The Caine Mutiny: A New Reason to Appreciate A Classic
It seems timely, as so many folks are finding their lives upended, that dealing with crisis with questionable leadership is a vital lesson to consider.
While social media was debating movies with the name “mutiny” in it this morning, seems like a good time to discuss a film that really is one of my all time favorites and the reasons why. Among them, one of the great, all-time walk off one-liners of “If you want to do anything about it, I’ll be outside…I’m a lot drunker than you, so it’ll be a fair fight,” a heavyweight cast at their very best, and some timeless subject matter for a then-contemporary war movie.
The Caine Mutiny came out in 1954, so if you are one of those folks scrupulous about spoiler warnings over a 66 year old film, then consider yourself thusly warned.
The film centers on the fictional US Navy minesweeper USS Caine during World War 2, with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Robert Francis, and Fred MacMurray leading a stellar cast as the crew. The reader’s digest version is Lt Maryk (Johnson) and Ensign Keith (Francis) are newly assigned to the Caine, am overworked and undermanned minesweeper under the command of demanding veteran Lieutenant Commander De Vriess. De Vriess is played by Tom Tully, who got an Academy Awards nomination for best supporting actor for his soliloquy on how the Caine, barely functional after 18 months of unrelenting combat, isn’t the “real” Navy they might have hoped for, but he hopes Maryk is good enough for the Caine anyway, and gives his new officers some advice. It’s cut down from the film — one of the many concessions the Navy needed for cooperation — and the shortened line is given to Keefer in the movie, but the novel had the war weary captain set the scene this way.
The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you are not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and common-sense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them.
De Vriess is reassigned and replaced by Bogart’s Lieutenant Commander Queeg, and that’s when the trouble begins. Keefer especially resents Queeg, if not the Navy itself, for trying to install discipline and order. Unlike newbie Keith and reservists called up like Maryk and Keefer, Queeg is a career Naval officer. The film slowly reveals that, whereas long service had hardened De Vriess, it has taken a toll on Queeg, who reverts to fidgeting with a pair of metal stress relief balls to try and control his anxiety. As Queeg’s behavior and performance become more questionable over a series of events — including the now legendary strawberry investigation — Keefer is the ear worm trying to convince Maryk their captain is unfit and insane. Not that Queeg does much to help himself with his increasingly disillusioned crew, and even Maryk privately starts annotating their Commanding Officer’s peculiarities. Queeg himself knows all this, and at one point awkwardly, and unsuccessfully, asks his ward room for help, which they silently refuse.
The situation comes to a head during a typhoon when, with the damaged ship in danger of floundering in the storm, Maryk finally gives in to his suspicions and relieves a seemingly frozen and indecisive Queeg. Riding out the remainder of the storm under the charge of Maryk, the Caine limps back to port for the court-martial of her officers, now accused of mutiny. Defending the Caine officers is Barney Greenwald, played brilliantly by Jose Ferrer, a naval aviator who had been a lawyer in civilian life on shore duty while recovering from injuries, and the only person who would take the case. The courtroom drama is well done, but the summation of what happened, in a brilliant performance by Ferrer of the drunken Greenwald dropping truth bombs on his charges after they were exonerated, explains it much better:
The film ends with Keith reassigned to a new destroyer, and its captain — the returning De Vriess — telling him to take them out.
That’s what happens in this excellent film. Part of the greatness is actors like the legendary Bogart, Johnson in his breakout role, and soon-to-be Disney movie dad archetype McMurray playing against type. The Navy fully supporting the film, after much haggling, lends much realism for the time, loaning the film two surplus ships to play the Caine and lending plenty of background in material and men. The legal drama is excellently done, the acting is as good as you’d expect from such luminaries, and the whole thing clips along. It is a classic film in every respect of the term. It was nominated for seven categories, including best picture, at the 27th Academy Awards, losing out to some flick called On The Waterfront.
The Caine Mutiny tells what the officers of the ship did. But it isn’t what the movie, or the novel it came from, is about.
It’s about morals, ethics, and authority under pressure.
These are themes throughout human history, covered in literature and film as long as we have had both mediums. The system is there for a reason, but at what point do you question the system, and when must you overthrow the system? Who is most right when everyone is at least partially wrong? What is the wrong thing to do when picking between the lesser of evils?
Timeless themes and questions, because humans will always need to know the answers to these unanswerable questions.
The brilliance of the film, brought out by the performances, is while everything the “mutineers” accused Queeg of was valid, it was far more complicated. He was mentally unwell, he had no business being in command of a ship especially in wartime, and he clearly was outside the mandate of his mission and his men. The crux of it, as Ferrer threw at them like Greenwald’s drink in Keffer’s face, was it didn’t happen in vacuum. They made decisions, both individually and as a group, that brought about a result their actions predestined to happen. Could Queeg have succeeded, or at least done better, had the crew supported him instead of undermined the already shaky captain? What other choice could Maryk have made with a captain so detached from reality he was committing court-martial offenses himself? When the officers board the flagship and realize the “real Navy” was a different world than their own aboard the Caine, should it have swayed them more than it did, or was the die cast at that point? At what point is someone too far gone to help?
Philosophy teachers can have a field day with those questions and the film. The beauty of it is there are no clear answers to some of those sticky questions, but both in the film and in real life, we often have to make snap calls with long term effects. It seems timely right now, as so many folks are finding their lives upended, dealing with crisis with questionable leadership is a vital lesson to consider. At the moment we are still in the typhoon, but there are plenty, from our leaders to internet randos, who will lose their minds, freeze up, or demand to take over and do a better job of it. We all go into the storm with our priors, but when things look bleak, character is revealed.
Crisis does that, stripping away veneer and showing what folks are truly made of. After this storm passes and we limp into port to regroup, there will be quite the trial about what transpired, but we should learn from the Caine Mutiny that the storm and the events in it were set in motion long before. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and there are plenty of reasons things happen before, during, and after crisis.
When it’s all said and done, let us hope we have some Greenwalds who do what needs to be done, even if it makes them sick about it, but never sway from telling the truth about why it was necessary in the first place. We can survive incompetent leaders, bad systems, faulty decisions, pandemics, economic crises, and all the rest. Like the best line in both the novel and the movie, uttered in the latter by McMurray playing Keefer, our system of government is like a Navy ship insofar as it is “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.”
We have enough idiots, many of them in positions of power. We can’t control a lot of that.
But we can at least tell the truth, do what is necessary, and then try to live with it afterwards, despite them.
If you want to do anything about that, I’ll be in the comments. But I’ve been sober for sixteen years next week, so it won’t be a fair fight.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on April 14, 2020.