Judge George Hatch says this war film starring Marlon Brando is a bomb...or was that Da Bomb?
Morituri Te Salutant (Those who are about to die salute you.)—Roman gladiators' salute to Caesar
Marlon Brando made a dozen films in the 1960s, many of which were underrated or misfired at the box office. Recent DVD releases of some titles from this period have given us the chance to re-evaluate his performances and the films themselves. Brando played a sheriff in Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966), which explored the social dynamics of a small town in modern Texas. Charlie Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) was a feather-light romantic comedy in which Brando co-starred with Sophia Loren. On second look, both films have improved with age, as has Morituri (1965), giving Brando a three-year trifecta.
Facts of the Case
In 1942, rubber was a precious commodity. The Allies had a desperate need for it to augment their war machine, and 7,000 tons of it could "keep the entire German army on wheels for at least three months." The disgraced Capt. Rolf Mueller (Yul Brynner) is blackmailed by his superiors into helming a merchant ship packed with rubber cargo from Japan to Bordeaux. There are also five political prisoners in the hold and enough explosives to scuttle the ship rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) has been living in India on a forged Swiss passport for the past three years. He was the chief engineer of a German demolition battalion who fled the country when he was called into conflict. Col. Statter (Trevor Howard) of the British Consulate threatens to expose Crain unless he agrees to pose as Standard Leader Hans Kyle of the S.S. and board Mueller's ship "for security purposes." In reality, he is to locate and disarm the scuttling devices. Capt. Mueller immediately suspects Kyle is on board to monitor his actions, ensuring he will not "get drunk on rum again and lose another ship." He imposes the "privileges and restrictions of any passenger" by confining Kyle to "your cabin and the salon." Assuming the explosives are below deck, Kyle makes surreptitious nightly excursions, eventually befriending the political agitators. He finds another cohort, Esther Levy (Janet Margolin), when Mueller rescues a small boatload of torpedoed survivors and makes them prisoners of war.
Fox is promoting Morituri as part of their "War Classics" collection, but the film has a lot more going for it. As an unpredictable and suspenseful cat-and-mouse game, allegiances form and fracture, psychological power plays are constantly undermined, paranoia runs rampant, and pressure mounts as time runs out. Brando and Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven) portray two very complex personalities brooding over personal moral dilemmas. As a deserter, Crain/Kyle had no love for the Fatherland and despised war in general. This suicide mission has left him disillusioned and apathetic; there's no hope, since "one war will always follow another." The role is a real treat for Brando fans because he was one of the few actors who could "think" on screen without being boring, or worse, resorting to the darting "what-should-I-do-now?" eyes routine. With a simple tilt of his head, an unexpected pause in his lines, and a lot of attitude, you can always see Kyle's mind working overtime as he bluffs his way through interrogations about his past and improvises plans to divert potentially dire situations. His accent is spot on, and he easily delivers lines like, "So this then is further then Leipzig is to Düsseldorf." (Try saying that with a German accent.)
Brynner has the slightly juicer role of Mueller, at odds with himself and his country. Like Brando's German officer in The Young Lions (1958), Mueller questions the ultimate designs of the Nazi movement. He has genuine sympathy for his prisoners, even Esther, the young Jewish girl. When he assigns her a cabin of her own (to keep her separate from the all-male prisoners), she insults his concern and generosity. Mueller says, "Young lady, even this kind of impudence will not stop me from treating you simply as another member of the human race." He resents Hitler and "would not even make a speech at his wedding." When Radio NordReich announces that his son has sunk another enemy vessel, he proudly accepts everyone's congratulations—until he learns it was a hospital ship. In his captain's quarters, he goes berserk smashing furniture, and even a photograph of his son. After The King and I (1956), Brynner (a Russian by birth) was typecast as a "foreign actor with an interesting accent." This wasn't necessarily a disadvantage because, throughout the rest of the 1950s, he took the lead in several of Hollywood's A-list productions, including Anastasia, The Brothers Karamazov, and the controversial adaptation of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The 1960s were less career-friendly, and Morituri is undoubtedly Brynner's best leading performance since The Magnificent Seven five years earlier.
Among the supporting roles, one other actor stands out. With equal screen-time and as much in-depth characterization as the two leads, Martin Benrath as Kruse, Mueller's second-in-command, is a major player in the strategies to take command of the cargo ship—and earn substantial credibility with the Reich by "using" Kyle to further discredit Capt. Mueller. This is an outstanding performance from an amazing actor most noted for his appearances on German television. Trevor Howard (The Third Man) has a simple cameo as Col. Statter, but he is both dignified and intimidating as he gradually pressures Crain to accept the mission. In the relatively small but pivotal role of Esther, Janet Margolin (David and Lisa) moves from fear and resentment to powerful commitment for a cause that may require her to make the ultimate sacrifice. Her description of a concentration camp incident is both poignant and horrifying.
Technically, Morituri is director Bernhard Wicki's only American film. He made a baker's dozen of films between 1958 and 1989. The first three were made in Germany, and both The Longest Day (1962) and The Visit (1964) were international co-productions. In 1967, Wicki returned to Germany. In Morituri, he displays a Hitchcockian flair for suspense and paces the film accordingly. He also knows how to use his actors to their best advantage, and keeps the viewer enthralled—and often on the edge of his seat—for the entire two-hour plus running time.
Fox's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is about 90 percent successful. Conrad (American Beauty) Hall's black-and-white cinematography looks richly detailed in the interior shots, especially those below deck which frequently carry film noir overtones. In the outdoor shots, however, with the open night sky and ocean in the background, images often lack proper contrast and there are too many shades of gray, especially in an extended fog sequence. There is also some white-walling, as when a bright light bulb moves into a dark frame. The "dark" details lose their definition for a few seconds until the new lighting is compensated for and adjusted. But speckling and other aging elements—so evident in the trailers—have been cleaned up for an overall better-than-average transfer. Jerry (L.A. Confidential) Goldsmith's score is tense and ominous, and at times it sounds like he's using a mandolin to give certain scenes a flavor reminiscent of The Third Man. Both the Dolby Stereo and Mono enhance Goldsmith's score, and even with all the varying German accents, dialogue is clear. and subtitles—white with yellow edging—are not required.
The special features include a silly 15-second "theatrical tease" with the tagline "Morituri—It must mean something…unusual!" The official trailer ends with the film's original title, The Saboteur, Code Name: Morituri, and this may have been the better choice. I don't remember even hearing the word "morituri" mentioned in the film; the reference is extremely vague, even arcane to the average viewer. It's certainly appropriate for two wartime "gladiators," but "saboteur" and "code name" may have rung more bells for the intended audience. Three other trailers for titles in Fox's War Classics series complete the extras.
Don't be misled by Fox's War Classics reference, or by the nautical look of the packaging. Morituri delivers much more than your typical WWII "action movie." It's a high-tension suspense thriller, packed with intrigue, treachery, and murder. There's more here than an ocean skirmish and two top actors going head to head. The film was poorly marketed upon its original release and deserves another look.
Not guilty! Don't let Morituri drift into the Sea of Obscurity a second time.
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