in Oscars Fortnight

The Caine Mutiny

27th Academy Awards (1955)
Wins: 0

I’ve been revisiting all the Batman movies lately and throwing The Caine Mutiny in the mix really makes me want to watch something that passes the Bechdel Test again soon. I’m pretty sure my next Oscars Fortnight pick does. But The Caine Mutiny, man, this is a dudely story. It’s a movie about the officers on a Navy minesweeper during WWII deciding to mutiny against their unhinged captain and the subsequent court-martial that hangs their futures in the balance. Not a lot of room for the ladies in that space, but with a runtime just a bit over two hours, there’s plenty of time for some truly powerhouse performances from some of the brightest stars of the fifties.

First and foremost among those stars is Humphrey Bogart, who plays Lieutenant Commander Queeg, a strict disciplinarian who is takes over as the captain of the USS Caine about a third of the way into the movie. Bogey had made no secret that he wanted to play the part, which allowed producer Stanley Kramer and Columbia Pictures to force him to take a lower rate than usual. Quite the bargain for them, because, as you’d expect, this portrayal of a paranoid patriarch turned out to be downright iconic – from his nervous habit of jostling ball bearings to his alarming testimony at the end of the picture, it’s obvious this performance has influenced every similar part that’s come along since then. The only problem with it is that it wasn’t quite as paradigm-shifting as the work of another best actor nominee that year – Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. I guess you could call that payback for their previous match-up a few years earlier, when Bogey won for The African Queen against Brando’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

In fact, The Caine Mutiny didn’t win any of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for – an upset that was overshadowed at the time by A Star Is Born suffering a similar fate. The Country Girl, another movie about a washed up alcoholic struggling with show business starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and William Holden, managed to beat out The Caine Mutiny‘s stellar screenplay and Judy Garland’s titanic performance in same major upsets. But thrills like that are why we watch sports! I mean award shows put on by powerful industry insiders for themselves.

One nomination I found surprising was Tom Tully as Lieutenant Commander William H. De Vriess, the first captain of the Caine who gets replaced by Queeg. He’s good, but a much more deserving choice would have been the Padishah Emperor himself José Ferrer. I had only seen Miguel Ferrer’s dad in Dune and Lawrence of Arabia and was not at all prepared for how much ass he would kick once he shows up in the last act of this movie. Ferrer plays Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, the man who decides to defend the mutineers in their court martial. Greenwald is cool as a cucumber and does not give a fuck as the trial seemingly goes very, very badly for the defense, thanks to some crafty prosecution by E.G. Marshall aka Juror 4 from 12 Angry Men. The way Greenwald turns it around in the end is the most memorable part of the movie, except for maybe his final scene when he gives his big speech that forces the audience the reevaluate what exactly we were rooting for all along.

Up to that point, what we had been rooting for was that Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson) would come out of the court martial as a hero. Maryk, the executive officer and the only career Navy man among the Caine‘s officers, was the one who had to actually relieve Queeg command, something he initially struggled with even considering. But Maryk went down that road thanks to the needling of Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray), who makes some good points about Queeg’s behavior but also maybe likes stirring the pot a little too much. MacMurray’s testimony during the court martial is perhaps the most shocking moment in the whole movie. There’s enough plot here with just these men to fill out the whole film.

But there’s more than just them! We haven’t even gotten to Lee Marvin (who plays one of the sailors) or the film’s ostensible main character, Ensign Willis Seward Keith (Robert Francis). I assume in the original The Caine Mutiny book, much of the story is told from Keith’s perspective, because his character’s actions don’t justify the screentime he gets. The movie opens with Keith’s graduation from the Naval Academy and we take a few breaks from the action to watch Keith flounder with balancing his love for his mother (Katherine Warren) and his girlfriend May Wynn (interestingly played by May Wynn, who took her stage name from the role). Francis is fine in the role but Keith just gets less and less important as the story unfolds. It’s doubly a shame because Francis died only a year later. Despite not serving in the military himself, he had played armed forces roles in four movies before he died in a plane crash, when he was still just 25 years old.

Anyway, that’s The Caine Mutiny for you. I went into this knowing that the court martial scene was hugely influential on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan, who had included a clip of it in one episode of Breaking Bad and a direct homage to it in Saul. So I was only a little disappointed to find out that most of the movie was about the mutiny itself and that this was hardly a courtroom drama like A Few Good Men. But I really liked it. Maybe even more than Michael Caine, who, like May Wynn, took his stage name from this movie.