It’s the 1940s and World War II is raging. The U.S. Navy is model of military discipline and efficiency. Well, except for the U.S.S. Caine, that is. The Caine is something of a disorganized mess, where no one takes his job seriously and sailors have names like Meatball (Lee Marvin) and Horrible (Claude Akins). The men love Lt. Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), largely because he has given up on trying to enforce any sort of discipline. However, DeVriess has recently been relieved of his command. As he leaves, Meatball gives him a new watch, a gift from all the men. DeVriess admonishes them, snapping that the gift is violation of Naval regulations. He then puts the watch on his wrist and leaves the ship.
DeVriess’s replacement is Captain Francis Queeg and, at first, we have reason to be hopeful because Captain Queeg is being played by Humphrey Bogart. Surely, if anyone can get this ship into shape, it’ll be Humphrey Bogart! From the moment he arrives, Queeg announces that he’s going to enforce discipline on the Caine and if that means spending hours yelling at a man for not having his shirt tucked in, that’s exactly what Queeg is prepared to do. However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the awkward Queeg has no idea how to talk to people. He is also overly sensitive and quick to take offense. Whenever Queeg makes a mistake (and he does make a few), he’s quick to blame everyone else.
Realizing that the men are turning against him, Queeg even begs his officers for their help. He asks them if they have any suggestions. They all sit silently, their heads bowed as Queeg somewhat poignantly rambles on about how his wife and his dog both like him but the crew of the Caine does not.
Queeg’s officers are a diverse bunch, none of whom are quite sure what to make of Queeg or the state of the Caine. Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is a wealthy graduate of Princeton University who, at first, likes Queeg but quickly comes to doubt his abilities. On the other hand, Lt. Steve Marsyk (Van Johnson) has doubts about Queeg from the start but, as a career Navy man, his natural instinct is to respect the chain of command above all else.
And then there’s Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray). Keefer is a self-styled intellectual, a novelist who is always quick with a snarky comment and a cynical observation. (If The Caine Mutiny were remade as a B-horror film, Lt. Keefer’s name would probably be Lt. Sardonicus.) From the minute the viewers meet Lt. Keefer, our inclination is to like him. After all, he seems to be the only person in the film who has a sense of humor. If we had to pick someone to have dinner with, most of us would definitely pick the erudite Tom Keefer over the humorless and socially awkward Francis Queeg. As such, when Keefer starts to suggest that Queeg might be mentally unstable, our natural impulse is to agree with him.
It’s Tom Keefer who first suggests that it may be necessary to take the command away from Queeg. And yet, when it comes time to take action, it’s Keith and Marsyk who do so while Keefer stands to the side and quietly watches. And, once the Caine arrives back in the U.S., it Keith and Marsyk who are court martialed. Will they be found guilty of treason or will their lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), prove that Queeg was unfit for command?
Made in 1954 and based on a novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is one of those big and glossy 1950s productions that holds up a lot better than you might expect. The film has its flaws. In the role of Keith, Robert Francis is a bit on the dull side and a subplot in which he courts May Wynn feels unneccessary and only serves to distract from the main story. But, for the most part, it’s an intelligent and well-directed film. Humphrey Bogart turns Queeg into a pathetic and lonely figure and you can’t help but feel sorry for him when he talks about how his dog loves him. Van Johnson also does well as Marsyk, effectively portraying a well-meaning character who is in over his head. Jose Ferrer gets a great drunk scene at the end of the film and, of course, you can’t go wrong with Lee Marvin as a smirking sailor, even if Marvin only appears for a handful of minutes.
But for me, my favorite character (and performance) was Fred MacMurray’s Tom Keefer. Technically, Keefer is not meant to be a likable character. He’s totally passive aggressive. He’s pretentious. He’s smug. At times, he’s rather cowardly. And yet, Tom Keefer remains the most memorable and interesting character in the entire film. He gets all of the good one-lines and MacMurray delivers them with just the right amount of barely concealed venom. (“If only the strawberries were poisoned…” he says as he considers dinner aboard the Caine.) It’s a great role and Fred MacMurray gives a great performance. And you know what? I don’t care how bad a character he may have been. I still want to read Tom Keefer’s book!
The Caine Mutiny was nominated for best picture of 1954. However, it lost to On The Waterfront.