Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Less than a decade after World War II ended, The Caine Mutiny examined issues of leadership, obedience to authority, and honor during wartime. The film brought Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen, retaining the essentials of its dramatic story of naval life during wartime and providing actor Humphrey Bogart with his last great role.

Summary of Event

Based on Herman Wouk’s best-selling 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Caine Mutinty, The (Wouk) of the same name, The Caine Mutiny (1954) explored the conflict between authority and responsibility aboard a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Like the novel, the film included practically no scenes of combat. Instead, it used the larger conflict, of which viewers were constantly reminded, as an ironic counterpoint to its story of conflict aboard ship. Caine Mutiny, The (Dmytryk) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Caine Mutiny[Caine Mutiny] [kw]Caine Mutiny Premiers, The (June 24, 1954) Caine Mutiny, The (Dmytryk) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Caine Mutiny[Caine Mutiny] [g]North America;June 24, 1954: The Caine Mutiny Premiers[04520] [g]United States;June 24, 1954: The Caine Mutiny Premiers[04520] [c]Motion pictures and video;June 24, 1954: The Caine Mutiny Premiers[04520] Wouk, Herman Roberts, Stanley Bogart, Humphrey Dmytryk, Edward Ferrer, José Kramer, Stanley Johnson, Van MacMurray, Fred Francis, Robert

The Caine Mutiny was shot during the summer of 1953, most of it in what was then the territory of Hawaii. Because of the nature of the film (and the reference to “mutiny” in its title), the Navy had at first refused to cooperate, stretching initial preparations to more than a year. However, producer Stanley Kramer pled his case successfully before the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations, and as a result the Navy made ships and planes available and opened its bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and San Francisco, California, to the movie crew. The USS Thompson was pressed into service to represent the Caine.

Kramer vetoed the choice of Richard Widmark to play the lead role, insisting instead on Humphrey Bogart. Director Edward Dmytryk had once been blacklisted Blacklisting, Hollywood Hollywood studio system;blacklisting for being a member of the American Communist Party and required the permission of technical adviser Commander James Shaw Shaw, James to enter Pearl Harbor. Wouk himself was hired to write the script, but the result was rejected, and veteran Stanley Roberts was brought in to write another one. This version became the shooting script, although its flaws would prevent the film from attaining the stature that it might otherwise have achieved. The filming itself went smoothly, with Dmytryk finishing on schedule in fifty-four days.

The film falls into four distinct sections, and although their styles and moods are somewhat at odds, they increase in depth and dramatic intensity as the film progresses. Wouk explained that he began his story with Ensign Willie Keith, because the central “event [of the novel] turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.” The film follows the novel closely, as Keith (played by newcomer Robert Francis) is assigned to a battered destroyer-minesweeper, the USS Caine, while at the same time trying to satisfy the conflicting expectations of his possessive mother and his girlfriend, nightclub singer May Wynn. Keith meets the ship’s easygoing captain, Lieutenant Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully Tully, Tom ), as well as earnest Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson) and the ship’s relentlessly cynical communications officer, Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray). This opening section of the film is the least satisfying, being largely a collection of cinematic clichés, their nature emphasized rather than relieved by a jarringly jaunty score by veteran Hollywood composer Max Steiner Steiner, Max .

The second section of the film opens with the introduction of Captain Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), the new commander of the Caine. Queeg has served several years of hard combat in the North Atlantic Ocean and makes it clear that he will run his new ship “by the book.” However, a series of troubling incidents suggest that Queeg’s uncompromising attitude masks a great deal of inner uncertainty. For example, he is so intent on berating a sloppily dressed crewman that he allows the Caine to sail in a circle and cut the cable of a target it is towing.

In another, far more serious incident, the Caine is ordered to lead a flotilla of landing barges to within a thousand feet of shore. As the ship comes under fire, Queeg cuts the approach short and orders a yellow dye marker thrown overboard to guide the barges, saving his own ship from danger but leaving the landing party unprotected. Queeg also angers the crew by embarking on an absurd and ultimately fruitless attempt to determine who has stolen some strawberries from the ship’s locker. These incidents lead Keefer to encourage Maryk to keep a journal detailing Queeg’s behavior. Subsequently, however, Keefer discourages his shipmates from approaching Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey with their concerns about Queeg.

