Movie review: ‘The Caine Mutiny’

cmI’ve never been big on old films, but I have been intrigued by the career and talent of Humphrey Bogart. I’ve started to watch “Casablanca” and “The African Queen” several times, but for a variety of reasons never finished. However, I did find his performance in “The Caine Mutiny” one of the best in film I’ve ever seen. Not only that, it’s a film framed by World War II and is an excellent example of that genre. So, today I’m going to review the only Bogie movie I’ve ever seen in its entirety. Quite a talented man and quite a talented supporting cast, too.

‘The Caine Mutiny’
(1954; 124 minutes; rated PG; directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson)

SIMPLY ONE OF THE ALL-TIME GREATS

(NOTE: I updated this review with additional links on July 26, 2015, and then I added some opinion and trivia and further updated links on May 29, 2016.)

I’d usually never choose to watch old films, but when it is a war movie starring Humphrey Bogart, I had to watch it. I didn’t expect it to be the equal of spectacle war films such as “The Great Escape” (click here for my review) or “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review) or come anywhere near the drama of “Stalag 17.” These three collectively possess all the best elements of war films: outstanding drama; outstanding acting; and big-screen, big-spectacle filmmaking. Surely, “The Caine Mutiny” couldn’t compete. Could it?

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Boy, I quickly realized that “The Caine Mutiny,” one of three films starring Bogie released in 1954, was the dramatic equal to “Stalag 17” (“The Caine Mutiny” was nominated for seven Oscars; “Stalag 17” had a Best Actor win and two other nominations) and that’s certainly impressive. “The Caine Mutiny” was also in color and a big player on the big screen. “Stalag 17” benefited from its black-and-white film as a way to show the grimy environment of the prison camp, while “The Caine Mutiny” benefited from color in the ocean scenes. Without question, all the films offer top-shelf actors.

Bogart won Oscars for Best Actor in “Casablanca” and “The African Queen” and he was nominated for “The Caine Mutiny.” If he didn’t win for “The Caine Mutiny,” then I can only imagine how good he was in the other two. As for other actors, I got a surprise both by the quality of the work of just about every member of the primary cast as well as the difference of character type for Fred MacMurray. Finally, research through IMDb.com showed that an up-and-coming actor’s career would be ended by tragedy.

Now, to the film.

The plot is straightforward: a U.S. Navy ship during World War II has a tired, slack crew and a tired captain who put up with the slacking off. Enter a new skipper for the U.S.S. Caine fresh from combat against U-boats in the Atlantic. The new skipper immediately begins to ride the crew and sends just about everyone, including himself, over the edge. The film winds up in a military courtroom where it all comes to a head.

Now, a look at the cast:

