The Caine Mutiny (1954) Review

The Caine Mutiny (1954) Director: Edward Dmytryk

“They were all disloyal!”


Humphrey Bogart steals the show in one of his finest performances as the maddeningly petty and paranoid Captain Queeg of the U.S.S. Caine, a World War II naval minesweeper dispatched to the Pacific theater during the war. Often considered his last great performance (Bogart died a mere three years later), The Caine Mutiny represented the third and final nomination he received for Best Actor, though he ultimately lost to Marlon Brando for On The Waterfront. The Caine Mutiny was independently produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk (one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten” for refusing to testify before Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee). The Caine Mutiny is perhaps Dmytryk’s most widely respected film.

The film reminds begins with great labors to remind us it is a fictional tale:
“There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy. The truths of this film lie not in its incidents but in the way a few men meet the crisis of their lives.”

The plot for the film is based on Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel (feel free to read my reflections on the novel here). While there are some significant departures or at least omissions from the novel, the movie is still superb. We follow a trio of officers aboard the U.S.S. Caine under the leadership of Captain De Vriess, the writerly Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray of Double Indemnity fame), the dutiful Lt. Maryk (Van Johnson), and the novel’s protagonist (Robert Francis in cinematic debut, but who tragically died the following year after appearing in only four Hollywood films. He died while piloting an airplane at the age of twenty-five in 1955).

The Caine is handed over to Captain Queeg (Bogart) who begins instituting all manner of strict regulations and absurd punishments for irrelevant minor incidents. At Keefer’s insistence, Maryk becomes convinced that Queeg is paranoid, and Maryk very nearly spoke with an Admiral about it. The whole drama culminates during a typhoon when Queeg appears in a fearful state shouting suicidal instructions until Maryk relieves him as Captain under Article 184 of the Naval regulations. The true crescendo of the film comes in the dramatic court-martial trial for Maryk which at first appears severely incriminating (especially when Keefer double crosses him during examination), but once Queeg takes the stand the somewhat jaded defense attorney Greenwald (played by José Ferrer) is revealed to be a raving maniac, easily riled, all while juggling a pair of marbles. Both Maryk and Keith are acquitted, and at the end Keith is once again under the leadership of Captain De Vriess (this is a significant departure from the novel, but an understandable shift for Hollywood –the other big change in the film is the lack of backstory with Keith’s family and especially his wishy-washy relationship with May). Director Dmytryk later expressed remorse over the film, wishing he had made a larger epic film, more in line with the complex subplots in the novel though that would certainly be a monumental task. As the credits roll, the film is dedicated to the U.S. Navy. The Caine Mutiny wonderfully explores some timeless themes, such as the tension between academic “book-smarts” and hands-on experience, and yet the film does not celebrate the act of mutiny as heroic nor does it denigrate the elder seamen of the Navy (it actually took years to make the movie thanks to prohibitions from the U.S. Navy who were skeptical of the film’s message). At any rate, I wish Hollywood still made movies like this today.

“When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no! We knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys, tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.” -some of Greenwald’s drunken remarks after the trial

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