In the mid-1950s Hollywood began to take chances. Although the decade generated renewed prosperity for America, arguably unseen since the early 1920s, that ‘go-to-the-devil’ unbridled sense of entitlement was now replaced by a button-down ultra-conservatism that, at least on the surface, appeared stifling and downright Victorian. At the same time, Hollywood chose to combat the threat of television by tempting their own self-imposed censorship, exploring topics previously barred from a tried and true repertoire. Hence drug addiction (The Man with The Golden Arm 1955), homosexuality (Tea and Sympathy 1956), the repression of erotic sexuality (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958) and incestuous mother/son relationships (Suddenly Last Summer 1959) began to creep into the daily diet of the movie-going pop culture.
It wasn’t all about aberrant behaviors, however. Whether inculcated by the weary frustrations endured during the war years or merely fueled by a more inquisitive and concerted need to know, some of America’s most time honored institutions were also being investigated, probed and questioned on film. Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954) took an unvarnished look at unionized graft, while Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) deconstructed the sanctity of suburban middleclass morality and its seemingly destructive influence on youth. And while the concept of ‘natural order’ was always brought forth from this chaos and restored before the final fade out on the screen, each filmic exercise had nevertheless fundamentally chipped away at some social moray and/or morality that had once been blindly considered beyond reproach.
On the surface, Edward Dymtryk’s The Caine Mutiny (1954) plays out as just another ‘men at sea’ and in peril drama with a slam-bang courtroom finish. But the film is actually much more of a social critique about the navy – shattering that wall of silence that forces free thinking, honorable men to blindly follow orders on command, even if these instructions come from a neurotically unhinged superior officer. Based on the novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is very much a questioning of authority, even if the net result for one’s own convictions represents a betrayal of that unwritten oath in faithful obedience. Stanley Roberts’ screenplay brilliantly presents us with the unrefined adventurism of a new recruit Ens. Willis Seward Keith (Robert Francis) whose fervent admiration for the navy is about to be tested.
Keith (Robert Francis) is a callow wasp; broad-shouldered but decidedly narrow-minded whose own masculinity has been cowed by an over-possessive mother (Katherine Warren) who has all but wrecked his chances for an adult romance with nightclub singer, May Wynn (May Wynn…how precious is that?). In this light, the navy represents something fine and exhilarating to Keith, a chance for him to escape the stifling rigidity of his family’s spoilt riches and sail away to new adventures. But Keith’s first assignment is the Caine, a battle-scarred minesweeper moored at Pearl Harbor; hardly the grand ship he has envisioned for his naval debut.
The outgoing captain of this roughhewn vessel, Lieutenant Commander William H. DeVriess (Tom Tully) has allowed discipline to lapse, his crew as slovenly and unkempt as anything Keith could have imagined. In short order Keith is introduced to the rather stoic Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson), and razor-backed novelist come communications officer, Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray). Both men sympathize with Keith’s disillusionment. Indeed the Caine is not a ship as much as a floating hotel in the low rent district of the navy. But things are about to change with the arrival of a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). At first, this change in command seems very much in line with Keith’s sentiments about the navy. Queeg is a staunch disciplinarian who immediately dominates the Caine with his stern no-nonsense command.
The rest of the crew is hardly pleased with their reversal of fortune. But Keith seems to thrive and even feed off Queeg’s workmanlike authority. Shortly after Queeg’s instatement as captain, the Caine is assigned to tow a target out to sea for gunnery practice. Becoming distracted by the micromanagement of Keith and Keefer over the appearance of one of their crewman, Queeg ignores a helmsman's warning that the ship is about to cut its towline. The accident is an obvious embarrassment to Queeg, one he attempts to cover up by blaming the rest of the crew for his incompetence. Queeg’s reaction leaves a sour taste with Keith and Maryk. But Keefer uses the incident to investigate Queeg’s track record as a naval officer, gradually trickling down his findings to Maryk and Keith and instilling a corrosive skepticism within their minds that will only continue to undermine Queeg’s authority as time wears on.
An incident where some strawberries go missing from the officers’ mess leads Queeg into a lengthy and absurd investigation of his men. For Keith, the pettiness in Queeg’s allegation of thievery is more than ridiculous. In fact, it seems to back up Keefer’s claim that Queeg is on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Maryk encourages Keefer to put an end to their suspicions. The captain is the captain. His authority cannot be questioned. But an even most alarming incident occurs when, under enemy fire, Queeg suddenly chooses to abandon his escort of a group of landing craft by dropping a yellow dye marker into the water instead. The crew is disgusted by Queeg’s cowardice. Afterward, Queeg makes a half-hearted and very nervous attempt to apologize to his men, asking for their support. But his plea is met with the indifference of a dead silence.
