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.