Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Anatomy of a Mutiny

"The first thing you've got to learn about this ship is that she was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots."

Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray)

Sea adventures always seem to have fascinated moviegoers.

I'm not sure why that is so. Maybe it is because when there is a conflict at sea, the only choice is to resolve it somehow. There is only so much space to occupy; outside of that is miles and miles of ocean.

When a conflict occurs on dry land, there is always (well, usually) the option of going someplace else.

Things went very wrong for the fictional crew of the equally fictional USS Caine during a typhoon.

Before I say anything else about this movie, let me ask you a question: Which Humphrey Bogart performance do you think was his best, his most memorable?

Would you pick "Casablanca," which won Best Picture? Bogart was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost to Paul Lukas for "Watch on the Rhine."

Or would you pick "The African Queen," which was not nominated for Best Picture? Bogart won his only Best Actor Oscar for that one.

Would you pick a movie like "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," for which he was not nominated for Best Actor?

Or would you pick "The Caine Mutiny," which made its debut 60 years ago today? Bogart received his third and last (and perhaps most deserving) Best Actor nomination for it — but he lost to Marlon Brando for "On the Waterfront."

For many reasons, I might be inclined to pick "The Caine Mutiny," which was a first–rate sea adventure. However, I have always seen similarities between the role Bogart played in "The Caine Mutiny" and the one he played in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre."

It may not be Bogart's best performance, but, for me, it may be his most memorable because the character is so different from the roles he usually played.

Bogart's characters were always flawed in some way. Sam Spade and Rick Blaine were in love with women they couldn't have — and they knew it. Fred C. Dobbs was consumed with the desire for wealth, and Charlie Allnut, well, he had more problems than can be mentioned here.

But even though they had personal issues, all those characters were self–assured. They could manage things well enough on their own. Captain Queeg could not. He had been under great pressure throughout his naval career, and the story of how he cracked under the strain of commanding a nondescript vessel was the story of the Caine itself.

At the heart of the story was a young, affluent ensign on his first assignment. He didn't care for the commander in charge and was glad when he was replaced by Queeg, who appeared to be more of a disciplinarian.

"Mr. Maryk," he said to Van Johnson, his executive officer, "you may tell the crew for me that there are four ways of doing things aboard my ship: The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way. They do things my way, and we'll get along."

That was reassuring — temporarily — until Queeg's behavior brought his stability into question, particularly when he began rolling a pair of steel balls in his hand.

It was bad enough when, distracted by a crewman who was out of uniform, Queeg permitted the ship to go in a circle and cut its own towline. But later, when Queeg went on a preposterous search for strawberries that went missing, most of the crew began to doubt his stability.

At that point, three staffers from the Caine — Johnson, Fred MacMurray (a writer) and Robert Francis (the young ensign) — set out to report Queeg's erratic behavior to the admiral but thought better of it at the last minute.

Things reached a boiling point on board the Caine during the typhoon. Queeg froze under pressure, and Johnson relieved him of command — thus setting in motion a sequence of events that led to a court–martial for Johnson and Francis. They were represented by Jose Ferrer, who was reluctant at first. He admitted that he would prefer to prosecute.

There were high hopes among the defendants when MacMurray's character was called to testify. He, of course, had been the one who had planted the idea of Queeg's mental instability in everyone's heads. He was a writer, they said. He had a way with words and would be able to explain to the court what it had been like on the Caine, but he wound up taking no responsibility. When he heard that Queeg had been relieved of command, MacMurray said, he was "flabbergasted."

That was a good word for the reaction of the defense, too. Later, when talking about MacMurray on the stand, Ferrer told the ship's crew, "You ought to read his testimony. He never even heard of Captain Queeg."

Ferrer's character had no choice but to put Queeg on the stand and ask him direct questions about his bizarre behavior. Queeg pulled out his steel balls and began rolling them in his hand while he testified. The point was made, and the defendants were acquitted.

"The Caine Mutiny" was nominated for seven Oscars, but it took home none. That was unfortunate. Director Edward Dmytryk really deserved better than that.

Columbia Pictures, knowing this would be the last movie producer Stanley Kramer would make for the company, slashed the budget and relied on Bogart's reputation and the success of the book upon which the movie was based. The gamble paid off, but the financial restrictions under which he worked led Dmytryk to make — perhaps out of necessity — a great movie.

Bogart's acting achievement was only part of it. Johnson gave an astonishing performance as a foolish first officer whose intentions were good, and Francis was just as good as the naive and even more foolish ensign.

But I think that, perhaps, the most impressive performance was turned in by Dmytryk — creating a top–of–the–line movie for, essentially, bargain–basement prices.