A seaworthy screen classic, manned by a crew of Hollywood legends.
Warner gives a top-class treatment to a timeless story that teams up four of the greatest actors of all time in a World War II drama where no shots are fired and no blood is spilled.
This is the sort of movie that I never heard much about until I ran across it on cable, and since I figured a WWII movie was worth checking out, I gave it a look. I never realized that I had been unaware of this classic for so long! It looked pretty good then, but given the limitations of a broadcast signal and the severe cropping required by the Cinemascope aspect ratio, Mister Roberts simply cried out for a top-flight home video treatment. As part of its "Premiere Collection," Warner has gifted us with a quality DVD presentation for which we all should be thankful.
Given that this movie was itself based on a long-running Broadway production (with Henry Fonda in the title role there, as well), it should not come as much of a surprise that this movie is a pure acting gold mine. If I have to convince you, I should only have to say the names Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James (Jimmy) Cagney, and William Powell and note that in Mister Roberts they are all in fine form. Though they all deserved an award, only Jack Lemmon won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
We are quickly introduced to the crew of the itinerant cargo ship U.S.S. Reluctant (AKA "The Bucket"). A beloved figure to the crew, Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Roberts (Henry Fonda) is a most efficient cargo officer, but he is frantic to leave the dreary cargo work behind in favor of combat duty. To that end, he submits incessant transfer requests to the Captain (James Cagney) phrased in such language as to invariably provoke a fit of rage and a disapproved transfer. The Captain is a single-minded tyrant, whose preoccupation with moving more cargo than any other ship and currying favor with his superiors has nearly worn out his crew. Ensign Frank T. Pulver (Jack Lemmon) is intelligent and resourceful, as well as being exceedingly lazy and boastful of his legendary lecherous conquests. Doc (William Powell, in his last film) is a world-weary sage, dispensing words of advice, aspirin for mysterious maladies that only appear on heavy cargo days, and quantities of grain alcohol as needed.
Mr. Roberts soon learns that the crew has been driven to the point of madness as a result of overwork and being at close quarters with each other for many, many months. In a flash of inspiration, he uses a bottle of whisky to get "The Bucket" orders to Elysium, a liberty port where the crew could get the R&R they so clearly need. Roberts' ploy yields the desired orders but deprives the hustling Ensign Pulver of the bottle of scotch he needed to make an attempt upon the feminine charms of a local nurse. A hilarious scene follows, where the combined minds of Roberts and Doc conjure up a bottle of scotch from the most unlikely of ingredients.
However, upon arriving at the paradise port, the Captain flatly refuses to grant the crew liberty, to the despair of the crew. Mr. Roberts pleads with the Captain to relent, but the Captain informs him that liberty will have a price: total loyalty and obedience, an end to the irksome transfer requests and his word that no one will ever know of the bargain. Mr. Roberts reluctantly agrees, sacrificing his status among the crew and his ambitions in the process.
Needless to say, the crew wreaks absolute havoc while ashore, leading to the ship being kicked out of port. This infuriates the Captain to no end, who also takes evil pleasure in forcing Mr. Roberts to jump to his commands and inflict his demanding work schedule on the crew. To make matters worse, the end of the war in Europe reminds Mr. Roberts that his chance to see combat duty is now an impossible dream. Mr. Roberts is so unhappy that Ensign Pulver's attempt at a victory celebration with a homemade firecracker (which causes a spectacular mishap in the ship's laundry) cheers Mr. Roberts for only fleeting moments.
Driven beyond his breaking point, Mr. Roberts revenges himself upon the hated symbol of the Captain's authority, a jealously guarded and watered palm tree. In the furor that follows, the crew learns of Mr. Roberts' secret bargain with the Captain. When the story fades back in, we learn that Mr. Roberts has suddenly been blessed with transfer to combat duty, and all say their fond farewells. In the end, Mr. Roberts learns just how loved he was by the crew, we are treated to an exquisitely sad moment of tragedy, and Ensign Pulver finds the strength to make his own stand against the Captain's tyranny.
This dry synopsis of the story cannot do it justice. On the screen, the crew's cast of characters provides a vibrant human canvas for our central players to work upon, along with a variety of others (notably the contingent of distracting nurses and a laconic shore patrol officer who hails from Alabama). The audience understands perfectly the plight of the crew, trapped on an insignificant ship in a backwater area far behind the lines with an inhuman Captain, seeking out the smallest diversion from their numbing routine.
For a movie that is nearly 45 years old, this is a pretty good transfer. The picture is remarkably clean, with only minor blips and blemishes. Color saturation is good, but not as strong as we have come to expect from more modern movies. The picture is reasonably sharp, but sometimes softer than is preferable. There are occasional flaws in the picture, such as a momentary blurriness or the picture jumping or shifting. These are noticeable but not overly so, and given the overall quality of the picture and the age of the movie I tend to chalk it up to a less than idea film elements and not the fault of the transfer.
The audio has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, but don't be expecting an earth-shattering, awe-inducing spectacle here. It's surely a step up from a mono track, as we get decent channel separation and at least a smidgen of bass when appropriate.
In the extras department, we do get a tidy sum of goodies. There is an excerpt of an Ed Sullivan Toast of the Town tribute episode that features comments from producer Leland Hayward and scenes acted by James Cagney, Henry Fonda, and Jack Lemmon. You also get a clip from a documentary (Fonda on Fonda) which covers Henry Fonda's involvement with the play and the movie, as well as a poignant moment from a tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors (in Washington, D.C.). Jack Lemmon, whose memories of the movie are a treat, also treats us to a commentary. I must note that this is not a full-length commentary, but sporadic through the movie. It is handled in a fairly clunky fashion that necessitates skipping ahead chapters to get to the next section of comments. If it wasn't going to be a full-length commentary, they should have figured out a better way to handle it.
Rounding out the extras are fairly extensive production notes, lengthy cast and crew filmographies, and nine trailers for this movie, Ensign Pulver (1964), No Time For Sergeants (1958), Grumpy Old Men (1993), My Fellow Americans (1996), Amadeus (1984), Camelot (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (full frame) (1975) (which are of fair quality, but at least widescreen, except as noted) I find this a touch ironic for Grumpy Old Men, given that Warner released it as a pan and scan only DVD. Ick!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In defense of the disc, I must note that the movie suffers from having been filmed with the Warnercolor process. I did a little digging around, and apparently this was a troubled process and responsible at least in part for the lack of well-saturated color.
Clearly, Warner did a nice job to present this movie in as clean a fashion as they did, so I am not sure what lengths they would have had to go to (if it is even possible) to correct the problems that remain. Perhaps in the future as technology continues to advance this might be possible to restore Mister Roberts to its pristine 1955 state? We can but dream.
A must-have addition for any home theater library! Not only a stellar cast and well-crafted story, but also a decent transfer and good collection of extras make every dollar well spent.
Resoundingly acquitted! If you don't have this in your collection, hurry up and buy it before the DVD police find out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Jack Lemmon
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