Filmsite Movie Review
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
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The Caine Mutiny (1954) is the story of shipboard conflict and a mutiny aboard a WWII naval vessel, and the subsequent court-martial trial of the ship's captain. The military drama followed in the long tradition of naval mutiny and court-martial films, such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Sea Wolf (1941), Treasure Island (1950), and Billy Budd (1962).

With the tagline: "As Big As The Ocean," the movie was based upon Herman Wouk's best-selling, 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, from a screenplay by Stanley Roberts. (Wouk's original novel of about 500 pages had already been the basis for a successful nationwide stage play titled The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.) Independent producer Stanley Kramer and director Edward Dmytryk (one of the original blacklisted "Hollywood Ten" and director of Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947)) had earlier collaborated on the melodramatic thriller The Sniper (1952), the dramatic combat film Eight Iron Men (1952), and The Juggler (1953) with Kirk Douglas, but this fourth film was their most-acclaimed and successful work.

It was adapted for a Broadway stage play (by producer Charles Laughton) with Lloyd Nolan as Captain Queeg and Henry Fonda as Lt. Keefer, and later became a Robert Altman-directed TV movie The Caine Mutiny Court Martial in 1988, with Eric Bogosian (as Greenwald), Jeff Daniels (as Maryk), Brad Davis (as Queeg), Peter Gallagher, Michael Murphy, and Kevin J. O'Connor.

One of the film's posters included descriptions of the four main stars and their roles:

  • HUMPHREY BOGART - as QUEEG... the Captain and the cause of 'The Caine Mutiny'
  • JOSE FERRER - as GREENWALD... who understood the reason for 'The Caine Mutiny'
  • VAN JOHNSON - as MARYK... whose damning diary sparked 'The Caine Mutiny'
  • FRED MacMURRAY - as KEEFER... the brain who plotted 'The Caine Mutiny'

Similar to the making of From Here to Eternity (1953) - another film depicting semi-negative aspects of military life, the Navy Department originally objected to the making of this film, due to its depiction of a mentally-disturbed man (obsessed about the theft of frozen strawberries, and continually rolling steel balls in his hand) as the captain of a US naval vessel, and the use of the word 'mutiny' in the film's title. After concessions were made within the script, the Navy fully cooperated with Columbia Pictures (and chief studio head Harry Cohn) by providing ships, planes, combat boats, and access to Pearl Harbor and the San Francisco port.

This was Humphrey Bogart's last great film role (he died three years later). Bogart received his third Best Actor nomination (one of the film's seven nominations) for his late-career performance, but lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954). There were six other un-rewarded nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Tom Tully), Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing, and Best Dramatic Score (Max Steiner). Fred MacMurray was again cast against type as an unlikeable Lieutenant (similar to his earlier role in Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and later in The Apartment (1960)).

Plot Synopsis


Following the credits, the prologue/epigraph (a disclaimer) to the film explained that the film's story was non-factual. No ship named the D.M.S. Caine ever existed, and there was never any instance of a U.S. Navy captain relieved of command at sea under Articles 184-186:

There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy. The truths of this film lie not in its incidents but in the way a few men meet the crisis of their lives. The time - World War II...

Arrival of Ensign Willie Keith at Pearl Harbor, to Serve on the Dilapidated D.M.S. Caine:

The story, set between the war years of 1943-1944, was told through the experiences of young, inexperienced and idealistic 1941 Princeton-graduate Ensign Willis Seward "Willie" Keith (Robert Francis in his film debut), who had just completed three months of training at officer candidates' school. He came from a wealthy and well-connected family, but was eager to prove himself on his own. He chose to neglect introducing his demanding and overprotective mother (Katharine Warren) at his graduation to his girlfriend - nightclub singer May Wynn (May Wynn, originally Donna Lee Hickey), fearing her disapproval of her lower class status. That evening after a singing performance, May met with Willie but when he seemed uninterested in her request to be married, she decided to not see him off to his naval assignment.

He sailed from San Francisco and reported for duty at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. He was shocked when assigned to the dilapidated and battered WW II destroyer/minesweeper the D.M.S. Caine. Onboard, the naive and bright-eyed Keith met the Caine's communications officer Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray) - a sarcastic and aspiring novel-writer, and the ship's steadfast and stalwart executive officer - a sober career officer and second-in-command Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson).

Ensign Keith overheard one of the lazy and unkempt sailors in the crew comically joking about why it would not be wise to scrape the rust from the aging, shabby, rust-bucket destroyer:

They're makin' a mistake scrapin' this ship. The only thing that's keepin' the water out is the rust.

