The Caine Mutiny: A Review

For my sins, perhaps, I have spent my career as an attorney.  Over the past 27 years I’ve done a fair number of trials, both bench and jury, and I am always on the lookout for good depictions of trials in films, and one of the best is The Caine Mutiny.  Based on the novel of the same name by Herman Wouk,  who served in the Navy as an officer in the Pacific during World War II, the movie addresses the question of what should, and should not, be done in a military organization when the man at the top of the chain of command is no longer in his right mind.

The cast is top notch.  Humphrey Bogart, an enlisted man in the Navy during WWI and a member of the Naval Reserve, he tried to enlist again in the Navy after Pearl Harbor but was turned down because of his age, gives the performance of his career as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, the captain of the Caine.  In the hands of a lesser actor Queeg could easily have become merely a two-dimensional madman.  Bogart instead infuses Queeg with pathos and demonstrates to the audience that this is a good man who sadly is no longer responsible mentally for his actions.  Van Johnson delivers his usual workmanlike job as Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, the “exec” of the Caine, a career officer who does his best to remain loyal to an obviously disturbed CO, while also attempting to protect the crew of the Caine  from Queeg’s increasingly erratic behavior.  Robert Francis, as Ensign Willis Seward Keith, is the viewpoint character, too young and inexperienced to make his own judgment he relies on Maryk and Lieutenant Keefer.  Fred MacMurray is slime incarnate as Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, a reservist who hates the Navy, spends all his time writing a novel, and eggs Maryk on to take command away from Queeg.  Finally, in a typhoon, reluctantly and only, as he perceives it, to save the ship, Maryk, with the support of Keith, relieves Queeg from command.

In the ensuing court-martial of Maryk and Keith, lawyer Lieutenant Barney Greenwald,  portrayed with panache by Jose Ferrer, reluctantly agrees to defend them.

What I admire most about the film is the realistic way that the defense is depicted.  A legal case consists of the facts, the law and people.

Looking at the facts, Greenwald quickly decides that he can present quite a bit of evidence that Queeg was behaving in a bizarre manner and the film shows this being done at the trial through the testimony of various witnesses.  So far, so easy.

What about the law?  Under the Articles of War of the US Navy in World War II there were few more serious crimes than mutiny.  The defense had a high burden to establish that no mutiny occurred because Queeg had been rightfully relieved due to his mental condition.     The relevant article was 184 of the Naval Regulations: “It is conceivable that most unusual and extraordinary circumstances may arise in which the relief from duty of a commanding officer by a subordinate becomes necessary either by placing him under arrest or on the sick list. Such actions shall never be taken without the approval of the Navy Department except when it is impracticable because of the delay involved.”  Greenwald has to prove that the circumstances aboard the Caine were extraordinary and unusual and that any delay would have been deadly to the Caine and her crew.

People:  the three chief witnesses for the defense are Maryk, Keith and Keefer.  Maryk is a good and decent, albeit not brilliant, officer, a good witness.  Keith is too young and inexperienced to be an effective witness.  His fate rests on other factors.  Greenwald quickly realizes that Keefer will be of no use, and at the trial Keefer attempts to completely distance himself from the mutiny and throws his two  friends Maryk and Keith to the wolves.  The prosecution’s case relies on Commander Queeg.  If he comes across anywhere close to normal on the witness stand,  the prosecutor can coast to an easy win.  Of course the most important people at the court-martial would be the law officer acting as Judge of the proceedings and the members of the panel.  In a high profile case of mutiny, Greenwald would have realized that the temptation to convict would be almost overwhelming for the panel.  If they don’t convict, they might well be viewed in the Navy as having condoned mutiny, and their careers would be destroyed.  Greenwald has to not only provide evidence sufficient to persuade the members of the panel, but he also has to do it in such a convincing fashion that they realize their careers will not suffer by voting to acquit.  There is only one way to do that.  Queeg has to be utterly destroyed on the stand and that is what Greenwald skillfully does in the video clip below, and the case is won.

As a work of art however, it is the scene after the trial, unfortunately not available online, that truly stands out.

In one short sequence the film is turned on its head and the audience is given an entirely new view of what they have seen, courtesy of defense attorney Greenwald who is disgusted by what he had to do to save  Queeg is transformed from a villain to a man who needed help, and who was denied aid by his fellow officers.  As a result a mutiny occurred, Queeg is destroyed, Maryk is branded a mutineer, his career probably destroyed despite his acquittal, and Keefer, the true villain of the piece, walks away unscathed, assuming his conscience does not trouble him.

