By the end of the 1940s Humphrey Bogart was growing tired of tough guy roles and was seeking to expand his range as an actor. This led him to take on roles in romantic comedies (Sabrina), adventure romances (The African Queen) and offbeat comedy thrillers (Beat the Devil). It also led him to take on one of his most acclaimed roles of the 50s, in the war drama The Caine Mutiny (which earned him his third Oscar nomination).
The Caine Mutiny is a war movie with very little action. It’s more concerned with psychological stresses and moral choices and it deals with those themes in a more complex way than you’d expect in a Hollywood movie.
It is 1944 and Ensign Willie Keith has been assigned to his first shipboard posting. To say that the posting comes as a disappointment to the wealthy young Yale-educated officer would be an understatement. The USS Caine is not exactly the most glamorous ship in the fleet. In fact it’s just about the bottom of the barrel. It’s a battered destroyed converted for minesweeping duties and it may well be the slackest ship in the US Navy. Keith has an opportunity to take a much more glamorous appointment on an admiral’s staff but he is shamed into remaining on board the Caine.
It’s not that that the Caine is an unhappy ship. The captain is easy-going, the atmosphere is relaxed. It’s just that the captain is a bit too easy-going and the atmosphere a bit too relaxed. No-one on the Caine gives a damn. Being an officer on the Caine is a dead end. The Caine is engaged mostly in boring routine duties such a target-towing and there are no opportunities for an ambitious officer to distinguish himself.
All that is about to change when the ship gets a new captain. Lieutenant-Commander Philip Francis Queeg is regular navy, not a reservist, and he believes in doing thing the navy way. He is determined to enforce some discipline. That does not please the Caine’s officers. The previous captain had allowed the executive officer, Lieutenant Maryk (Van Johnson), to more or less run the ship and he’d allowed officers like Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray) to do whatever they wanted. So Keefer, a cynical intellectual, had divided his time between working on his novel and complaining. Clearly he believes that it’s a shocking injustice that a man of his exceptional gifts should have to do anything as tedious as doing his duty.
Keefer immediately sets out to undermine Queeg’s authority. Unfortunately for Lt-Commander Queeg he’s rather vulnerable to Keefer’s attacks on his authority. Queeg has seen almost continuous active service since the war began and he’s close to being burnt out. His nerves have been shaken and he makes mistakes. With loyal and competent officers to support him he would undoubtedly overcome those problems, but he’s not going to find loyal and competent officers on the Caine.
To compound these problems Queeg has an approach to command that is entirely foreign to the Caine. He believes in the importance of the little things and is enraged by he slovenliness of the crew. And he’s inclined to be prickly and to obsess over minor infractions of regulations. This gives Keefer (who fancies himself as an amateur psychologist) the perfect opportunity to paint the captain as a paranoid neurotic. And even more unfortunately it creates a situation where the basically decent and loyal executive officer Maryk is inclined to listen to Keefer’s promptings. Finally, after Queeg has made several apparent errors of judgment, Maryk is persuaded to relieve Queeg of his command. Maryk and Keith (who was officer of the deck at the time) now face a court martial at which they will have to justify their extraordinary actions.
This rather far-fetched plot could easily have collapsed but it’s saved by two things - the quality of the acting and the ambiguity of the situation that led to the mutiny. Bogart gives a bravura performance. He avoids making Queeg merely a ridiculous figure and gives him a certain tragic dignity. Because this story is a tragedy. Queeg is not a bad man and he’s not even a bad captain, he’s just seen too much action and he’s tired and he’s increasingly isolated as his officers turn on him. Maryk can be seen as an equally tragic figure, a competent officer with a fatal flaw - he’s a weak man who forgets where his duty lies and is manipulated into committing the ultimate act of disloyalty.
The key question is, when the typhoon hits, is it Queeg who loses his nerve or is it Lieutenant Maryk? It’s a question that the movie leaves open and this is its greatest strength. Queeg certainly exhibits signs of instability, but does this actually make him unfit for command? When he asks his officers to support him, in the film’s most moving scene, they ignore him.
Van Johnson’s subtle performance as Maryk is superbly effective. Fred MacMurray was always at his best playing slimy villains and Lieutenant Keefer is as slimy as they come. José Ferrer is excellent as the defence counsel who would have been far happier prosecuting this case.
Edward Dmytryk wisely doesn’t try anything fancy. He has a superb cast and he’s content to allow the actors to carry the story, which they do in fine style. The Caine Mutiny is a fine example of 1950s Hollywood film-making.