The lax, popular commanding officer Lieutenant Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), not even wearing a shirt, also was introduced to the new Ensign. He criticized the zealous Ensign Keith's dismay at serving on the broken-down ship, and expressed his expectations:

DeVriess: Disappointed they assigned you to a minesweeper, Keith?
Keith: Well sir, to be honest, yes, sir.
DeVriess: You, uh, saw yourself on a carrier, or a battleship, no doubt.
Keith: Yes sir, I had hoped that ---
DeVriess: Well, I only hope that you're good enough for the Caine.
Keith: I shall try to be worthy of this assignment, sir.
DeVriess: She's not a battleship or a carrier; the Caine is a beaten-up tub. After 18 months of combat, it takes 24 hours a day just to keep her in one piece.

Keith was assigned to follow the smooth-talking, sarcastic Lt. Keefer for a tour of the obsolete and "beaten-up" tub. Although the Caine had been designed to be a minesweeper, it hadn't been used to sweep mines in a year and a half:

The first thing you've got to learn about this ship is that she was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. This is the engine room. To operate, all you need is any group of well-trained monkeys. Ninety-nine percent of everything we do is strict routine. Only one percent requires creative intelligence.

During lunch, Keefer had ominous words to Keith and other officers about serving on the lowly, decaying and hellish vessel:

There is no escape from the Caine, save death. We are all doing penance. Sentenced to an outcast ship manned by outcasts, and named after the greatest outcast of them all.

Ensign Keith vs. Captain DeVriess:

Captain DeVriess brought up the awkward topic of his receipt of a special request from Admiral Ward to have Ensign Keith transferred to his ship - a clear example of his mother "pulling strings" to get him onto a more modern warship. He reluctantly refused the transfer request to avoid being accused of special privileges, although Keefer noted: "You'll live to regret this day."

Shortly later, during botched minesweeper maneuvers, Keith received a coded action dispatch that he signed for, but then put in his pocket and completely forgot about. Three days later, he was called on the carpet by DeVriess for misplacing the message - and Keith admitted he had been incredibly stupid and careless. However, the embittered Keith argued that he shouldn't be singled out on the Caine - and that the entire crew's behavior was on account of the ship's lax leadership and discipline - without specifically calling out the Captain as the cause:

Everyones goofed off around here. The Caine's a slack ship. The men act like a pack of cut throats, and the decks look like a Singapore junk.... I only know my conception of a Captain seems different from your own.

Then, DeVriess revealed the contents of the dispatch - he was being transferred, to Keith's obvious delight.

New Replacement Captain - Philip Francis Queeg:

In November of 1943, DeVriess was replaced by a new captain, a stern and strict disciplinarian, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). After the transfer of leadership, DeVriess assessed his ship with Queeg:

This one's tired. She's had the guts run out of her. She ought to be melted down for razor blades. The crew may not look like much, they're tired, too. Every man is okay.

The departing Captain's sentimental parting was highlighted by a gift - actually against Navy regulations, although it was a typical example of the crew disregarding the rules (Captain: "I've been aboard the Caine too long"). He was given a watch as a going away present by scruffy sailor Meatball (Lee Marvin). At first he refused it, but then after he was officially off the ship, DeVriess put the watch on his wrist and thanked the crew-members: "Might as well have a souvenir of this old bucket. Not a bad looking watch at that...I'll always keep it a half hour slow. Remind me of the fouled-up crew of the Caine."

The new commander had a recent record of surviving numerous German U-boat attacks in the North Atlantic during his previous service of seven years. When he took over the Caine, the new skipper immediately antagonized all of his officers in their first meeting with a description of his unfamiliar style of military command - he emphasized that he did things "by the book":

Just another naval officer. I've had seven tough years in the Atlantic, and believe you me, they made the last two mighty interesting. The way those subs ganged up on us, I thought they had it in for me personally....Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm a book man. I believe everything in it was put in for a purpose. When in doubt, remember on board this ship, we do things by the book. Deviate from the book and you'd better have a half a dozen good reasons. And you'll still get an argument from me. And I don't lose arguments on board my ship. That's, uh, one of the nice things about being Captain. I want you to remember one thing. On board my ship, excellent performance is standard. Standard performance is substandard. Substandard performance is not permitted to exist. That - I warn you.

He explained how he wouldn't tolerate "sub-standard performance" from the crew or officers. The new, peculiar take-charge Captain also specifically instructed Lt. Maryk after he made a comment about how the lax crew hadn't done things 'by the book' for a long time:

...There are four ways of doing things on board my ship. The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way. (If) They do things my way, we'll get along...