The speech of Greenwald is given at greater length in the novel and is much more effective:

“The lawyer’s blues were rumpled and baggy, and his walk was not of the steadiest, but nobody at the table was in a condition to notice. He came to the head of the table and stood stupidly, resting a hand on the empty chair, looking around slack-mouthed. “party’s pretty far along, hey” he said, as wine splashed in a dozen glasses and all the officers shouted greetings. Keefer made his glass ring with a knife.

“All right, quiet, you drunken mutineers. A toast, I say!” He lifted his glass high. “To Lieutenant Barney Greenwald–a Cicero with two stripes–a Darrow with winces–the terror of judge advocates–the rescuer of the oppressed and the downtrodden–the forensic St. George who slew with his redoubtable tongue that most horrible of dragons–Old Yellowstain!”

They all cheered; they all drank; they sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in bellowing discords. The lawyer stood, pallid and skinny, his mouth foolishly twitching in momentary grins. “Speech! Speech!” said Keefer, clapping his hands and dropping into his chair, and everybody took up the cry and the applause.

“No, no,” Greenwald mumbled, but in a moment he was standing alone, and all the faces at the table were turned to him. The party settled into expectant quiet. “I’m drunker’n any of you,” he said. “I’ve been out drinking with the judge advocate–trying to get him to take back some of the dirty names he called me–finally got him to shake hands on the ninth whisky sour–maybe the tenth–“

“That’s good,” Maryk said. “Challee’s a decent guy–“

“Had to talk loud ‘n’ fast, Steve–I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court–poor jack, he made a wonderful argument. Multitudes, Multitudes, hey,” He peered blearingly at the cake. “Well, I guess I ought to return the celebrated author’s toast, at that.” He fumbled at a bottle and sloshed wine into a class and all over his hands. “Biblical title of course. Can’t do better for a war book. I assume you gave the Navy a good pasting?”

“I don’t think Public Relations would clear it, at any rate,” the novelist said, grinning.

“Fine. Someone should show up these stodgy, stupid Prussians.”

Greenwald weaved and grabbed at the chair. “I told you I’m pretty far along–I’ll get to my speech yet, don’t worry–Wanna know’ about the book first. Who’s the hero, you?”

“Well, any resemblance, you know, is purely accidental–“

“Course I’m warped,” said Greenwald, “and I’m drunk, but it suddenly seems to me that if I wrote a war novel I’d try to make a hero out of Old Yellowstain.” Jorgensen whooped loudly, but nobody else laughed, and the ensign subsided, goggling around. “No, I’m serious, I would. Tell you why, Tell you how I’m warped. I’m a Jew, guess most of you know that. Name’s Greenwald, kind of look like one, and I sure am one, from way back. Jack Challee said I used smart Jew-lawyer tactics–course he took it back, apologized, after I told him a few things he didn’t know– Well, anyway…The reason I’d make Old Yellowstain a hero is on account of my mother, little gray-headed Jewish lady, fat, looks a lot like Mrs. Maryk here, meaning no offense.”

He actually said “offensh.” His speech was halting and blurry. He was gripping the spilling glass tightly the scars on his hand made red rims around the bluish grafted skin.

“Well, sure, you guys all have mothers, but they wouldn’t be in the same bad shape mine would if we’d of lost this war, which of course we aren’t, we’ve won the damn thing by now. See, the Germans aren’t kidding about the Jew. They’re cooking us down to soap over there. They think we’re vermin and should be terminated and our corpses turned into something useful. Granting the premise–being warped, I don’t, but granting the premise, soap is as good an idea as any. But I just can’t cotton to the idea of my mom melted down into a bar of soap. I had an uncle and an aunt in Cracow, who are soap now, but that’s different, I never saw my uncle and aunt, just saw letters in Jewish from them, ever since I was a kid, but I can’t read Jewish. but never could read them. Jew, but I can’t read Jewish.”

The faces looking up at him were becoming sober and puzzled. ” I’m coming to Old Yellowstain. Coming to him. See, while I was studying law ‘n old Keefer here was writing his play for the Theatre Guild, and Willie here was on the playing fields of Prinshton, all that time these birds we call regulars–these stuffy, stupid Prussians, in the Navy and the Army -were manning guns. Course they weren’t doing it to save my mom from Hitler, they’re doing it for dough, like everybody else does what they do. Question is, in the last analysis–last analysis–what do you do for dough? Old Yellowstain, for dough, was standing guard on this fat dumb and happy country of ours. Meantime me, I was advancing little free non-Prussian life for dough. Of course, we figured in those days, only fools go into armed service. Bad pay, no millionaire future, and you can’t call your mind or body your own. Not for sensitive intellectuals. So when all hell broke loose and the Germans started running out of soap and figured, well it’s time to come over and melt down old Mrs. Greenwald–who’s gonna stop them? Not her boy Barney. Can’t stop a Nazi with a lawbook. So I dropped the lawbooks and ran to learn how to fly. Stout fellow. Meantime, and it took a year and a half before I was any good, who was keeping Mama out of the soap dish? Captain Queeg.”

