken up? Should they have taken the captain to task for running away from danger? Should they have spoken frankly about their concerns about his ability to lead? Would you have?

Like other movies in this genre, The Caine Mutiny includes some light-hearted moments, most of them coming at the expense of the inexperienced Willie. These scenes seemed unnecessary to me, and fortunately, they were kept to a minimum. And like later films such as K-19: The Widowmaker and Crimson Tide, The Caine Mutiny includes scenes depicting practice runs or simulations of sea maneuvers. In most film, I question the inclusion of such scenes. I understand why they are important to the characters, yet I’m not sure they are important for viewers. However, in The Caine Mutiny, they are important, for they give us valuable insights into Queeg and the men he commands.

The Caine Mutiny is based on a book by Herman Wouk, who also wrote “War and Remembrance” and “The Winds of War.” Unlike others who would have made the mutiny the climax of the story, Wouk seemed to understand that it is what happens after such an act that is ultimately most important, for only later do people who decide to mutiny know whether their actions have been judged correct or not. In addition, an unfavorable verdict carries with it a jail sentence for those who instigate a mutiny, and so the drama in the film does not end with the words I am relieving you of your command. It simply enters another stage, one in which the fate of two characters continues to hang in the balance.

The Caine Mutiny remains an impressive film, and Bogart, MacMurray, Johnson, and Francis each give superb performances. However, what I found most intriguing about the film is how it manipulates us into thinking we understand the situation in front of us. In fact, it all seems too clear – a paranoid captain, a dangerous storm, the fear of being led into the abyss. All too often in movies like this, characters come to the right conclusion rather quickly, and most of the time, viewers know that their decision was the correct one, rendering a court room scene tedious and unnecessary. That The Caine Mutiny devotes so much time to the trial of the mutineers should tell us something. It’s not over yet. (on DVD)

4 stars

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