Queeg noticed that one of the crew members, Seaman First Class Urban (Don Dubbins), who brought in a message for signature, was sloppily dressed with his slapping shirt-tails outside his trousers. Queeg revealed one of his nervous habits - he withdrew a pair of steel ball-bearings and rolled them in one shaking hand. During the meeting, it slowly became apparent that Queeg might be irrational, eccentric, and even mentally unbalanced - possibly due to long and arduous combat duty. He chided the ship's leadership for cases of petty infractions. He explained that he wanted a smarter-looking, more regimented, spit-and-polish ship, with neat and tidy crew members without unclean-shaven faces and unkempt haircuts.

Ensign Keith - appointed by Queeg to be the ship's Morale Officer, was both pleased with DeVriess' departure and optimistically hopeful about Queeg's impressive approach to 'clean up' the ship according to regulations and standards: "Well, he's certainly Navy," but the treacherous Lieutenant Keefer cynically commented: "Yeah. So was Captain Bligh."

Queeg's First Tactical Error:

Obsessed by small details, Queeg foolishly chose to enforce the untucked shirt-tails rule at an inopportune moment during a routine target-towing exercise at sea. While berating and angry at Seaman "Horrible" Lugatch (Claude Akins) on the bridge and reprimanding Ensign Keith as well, the preoccupied Queeg kept ordering the navigating helmsman Stillwell (Todd Karns) to faithfully keep on course, not realizing that the ship was steaming aimlessly around in a circular path ("right standard rudder"). The USS Caine cut their target-tow line and set their gunnery target adrift. Queeg irrationally blamed the disaster on a faulty and defective cable on the tow-line, refused to go back and retrieve the adrift target, and ordered: "Suggest tug, recover or destroy.".

A few moments later, he apologized to Keith for help and understanding:

I know a man's shirt's a petty detail, but big things are made up of details. Don't forget, 'For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost and then the whole battle.' A captain's job is a lonely one. He's easily misunderstood. Forget that I bawled you out. It was good for the morale of all concerned.

While on a brief leave and as Keith arrived on the dock, he was greeted by both his negatively-opinionated mother, and his girlfriend. He introduced May to his mother, and then took his mother-disapproved girlfriend May to Yosemite National Park. After a day of horseback riding and romance, he proposed marriage to her at breakfast the following morning. She wisely refused, arguing that he was too subservient to his mother's demands and wishes:

I don't want you to marry me because you feel sorry for me. Because you think it's the decent thing to do....Because your mother won't approve...She won't approve, but you'll marry me anyway, and you'll be so unhappy....marriage has to be by your own approval. No one else's.

He didn't argue back or try to change her mind about her decision - something he would later regret.

During the ship's brief docking in San Francisco, Queeg covered up the embarrassing incident, and subsequently filed a false report to avoid answering questions. After they cruised off again, Queeg called his commanding officers together and again admonished them after clearing himself - and blaming the poor condition of the Caine that he had just inherited:

From now on, gentlemen, there will not be any further mistakes on the part of the officers and crew of this ship...Let's all straighten up and fly right.

The Yellowstain Incident:

However, repeated incidents of poor seamanship, instability, inadequate command and judgment caused further trouble in the South Pacific after the USS Caine returned to sea. Again, Queeg demonstrated how disturbed he was when he earned the nickname "Old Yellowstain" (from Keefer, for his "lack of intestinal fortitude") for becoming distraught, snapping under pressure, and turning cowardly under fire during naval combat exercises.

During the Caine's first major wartime mission, while escorting amphibious Marine attack boats toward a Japanese-held island beachhead for a landing during an enemy shelling, the unnerved and anxious Queeg seemed to illustrate weakened resolve. Instead of leading the landing craft to the line of departure (at the 1,000 yards off-shore mark), Queeg ordered a yellow dye-marker to be thrown overboard to guide the stranded landing crafts to the beach's landing zone, and then prematurely pulled the ship back to retreat from the line of fire and abandon the mission (far before the 1,000 yards off-shore mark, at 2,500 yards).

Some of the officers who suspected cowardice hastily composed a ballad in Queeg's honor: The Yellowstain Blues.

In another meeting with his officers in the ward-room of the ship [the scene foreshadowed the similar scene of his testimony in the court-martial trial], Queeg (with shot nerves) delivered a confessional entreaty (a semi-apology) to his men for their help and loyalty, but his request was greeted by stony silence:

I know that some of you are perhaps a little afraid of me. Well, I'm not that terrible. I have a wife and a child and a dog. They're rather fond of me. Even the dog doesn't think I'm a monster. Perhaps certain things happened today. Well, as I always say, a command is a lonely job. It isn't easy to make decisions. Sometimes the captain of a ship needs help. And by help, I mean, uh, constructive loyalty. What I'm trying to say is that, uh, a ship is like a family. We all have our ideas of right and wrong but we have to pitch in for the good of the family. If there was only some way we could help each other.

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