After some serious talk Keefer tries to convince Maryk that Queeg should be relieved of his command under Article 184 of Navy Regulations. The captain is obviously on the brink of a mental meltdown. But Maryk refuses to comply. Instead he begins keeping a daily log of Queeg's erratic behavior. Keefer next pitches to Maryk and Keith that they join him in presenting their case to Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. aboard his flagship. But at the last possible moment Keefer chickens out, encouraging Maryk and Keith to also back away from raising their concerns to the admiral. Deflated in their purpose, though not in their desire to do something about Queeg’s imploding mental health, Maryk is forced into an impossible situation during a violent typhoon. Perilously tossed about the rough seas, Maryk urges Queeg to steer the Caine into the waves and take on ballast in order to save the ship. Queeg refuses, believing such a move will foul the fuel lines with salt water. But when the ship begins to founder Queeg becomes lost in his own paralytic fear. Maryk makes the executive decision to relieve the captain of his command, a move that is seconded by Keith and effectively marking both men as mutineers.
Upon their safe return into port Maryk and Keith are apprehended to face a court-martial. Cynical Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer) reluctantly becomes Maryk's defense counsel. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence to suggest Queeg’s perilous mental state, the court proceedings do not go well for Maryk or Keith, particularly after Keefer – still self-serving to the very end - manages to deny his complicity in their actions to relieve Queeg of his command during the typhoon. Navy psychiatrist Dr. Dixon (Whit Bissell) testifies on Queeg’s behalf, but when Queeg takes the stand he begins to exhibit obvious paranoid behavior under Greenwald's grueling cross-examination. As a result, Maryk is acquitted and Keith spared any charges; a victory by most any standard – except Barney’s.
Arriving drunk at the hotel where the Caine’s officers are celebrating, Barney admonishes his own participation in the trial and rebukes Maryk and Keith for having torn down the reputation of a brilliant naval officer. Castigating Maryk and Keith for their inability to see what a brilliant strategist Queeg had once been, and how the years have conspired to wreck his nerves, though hardly his sanity, Barney confronts and exposes Keefer as the coward and real villain of the trial, revealing to everyone that his testimony alone nearly submarined their defense. Barney then dowses Keefer with a bitterly celebratory glass of champagne, declaring “To the real author of the Caine mutiny!” Having simultaneously cleared his own conscience and given the men something to think about, Barney leaves the room, the rest of the men filing out and leaving Keefer alone to consider his betrayal of their confidences. Several days later Keith reports to his new ship, his captain making assurances that Keith’s naval career will begin anew and with a clean slate.
The Caine Mutiny is knockout entertainment despite the Keith/May romance that has been infrequently interpolated but to no lasting effect. Few courtroom melodramas are as potent. Bogart delivers a towering performance as the paranoiac Queeg. We’re used to seeing the actor as the hero in our movies, but actually Bogart began his career playing villains. In The Caine Mutiny he is neither heroic nor maniacal, but a man utterly lost in the deterioration of his own authority and strapped by his incapability to stave off this slow sad and steady decline. As such Queeg comes across a very tragic figure, the sacrificial lamb of the piece to be pitied rather than pummeled.
Primarily known as the bright and breezy MGM leading man of the war years and star of some very frothy musicals, Van Johnson is monumentally impressively as the pessimistic heavyweight mutineer. Johnson, who was nearly decapitated in a devastating car accident in 1943 that left him with a metal plate in his head, seems to have tapped into a deeper wound for his performance herein. While the stitching and scars from that accident are obviously on display, the inner workings of the actor’s mind lend Maryk a darker sense of self and purpose. We understand Maryk’s motivations in taking over the ship, not because he has been prompted to do so by Keefer, but rather because there is something far more fascinating going on behind the character’s eyes.
Finally, there is Fred MacMurray, whose career is really at a transitional crossroads in The Caine Mutiny. During his early career MacMurray had often been cast as the devil-may-care man about town who could be easily corrupted by a pretty face – as in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). He would continue to appear in films as a self-destructing creature of affluence, again for Wilder in The Apartment (1960) but from the mid-1950s onward, MacMurray became more the trademark homebody in Disney movies, The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Happiest Millionaire (1967), eventually starring as the doting patriarch with homespun values and advice doled out weekly on television in My Three Sons (1960-65). MacMurray’s Keefer is therefore something of a swan song to all the fatally flawed reprobates he had once played.
The Caine Mutiny on Blu-ray looks spectacular. Previously issued DVDs have suffered from an overly grainy image and very unstable colors. Neither hindrance is perfectly resolved in this new 1080p transfer, but neither is as distracting this time around. The Blu-ray delivers a solid visual presentation. Anomalies do still exist. Contrast levels fluctuate and occasionally seem a tad boosted. Flesh tones can be more orange than natural and briefly can also appear washed out. But these inconsistencies are rare and negligible. Film grain has been very naturally reproduced. Colors are mostly bold and fully saturated. Fine detail is evident throughout, particularly during close-ups. The image is razor sharp too. Best of all, background artifacts that plagued the various DVD incarnations have been eradicated for a visually smooth and very satisfying presentation. The audio gets a rather robust upgrade too. Max Steiner's music cues deliver a sonic bravado not heard before, and the typhoon is genuinely terrifying now with its manufactured sounds of wind, rain and ocean spray. Extras are confined to two very potent featurettes on the film and its back story, crudely divided on the disc (without chapter stops) as Part I and Part II. These are carryovers from the DVD collector's edition presented herein at 720i resolution. Nevertheless, this is a no brainer upgrade. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)