  • Bogart, who plays “Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg,” was tailor-made for this role. He is at the same time commanding, a martinet, paranoid and even reveals a soft side (before Nixon, he used his family dog to try to get sympathy – maybe that’s where the disgraced former president got the idea). Bogie easily handles the frenetic shifts in Queeg’s emotions. Frankly I was surprised at the depth of Bogart’s talent as I expected a 1950s Hollywood star-type persona. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The single most powerful scene in this film (and would stand above most of any other film) is when Bogart gives testimony at the court martial. The quick evolution of his character’s traits truly showcases his huge talent. Even with a re-watch of his performance, I stand in awe of what Bogie shows me in this film.
  • Behind Bogie, Van Johnson, who plays “Lt. Steve Maryk” the Caine’s executive officer, is a workhorse in this film. Johnson gives his all from being friendly to efficient to worried and finally to taking command. Johnson, who was also in “Battleground,” “Where Angels Go Trouble Follows!” (click here for my review), “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” and a string of TV episodes including “Love American Style” and “Murder, She Wrote,” cannot be faulted for this performance – he’s both solid and vulnerable; both confident and doubting himself; and in the end he’s completely honest with both everyone else and then finally himself. A tour de force for Johnson, who was a Primetime Emmy nominee for his work in “Rich Man, Poor Man.”
  • Coming in for the final act of this film is Oscar winner (not for this one) José Ferrer, who plays “Lt. Barney Greenwald,” the officer who will defend Johnson at the court martial. Like Johnson, Ferrer is at his best as the blustery, confident and aggressive attorney. Ferrer was also in lesser known films such as “The Evil that Men Do” (a pure stinkbomb); “Battle Creek Brawl” also called “The Big Brawl” with Jackie Chan (click here for my review); “Ship of Fools” and also like Johnson in a string of TV episodes including “Newhart,” “Fantasy Island” and “Quincy, M.E.” He won his Oscar for “Cyrano de Bergerac” and got nominations for 1952’s “Moulin Rouge” and 1948’s “Joan of Arc.”
  • Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) MacMurray turns out a great effort as “Lt. Tom Keefer,” the Caine’s budding author. The role is a complete reversal from MacMurray’s signature role as “Steve Douglas” on the hit family TV show “My Three Sons.” Unlike the TV show character, MacMurray is cynical (and shares it freely) and develops perfectly as the not-too-obvious villain in the story. His pivotal scene at a party at the end with Ferrer is priceless. It’s not easy to evolve a character as a back-stabbing, miserable piece of poison, but MacMurray does a yeoman’s job here (no pun intended) and his Golden Globe nomination was for Disney’s “The Absent Minded Professor.”
  • Another Hollywood veteran, Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) E.G. Marshall, has the key role of the court martial prosecutor “Lt. Cmdr. Challee.” Marshall is known for his abilities across all genres and from film to TV. He was in “12 Angry Men,” “The Bridge at Remagen,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here for my review) plus TV roles in everything from “The Brady Bunch” to “Night Gallery” and to “Falcon Crest.” I enjoyed him best in his very small role in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” with Chevy Chase (click here for my review). His nomination was for “The Defenders.”
  • Oscar winner (not for this one) Lee Marvin, who would go on to a great career in Hollywood including “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Big Red One” (click here for my review), “Gorky Park” and “Paint Your Wagon,” has a small part as “Meatball,” one of the “Caine’s” slack but combat hardened sailors. He doesn’t have any chance to develop the character and it is next to impossible to convey much in what little he does have. However, his brief scene in testifying at the court martial shows why he was cast in the part – he’s just really solid and has talent. He won his Oscar for “Cat Ballou.”
  • Joining Marvin with a small role is well-known TV actor Claude Akins as “Seaman ‘Horrible’ Luglatch.” He was in “Rio Bravo” and a string of TV roles including “Fantasy Island,” “Police Story” and “Mannix.” Like Marvin, Akins is a slacker who’s verbally disciplined by Bogie at a time the captain should have been paying attention to where his ship was headed.
  • Finally, then Hollywood newcomer Robert Francis plays “Ensign Willie Keith.” Francis had the clean-cut good looks of 1950s Hollywood and did a solid job in “The Caine Mutiny.” He easily conveys “Keith’s” rookie status, vulnerability but also good ethics and a frank openness to learn. Francis was in two other movies released in 1954 and then one the next year. However, his career (which had been critically well-received) ended in 1955 when the private plane he was piloting crashed near the Burbank, Calif., airport and he was killed. One can only wonder what impact he would have had on films into the 1960s.

Although it had seven Academy Award nominations, “The Caine Mutiny” didn’t win. However, it was tough competition for Best Film since it was up against “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando (both winners over “The Caine Mutiny” and Bogie). As for the source material, click here for Wiki’s entry about author Herman Wouk’s two-act play “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” that was on Broadway before it was made into this film (which had its premiere the year after the play had its first run).

The Caine Mutiny” raked in $21.8 million on a budget of $2 million and was the fifth ranked film at the box office in 1954, according to Wiki. It didn’t lag far behind the No. 1 film “White Christmas,” which made $30 million. Although, $9 million in those days went further than it does today. Another film from that year that I’ve reviewed is “Beachhead” (click here for my review).

Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The Caine Mutiny” was reportedly the inspiration for the screen name of actor Maurice Micklewhite. You know him better as Michael Caine.
  • Two supporting actors also got notice: May Wynn, as Francis’ girlfriend “May Wynn,” and Tom Tully as “Cmdr. DeVriess.” May was unexceptional as this cast goes and Tully solid (he received an Oscar nomination here, but was against huge other talent). Tully had a leg amputated after he contracted a disease while entertaining troops in Vietnam as part of a USO show and the debilitating effects ultimately led to his death from cancer at age 73 in 1982. He was also in Clint Eastwood’s “Coogan’s Bluff.”
  • Several of the primary cast would take a cruise on TV’s “The Love Boat” (one of my personal favorites), including Ferrer, Johnson and Akins (click here for my overview of the series).
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The scars on Van Johnson‘s face in this film are real, not makeup. While filming A Guy Named Joe (1943), Johnson was in an automobile accident and thrown through the car’s windshield. The plastic surgery of the day could not totally remove his scars. In all his later films he wore heavy makeup to hide them but felt that, in this film, they added to his character’s appearance.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015-2016.
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