When I was five years old, my parents had to work. So, during the day, they put me in what then was called a nursery, but which today would be called a daycare center. One day, all the children were gathered together into a room where a young woman told us a story. It was about a little girl who wouldn’t eat her dinner. As a result, something bad happened to this little girl, though I forget exactly what. I was as gullible as a five-year-old child could be, and so I took this story to heart.
Then it was time for lunch. On the plate that was set before me was a lump of something called fishcake. If its appearance was unappetizing, its taste was even more so. The scales fell from my eyes. The young woman had told us that story so that we would not be like that little girl, but would eat this lunch as we were supposed to. We were being manipulated by that story, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t eat the fishcake either. Nothing bad happened to me.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw The Caine Mutiny as a child. There was something about it I didn’t like, as if the story was an attempt to manipulate me. I saw it again just recently, and I had the same feeling.
But first we need to put our minds back into the past. The story is set during World War II; the novel which was the basis for this movie was written in 1950; and the movie itself was produced in 1954. As a result, in both the novel and the movie, the word “war” had positive connotations. Most people would rate World War II as one of the best wars America ever fought. The stirring, patriotic music that plays during the credits of this movie was undoubtedly heard by the audience back then without the slightest sense of irony. Since then, wars have lost much of their glory.
When this movie begins, a ceremony is taking place in which men “from all walks of life” have been made ensigns in the United States Navy after three months of training. One of these ensigns is Willie Keith, played by Robert Francis, an actor you have probably never heard of, in part because he died young, but mostly because he is nondescript. When the story is over, he will be in the final scene as well. He functions as someone the audience is invited to identify with, someone who is almost as much a spectator to the events in this movie as the audience is.
He has a romantic relationship with May Wynn, played by an actress of such little distinction that she changed her name to that of the character she played in this movie, as if that would help her with her career. In other words, she is a minor actress, a suitable movie mate for Robert Francis. In this way, there is no danger that they will distract from the main part of the movie, where major actors play a role. Many critics have dismissed Willie’s relationship with May as just the obligatory love interest. However, it is more than that, because it forms the basis for a domestic mutiny. Willie is under the thumb of his domineering mother, whom he dare not disobey any more than he would disobey a commanding officer. The maternal jealousy on the part of his mother is something with which May must contend, which will not be easy, since she is a singer in a nightclub.
Once again, we must put our minds back into the past. Back then, women that sang in nightclubs in the movies were morally suspect. They were not above having sex before marriage. And even if they didn’t, they seemed too worldly wise to be respectable, much more so than their more innocent counterparts, who still lived at home with their parents, or at least had a nice job like that of a school teacher. That is why, in Imitation ofLife (1959), Annie (Juanita Moore) is devastated when she finds out that her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is singing in a nightclub, or why Mildred (Joan Crawford) is heartbroken in Mildred Pierce (1945) when she finds out that her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is singing in the nightclub owned by Wally (Jack Carson). In other words, May is someone that Willie’s mother would not approve of.
In any event, although May is at the ceremony where Willie becomes an ensign, he does not introduce her to his mother, telling May later that the time was not right. He ends up breaking his date with May because his mother had other plans for him, but finally shows up at her nightclub while she is in the middle of a number. After she finishes, Willie gets her to sit down with him, and they quarrel about his mother and her hold on him. Finally, he tells her he has only forty-eight hours before he ships out, and he suggests that instead of going to some club for entertainment, they could just…. At this point, she puts her fingers against his lips to keep him from saying it, that he wants to spend the next two days having sex with her. Having thus been propositioned, she responds, “Will you marry me?” He tries to make excuses, protesting that he loves her, saying if only there were more time. She replies, “I forgot who I was. Just another nightclub singer for a big weekend.” She gets up and leaves in a huff. We are inclined to regard him as a cad, but it’s not that. He just can’t break away from his mother. Two days later, his mother sees him off at the dock. He tells her not to cry. Being a widow, she says, “I can’t help it. You’re all I have left.” A mother’s hold on her son always becomes stronger when his father dies. He kisses her on the cheek and says, “Goodbye, sweetheart.”