The film’s third section is taken up with a dramatic and technically accomplished series of scenes in which the Caine is caught in a typhoon. Queeg is paralyzed with indecision, insisting that he has received no orders to alter the Caine’s direction. Instead he orders the helmsman to maintain course, although the men (and the audience) realize that to do so is likely to result in the ship’s capsizing. Believing that Queeg is no longer acting rationally, Maryk relieves him of command under Article 184 of U.S. Navy Regulations. At this moment Keith—who is officer of the deck and thus in direct charge of the ship—becomes the “small jewel bearing” on which the most significant event turns. The helmsman looks to him for guidance, and Keith confirms Maryk’s decision.

The fourth section of the film, which initially seems anticlimactic, takes place during and after the court-martial of Maryk for the capital charge of mutiny. Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (ably played by José Ferrer) has agreed to represent Maryk, although his sympathies clearly lie with Queeg. Maryk acquits himself poorly on the stand, and Keefer denies any responsibility, but in what is arguably the greatest scene of Bogart’s career, Queeg disintegrates under Greenwald’s questioning, revealing the depth of his mental instability to the court. As a result, Maryk is acquitted. Greenwald is not done, however. He appears later at a party for Maryk, clearly intoxicated, to argue that the battle-weary Queeg, who had been defending their country for years, deserved their support rather than their scorn. He concludes by identifying Keefer as the real culprit and throwing a glass of champagne in the cowardly lieutenant’s face. A brief, upbeat coda to the film shows Keith, now married to May, being welcomed aboard a new ship in San Francisco by his old commander, Captain DeVriess.

When The Caine Mutiny opened on June 24, 1954, critics pointed out that its story was overly familiar. After all, the novel had been a best seller, and the popular play that Wouk had based on the novel, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, The (Wouk)[Caine Mutiny Court Martial, The] (1953), was still running on Broadway. There were other complaints that the film crammed too many elements into its 124 minutes. Almost all reviewers praised the film’s cast, however, particularly the performances of Ferrer and Bogart.

Significance

As World War II began to recede in people’s memories in the early 1950’s, it became possible for writers and filmmakers to take more a nuanced look at the recent conflict than had been acceptable in wartime. Like Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956), The Caine Mutiny explored the problems inherent in the hierarchical nature of military life. If the film had a major drawback, it was its failure to show Queeg as the honorable but exhausted commander described by Greenwald. Bogart had been dissatisfied with that and other aspects of the script and expressed misgivings in private about the work of both Johnson and MacMurray.

Modern audiences may agree with Bogart’s misgivings, at least in regard to Johnson, whose portrayal of a valiant but unsophisticated officer is somewhat wooden. Nevertheless, the film today is largely remembered for Bogart’s own portrayal of the obsessive, neurotic Queeg. The film grows in intensity as it progresses, and the unresolved ambiguity at its heart remains provocative, driven in part by the very woodenness of Johnson’s performance, which makes it more difficult for an audience member to side unproblematically with his character against Queeg.

The Caine Mutiny received several Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Actor (Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Tully), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, and, surprisingly, Best Writing (Screenplay) and Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture). Were it not for the performances of Bogart and Ferrer, however, The Caine Mutiny might well be forgotten. Bogart’s nomination for Best Actor was his third, but he lost out to Marlon Brando, who received the award for his performance in On the Waterfront. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture, but it also lost to On the Waterfront. Clean-cut Robert Francis seemed destined for a solid Hollywood career but died in a plane crash in 1955. In later years, viewers would also prize the film for an early appearance by Lee Marvin, who played the sailor Meatball. Caine Mutiny, The (Dmytryk) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Caine Mutiny[Caine Mutiny]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dmytryk, Edward. It’s a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living. New York: New York Times Books, 1978. Memoir by the director, with valuable background information on the filming of The Caine Mutiny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fink, Ernst O. “The Caine Mutiny: From Page to Stage.” In Modern War on Stage and Screen/Der moderne Krieg auf der Bühne, edited by Wolfgang Görtschacher and Holger Klein. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Compares three versions of the story, faulting the film for its technical shortcomings and lack of focus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazzeno, Laurence W. Herman Wouk. New York: Twayne, 1994. The standard critical work on Wouk, with an entire chapter devoted to the novel and its incarnations. Useful bibliography of secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sperber, A. M., and Eric Lax. Bogart. New York: William Morrow, 1997. Comprehensive biography of the actor, with an extended analysis of the film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wouk, Herman. The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951. The novel on which screenwriter Stanley Roberts and director Edward Dmytryk based the motion picture.

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