“Yes, even Queeg, poor sad guy, yes, and most of them not sad at all, fellows, a lot of them sharper boys than any of us, don’t kid yourself, best men I’ve ever seen, you can’t be good in the Army or Navy unless you’re goddamn good. Though maybe not up on Proust ‘n’ Finnegan’s Wake and all.”

Greenwald stopped, and looked from side to side. “Seem to be losing the thread here. Supposed to be toasting the Caine’s favorite author. Well, here goes, I’ll try not to maunder too much. Somebody flap a napkin at me if I get incoherent. Can’t stay for dinner so I’m glad you called on me to make a toast so I can get it over with. I can’t stay because I’m not hungry. Not for this dinner. It would in fact undoubtedly disagree with me.”

He turned to Maryk.

“Steve, the thing is, this dinner is a phony. You’re guilty. I told you at the start that you were. Course you’re only half guilty. F’ that matter, you’ve only been half acquitted. You’re a dead duck. You have no more chance now of transferring to the regular Navy than of running for President. The reviewing authorities’ll call it a miscarriage of justice, which it is, and a nice fat letter of reprimand will show up in your promotion packet–and maybe in mine–and it’s back to the fishing business for Steve Maryk. I got you off by phony, legal tricks–by making clowns out of Queeg, and a Freudian psychiatrist–which was like shooting two tuna fish in a barrel–and by ‘pealing very unethically and irrelevantly to the pride of the Navy. Did everything but whistle Anchors Aweigh. Only time it looked tough was when the Caine’s favorite author testified. Nearly sunk you, boy. I don’t quite understand him, since of course he was the author of the Caine mutiny among his other works. Seems to me he’d of gotten up on the line with you and Willie, and said straight out that he always insisted Queeg was a dangerous paranoiac. See, it would only made things worse to drag Keefer in. You know all about that, so as long as he wanted to run out on you all I could do was let him run–“

“Just a minute–” Keefer made a move to get up.

“‘Scuse me, I’m all finished, Mr. Keefer. I’m up to the toast. Here’s to You. You bowled a perfect score. You went after Queeg, and got him. You kept your own skirts all white and starchy. Steve is finished for good, but you’ll be the next captain of the Caine. You’ll retire old and full of fat fitness reports. You’ll publish your novel proving that the Navy stinks, and you’ll make a million dollars and marry Hedy Lamarr. No letter of reprimand for you, Just royalties on your novel. So you won’t mind a li’l verbal reprimand from me, what does it mean? I defended Steve because I found out the wrong guy was on trial. Only way I could defend him was to sink Queeg for you. I’m sore that I was pushed into that spot, and ashamed of what I did, and thass why I’m drunk. Queeg deserved better at my hands. I owed him a favor, ‘don’t you see? He stopped Hermann Goering from washing his fat behind with my mother.”

“So I’m not going to eat your dinner, Mr. Keefer, or drink your wine, but simply make my toast and go. Here’s to you, Mr. Caine’s favorite author, and here’s to your book.”

He threw the yellow wine in Keefer’s face.

A little splashed on Willie. It happened so fast that the officers at the other end of the table didn’t know what he had done. Maryk started to get up. “For Christ’s sake, Barney–“

The lawyer shoved him back into his chair with a shaking hand. Keefer automatically pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his face, staring dumfounded at Greenwald. Greenwald said, “If you want to do anything about it, Keefer, I’ll wait in the lobby for you. We can go someplace quiet. We’re both drunk, so it’s a fair fight’ You’ll probably lick me. I’m a lousy fighter.”

The other officers were beginning to mutter to each other agitatedly, glancing sidewise at Keefer. Greenwald strode out of the room, stumbling a little near the door. The novelist stood up. There was a thick, ugly silence, as though someone had just shouted a lot of dirty words. Keefer glanced around and uttered a laugh. No eye met his. He dropped back in his chair. “The hell with it. Poor guy is just crazy drunk. I’m hungry. He’ll be around to apologize in the morning. Willie, tell them to bring on the chow.”

Anyone who has not read The Caine Mutiny should do themselves a big favor and get a copy.  The movie is great, the book is far better.

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