When he has his first look at the USS Caine, a minesweeper, it is the worst looking excuse for a ship ever seen, full of scroungy-looking sailors, all sloppily dressed. Willie is then introduced to Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray). He takes Willie’s orders, remarking with sarcasm, “They transform ex-civilians into men without minds.” This is a harbinger of what is to come, when the question will arise as to whether a bad order should be followed mindlessly.
He continues to make such derogatory remarks about the Caine in particular, and the Navy in general. At this point, we might wonder what a man with that attitude is doing in the Navy as an officer. Not that I take exception to his attitude. It’s just that we wonder, what is he doing here? But again, we must place ourselves in the past. Had he not taken that same three months of training Keith did to become an ensign when the war started, he would have been drafted and had to serve in the army. Rather than suffer that fate, he probably figured that he would do better in the Navy. And he does do better, for on the Caine he has time to work on his novel.
This is the guy I immediately identified with. But before the movie is out, Tom will be the villain of the piece. Not the kind of villain that you have to admire for being shrewd and brave, like Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste (1939), for example, but one who turns out to be a trouble-maker and a coward. All this comes later, of course, but this is where it ties in with my fishcake story. This movie is trying to manipulate me into not being like Tom. It’s not going to work.
Tom introduces Willie to Executive Officer Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), who in turn takes him to meet the captain, Commander DeVriess. If the seamen were sloppily dressed, at least they were dressed. DeVriess is sitting there naked except for a towel. He is rude to Keith, making snide remarks about his Princeton education. This reminds me of Crimson Tide (1995), another mutiny movie, where Gene Hackman makes snide remarks about Denzel Washington’s Harvard education. Does the Navy have something against an Ivy League education? In any event, I guess one of the fringe benefits of being a commanding officer is that you get to belittle your subordinates, and they have to just stand there and take it. It must be a bully’s paradise.
Owing to connections through his Uncle Lloyd, Willie has a chance to transfer to a better assignment as part of the admiral’s staff. But Devriess intimidates him, making him feel as though he would be worthy of contempt if he accepted it. So, Willie says he’ll stay on the Caine, something Tom says he’ll come to regret. But Devriess himself has been wanting off the Caine for two years, and when he finally gets the chance to transfer to another ship, his ass is gone.
He is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). Queeg is a by-the-book officer, and he sets about making the Caine shipshape, requiring the crew to dress appropriately. However, he is so much of a martinet that when he issues a bad order, the men are afraid to question it or take initiative themselves to prevent a bad result. Then he insists that the bad result was not his fault, but just an accident. In particular, Queeg becomes so upset that a sailor does not have his shirttail tucked in that he neglects the fact that the ship is sailing in a circle as a result of his last order. When a man at the helm tries to warn him, Queeg yells at him for interrupting him, and then goes back to reprimanding Willie for allowing the sailor to leave his shirttail out. As a result, the ship cuts the tow line, and the target is set adrift. To retrieve it would result in the Caine getting back to port last, and that would look bad. So, Queeg begins insisting that the tow line broke on account of a bad cable. Then he starts being nice to everyone, hoping they will be sympathetic and overlook what happened. But that lasts only a few minutes. He soon starts being unlikable again.
The ship is ordered to return to San Francisco. This time Willie introduces May to his mother, both of whom are at the dock. Then he and May go to Yosemite. If I have correctly decoded the signifiers that were needed when movies were made under the guidance of the Production Code, then they had sex. The next morning, he asks her to marry him. But she suspects he is proposing only because it’s the “decent thing to do.” Fearing his mother’s disapproval, which she says will result in an unhappy marriage, she says “No.”
When Willie returns to the ship, Queeg calls the officers together, saying that “certain misleading reports were sent to the Force Commander.” As he says this, the camera focuses on Tom, who has an insolent look on his face. He presumably sent in a report about the tow-line incident, telling what really happened.
Queeg announces they have been ordered to take part in an invasion, escorting marines until they are close to shore. But during the invasion, Queeg gets scared, ordering the ship to turn around sooner than it should, abandoning those marines. He orders a yellow dye marker thrown overboard as they retreat as a way of telling the marines they can follow it as a safe path to shore, even though that path has not been cleared of mines.
