Columbia Pictures // 1954 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // May 8th, 2007
"I don't want to upset you too much, but at the moment you have an excellent chance of being hanged."
Herman Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II novel comes to the silver screen in a powerful adaptation produced by Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind) and directed by Edward Dmytryk (The End of the Affair).
The minesweeper U.S.S. Caine is not a happy ship. It's a beat-up, aging rust bucket crewed by slackers, officered by malcontents, and commanded by a captain who is clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic. As viewers might guess from the title, eventually the captain loses what marbles he has left and his second-in-command takes over the ship -- an action that the Navy generally disapproves of, unless there is a very good reason.
The Caine Mutiny is a gripping story of conflicting loyalties, made real by an outstanding cast. This cast stands as the element of the film that probably deserves the most attention.
By the mid-1950s, Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen) was giving some of the best performances of his career. The smooth, world-weary Bogie of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon was gone in favor of scarred, flawed characters on the verge of unraveling completely. Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg is a prime example of this and one of his best late-career performances. Bogie as Queeg for the most part never rants and raves or descends into histrionics, making more careful acting choices that bring out his character's deteriorating mental condition while allowing a neutral observer some room for doubt about whether he actually is nuts.
Apparently, there are people out there who, raised on sitcoms and Disney flicks of the 1960s, are accustomed to seeing Fred MacMurray (The Absent Minded Professor) as a good guy. My exposure to him is more limited, and I generally think of him as the heel from The Apartment. He is in full-on manipulative, cynical jerk mode here, as his Lt. Tom Keefer becomes the Iago or Cassius of the story.
Set in contrast to MacMurray's sophisticated intellectual is the executive officer, Steve Maryk, played by Van Johnson (The End of the Affair). Maryk is a simple, decent, not overly bright character who is sucked in by Keefer's insinuations about Captain Queeg's mental condition. It is a crucial role, and Johnson gives it just the right blend of vulnerability, earnestness, and experience.
The closer in this all-star cast is José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) as Lt. Barney Greenwald, the defense lawyer representing the mutineers. In Ferrer's hands, the character is ruthlessly logical and dispassionate, "torpedoing" Queeg's testimony despite his reservations about his clients' conduct. He also gets to give the scheming MacMurray character his comeuppance, though not as completely as in the novel, more's the pity.
Also deserving mention in the cast is Tom Tully as Commander DeVries, the outgoing skipper replaced by Queeg at the beginning of the film. Though his role is small, it is pivotal, and he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here. Finally, Robert Francis (The Long Gray Line) deserves some mention as Ensign Willie Keith, the young, naive officer caught up in the bizarre events on board the Caine. Francis was regarded as a real up-and-comer in Hollywood, but died tragically in a plane crash in 1955 at age 25.
The commentary track featuring Richard Peña and Ken Bowser is one of the better commentaries I've heard in a while. While obviously not associated with the original production in any way, these guys have done their homework and approach the film with a truly scholarly eye, balancing observations about the film's politics and class structure in a 1950s context with a filmmaker's eye for the techniques and craftsmanship involved in simply making the picture. There are some gaps and silences in the commentary track, more than I would have liked, but overall this duo is engaging, well-informed, and interesting throughout. In particular, their analysis of the diverse class background of the characters in terms of producer Kramer's politics is insightful and interesting. They make the case that instead of the usual mixed bag of ethnic and regional stereotypes that make up the cast of World War II movies, this film is built around a collection of men from different social class strata. Both men also make appearances in the in-depth making-of documentary, "Inside The Caine Mutiny," a worthwhile look at the process of bringing Wouk's book to the screen.
The image quality on this disc is generally quite good throughout, with sharp details, including the tricky tone-on-tone areas of Navy dress coats with dark lapels. There are a few blemishes and scratches in various areas of the print, but nothing terribly detrimental. There are some problems with the transfer, however. Edges of foreground objects, like actors, are often sharp, but such objects themselves often look oddly flat, like cardboard cutouts in front of background scenery. The other major problem with the image is the color. Almost the entire film seems to suffer from a sort of red push, with flesh tones, khaki uniforms, and the like all taking on an unnaturally pinkish tone. At the same time, the color overall seems a bit washed out and faded, perhaps a bit yellowed with age -- certainly not the brilliant sorts of colors one expects from a Technicolor film. In fairness to Columbia, this may be the result of problems in the original shooting. The commentators mentio! n the difficulties involved in lighting for early Technicolor films, which would have been multiplied by the challenges of shooting on location on various Navy vessels.
The only other beef I have is with the selection of trailers on the disc. Generally, studios try to include trailers for other films of a similar nature, movies that would appeal to people who bought the disc in question. The selection of trailers on this disc is bizarre and bears no connection to The Caine Mutiny whatsoever, which just seems odd.
Finally, a complaint about this otherwise excellent film. Literary works and the films they inspire generally must be taken as separate entities. However, dropping the Jewish aspect of Ferrer's character seriously weakened an important part of the story and one of the most dramatic exchanges in the book, where Greenwald brings up the point that long before the rest of them deigned to serve their country, men like Queeg were keeping Hermann Göring from using his relatives as bars of soap to wash his posterior. Peña and Bowser allude to this in their commentary, and I was glad that they brought it up.
One other small quibble: there is a love story involving the Francis character and his girlfriend, a nightclub singer. I'll be honest: I forget whether it was part of the original novel. However, in terms of the film it seems like a forced, distracting attempt to deliver a romantic interest and cater to female viewers. It does set up some parental conflict for Ensign Keith, which in turn allows him to show some maturity and development over the course of the film, but it mostly feels extraneous.
As long as we're looking primarily at the cast, a few other famous faces that show up as bit players deserve mention: E.G. Marshall (Twelve Angry Men), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Claude Akins (Inherit the Wind), and Jerry Paris (The Dick Van Dyke Show). It's an impressive collection of talent no matter how you slice it.
Not guilty! An excellent personal drama about men in wartime faced with impossible choices. Highly recommended.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2007 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track with Richard Peña and Ken Bowser
* Documentary: Inside The Caine Mutiny
* Bonus Trailers