Film Score: Max Steiner Cinematography: Franz Planer
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Robert Francis
Herman Wouk's best-selling novel, The Caine Mutiny examines the fictitious relief of a naval captain in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The book won Wouk the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and he then went on to adapt it into a Broadway play. Both have been perennial favorites and of course that popularity was transferred to the film when it was released. For me the resonance of the story is primarily because it is essentially a reworking of the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar. It involves the manipulation of a man in authority by a peer in order to topple a superior. In Shakespeare’s play it was the death of Caesar engineered by Cassius. In The Caine Mutiny it’s the relief of Humphrey Bogart which is engineered by Fred MacMurray so that he can write a best selling novel of the event from personal experience.
The story begins with Robert Francis graduating from the Naval Academy and going to sea in the Pacific. Before he leaves he goes to see his girlfriend, singer May Wynn, after sneaking away from the protective clutches of his hovering mother. Francis is assigned to a minesweeper where he meets senior officers Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray. The captain of the ship is Tom Tully, whom Francis takes an instant disliking to, but eventually he is replaced by straight-laced Humphrey Bogart. The only problem is the new captain seems to be a bit unbalanced. He is a perfectionist who can’t bear to be wrong and rides the men over petty details. As the incidents begin to pile up, MacMurray plants the idea in Johnson’s head that Bogart is crazy and may need to be relieved of command if things get dicey. Francis, of course, backs him up, and when the ship is stuck in a typhoon and Bogart freezes on the bridge, Johnson relieves him, landing he and Francis smack in the middle of a court martial.
There is so much to praise about the film it’s difficult to know where to start. In addition to the brilliant performances by the stars, there are dozens of great supporting actors. José Ferrer plays the defense attorney for the officers at the court martial, E.G. Marshall is the prosecutor, Lee Marvin and Claude Akins are high-spirited sailors onboard the Caine, Whit Bissell plays an expert medical witness at the trial, and Todd Karns, whose name might not be familiar but who everybody knows as Harry Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, mans the helm. Bogart does a tremendous job as the mentally unstable captain and Van Johnson is perfect as the career sailor whose lack of higher education allows him to be manipulated by Fred MacMurray’s devious author. If the name Robert Francis isn’t familiar, it’s because the actor had the misfortune of dying in a private plane crash the following year, after appearing in a mere four films.
Directing the film is the great Edward Dmytryk who had been nominated for an Oscar for the RKO film noir Crossfire in 1947. But later he had the bad luck to become one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with the Communist witch hunts and his career suffered accordingly. When he couldn’t take the pressure anymore, he named names for HUAC and was then immediately hired by producer Stanley Kramer. The Caine Mutiny garnered seven Academy Award nominations but wasn’t able to bring home a single trophy as On The Waterfront scooped up most of the big awards that year. One of the nominations went to the great Max Steiner for his memorable martial score. This was one of the last Bogart films that Steiner would score for the star, most of the previous ones having been filmed at Warner Brothers. The Caine Mutiny was a box office smash and a critical success as well, and it has remained a classic of fifties cinema to this day.