As a result, someone later comes up with a song, “Yellowstain Blues,” referring to the color of the dye and the fact that Queeg figuratively wet his pants. While they are singing the song, Willie worries that Queeg might hear them. Tom dismisses his concerns, saying, “It’s about time you got over being impressed by people in authority like parents and ship’s captains.” In so doing, he makes the link between the two mutinies to come, the one against Queeg, and the other on Willie’s part against his mother. Willie says, sarcastically, “Thanks Dad.” And this recalls the fact that if Willie’s father were still alive, his mother would not be so possessive, and his father would put a check on her maternal jealousy in any event. It’s sort of the flipside of the Oedipus complex. Freud said that a man has an unconscious desire to kill his father and marry his mother. But if this is true, it also holds that as long as the father is alive, he retains possession of the mother, leaving the son free to find his own woman.
In any event, Queeg calls the officers together. As happened with the incident involving the tow line, Queeg starts appealing to their sympathy and understanding regarding his recent act of cowardice, saying they all need to work together, for the sake of the “family.” After he leaves, Steve says he liked the speech, but Tom is unimpressed. He argues that Queeg is mentally unbalanced and paranoid, mentioning, among other things, the two steel balls Queeg rolls around in his hand whenever he becomes agitated. Steve orders Tom never to speak of this again.
But in the very next scene, we see Steve reading a book entitled Mental Disorders. The seed has been planted. He then begins to keep a medical log, recording events that are indicative of mental illness. These events culminate in the Case of the Missing Strawberries. Queeg becomes obsessed with finding out who ate some strawberries without authorization. He becomes convinced that someone made a copy of the key that would have allowed for such pilferage. He turns the ship upside down trying to find the key, which will tell him who the culprit is. Of course, there is no such key.
Steve is finally convinced. He and Tom and Willie sail over to the admiral’s ship to report the situation. However, Tom begins to realize that it would be a mistake to say anything. They will only be causing trouble for themselves. He says they need to forget the whole thing. Willie asks him if he’s scared. Tom admits it, saying, “I’m too smart to be brave.” Steve gives up as a result. They return to the Caine just as a storm is coming up.
It turns out to be a typhoon. The safe thing to do is head into the wind, but the last orders they had from the fleet before they lost communication were to head away from the wind. Steve says they don’t know what the fleet’s orders are now. Queeg insists that they continue to follow the last orders and head away from the wind. This too is like the situation in Crimson Tide, where a break in communications sets up the question, should we follow the last order received, or should we use our best judgment under the circumstances? And, of course, both situations are like that in the poem “Casabianca,” in which a boy on a ship is given orders by his father to stay at his post. Unbeknownst to him, his father is subsequently killed. As the ship goes up in flames, while the rest of the crew abandons it, the boy remains at his post in the face of certain death, calling to his father to tell him what to do. The ship is completely destroyed in a huge explosion when the fire reaches the magazine. The last two lines of the poem are the following: “But the noblest thing which perished there / Was that young, faithful heart!” The moral is that it is better to die obeying an order than to survive by disobeying it, even if that order was no longer appropriate, given the change in circumstances. Interestingly, the boy’s father is also the commanding officer of the ship, making the connection between parental and military authority that is also being suggested by this movie.
In the end, Steve relieves Queeg of his command, thereby committing mutiny. He turns the ship into the wind, and the ship survives the storm.
When they get back to San Francisco, Willie gets a call from May. Although they have broken up, she is worried because Ensign Harding called her and said Willie was in trouble. Ensign Harding was able to leave the Caine before the typhoon hit because his wife had become seriously ill. May asks Willie if his mother is there with him. He tells her she isn’t. She had to go to New York to be with Uncle Lloyd, who is sick. He tells May he loves her and wants to marry her, but she still refuses.
Now we must ask the question, why was this business about a sick Uncle Lloyd written into the script? Apparently, it serves the function of separating Willie from his mother without his having to openly break with her of his own free will. It would be like Queeg having to leave the Caine before the typhoon hit because Mrs. Queeg had become seriously ill, just like what happened to Ensign Harding. Then there would have been no mutiny. But in this case, the domestic mutiny is avoided in a way that the mutiny on the Caine was not. We know that this is the first step toward getting Willie and May married, but it won’t be because Willie finally had the moral courage to choose May over his mother, but because fortuitous circumstances did the work for him.
Anyway, a Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer), a lawyer, talks to Steve, Willie, and Tom to see whether he will defend them in a court-martial. He tells them he thinks what they did stinks, and that they might all be hanged. Tom suggests they get another lawyer, but Greenwald says that eight other lawyers have already turned the job down, so there’s no one else. That’s weird. Even Charles Manson could get a lawyer. Well, I wouldn’t know personally, but I guess that’s just one more difference between being a civilian and being in the military.
Tom backs Steve’s position that Queeg was paranoid and went to pieces at a critical moment. Greenwald brings his attention to the fact that even though Tom did not take part in the mutiny, he counseled Steve that Queeg was mentally unfit, and so he can be found as guilty as Steve and Willie. Tom becomes uncomfortable and leaves the room. Later, on the witness stand, he gives weaselly answers, denying that he ever suggested that Queeg was mentally unfit.
It is unlikely, however, that it would have helped Steve had Tom told the truth. All he would have done was incriminate himself along with Steve. The only thing that saves Steve is Queeg’s testimony. Little by little, Queeg becomes rattled under cross-examination. Finally, when he starts talking about the missing strawberries and the imaginary key, while rolling those two steel balls in his hands, it becomes clear to the court-martial that he is indeed delusional and paranoid. As a result, Steve is acquitted, which means Willie is in the clear as well.
The officers throw a party to celebrate. Tom walks into the room. When Steve says he’s surprised he had the courage to show up, Tom says he didn’t have the courage not to. Then Greenwald arrives, drunk. He says he feels guilty for what he did, since Queeg was defending this country while Greenwald was studying law, Tom was a writing a novel, and Willie was “tearing up the playing fields of Princeton.” Boy, these guys in the Navy really seem to resent an Ivy League education.
At least, they seem to in this movie. For all I know, the United States Navy might be perfectly happy to have officers that have graduated from an Ivy League University. But in the movie, this resentment is an expression of anti-intellectualism, which despises men like Willie, on account of his education, and Tom, on account of his ability to write a novel. They are regarded as elitists who think they are smarter than their superior officers, giving them the right to disobey bad orders.
In the novel, while Greenwald says he is a Jew, and that it was men like Queeg that kept his mother from being melted down into a bar of soap. This is ironic, since a lot of German soldiers were tried as war criminals precisely because they did obey orders. Anyway, this is a non sequitur. Queeg’s service prior to the Caine has nothing to do with whether he had become mentally unbalanced.
But Greenwald continues. It turns out that everything would have been all right if everyone had been nice to Queeg. But they didn’t all rally round when Queeg gave that speech about the need for understanding and family feeling after he ordered the ship to abandon the marines during the invasion. That’s what drove him over the edge. They were mean to him. Then Greenwald throws some champagne, which is yellow, in Tom’s face, saying he is the bad guy, because he was the trouble-maker who instigated the whole thing.
Because Greenwald speaks with an authoritative voice, and because he gets the last word on this matter, then according to movie logic, that means he is right. But there’s just one problem with that. We saw what happened on the Caine, and Queeg was nutty as a fruitcake. But a fruitcake is one thing, and a fishcake is something else. I’m not swallowing what this movie has served up.
The movie ends with a copout regarding Willie and May too. After the trial, he calls her, and for some reason not given, she now agrees to marry him. He says they will get married first, and tell his mother afterwards. Why wait until afterwards? Is he still afraid of his mother? In any event, we never get to hear the conversation in which Willie tells his mother he has married a nightclub singer. And so, for all that talk about how the marriage will not work because his mother will never approve, we are supposed to forget about that. I guess the idea is that if a man has the courage to participate in a mutiny, he should have the courage to stand up to his mother, even if the movie did not have the courage to show him doing so.