Some movie disasters are saved by movie stars. Although I recall being very impressed by The Caine Mutiny (1954) from the last time I watched it, around 30 years ago, all that really stuck with me from that viewing was an impression that Humphrey Bogart’s performance as a paranoid Naval captain was riveting. It turns out that there’s very little worth remembering about The Caine Mutiny aside from Bogart. While it carries itself with the grandeur of a prestige star-studded military drama from a major studio, it’s a mess and has only a few sterling cast members to thank for coming out of its storm intact and on the acceptable side of mediocrity.
Robert Francis stars (sort of) as Keith, an idealistic ivy leaguer disappointed that his first official Naval assignment during World War II is aboard a disordered minesweeper with a misfit crew, of slobs —— "Designed by geniuses to be run by idiots..." — far from his romantic notions of military discipline and heroic grandeur. While he nevertheless bonds with his fellow officers (Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray), he’s pleased when the ship’s too-lax captain (Tom Tully) is replaced with demanding taskmaster Queeg (Bogart), who aims to make the Caine the pride of the Navy. Queeg, however, behaves erratically, and the officers’ growing concerns that he may not be fit to lead come to a breaking point during a heavy storm, at which point they override his command, leading to a trial by court-martial.
The Caine Mutiny is a thoroughly odd picture from start-to-finish. Adapted from the novel by Herman Wouk, it’s framed as the story of Keith, who figures only peripherally in both the movie’s climactic incident and the subsequent courtroom proceedings. He functions merely as a narrative conduit, a conceit which may work in literary form for a story told entirely through an observer’s point-of-view, but which takes some careful attention to adapt this perspective into movie form, and screenwriter Stanley Roberts doesn’t evince any fidelity to point-of-view. The off-ship portions of the film, which focus on Keith’s immature mother-fixation and how it retards his romantic relationship with a generic nightclub performer (May Wynn), are insipid on their own; and that their only purpose is to flesh-out a dispensable central character makes them an act of criminal time-wasting. The entire first half-hour of The Caine Mutiny, prior to Queeg’s introduction, is a mish-mash of clumsy exposition-via-silly boat comedy (set to Max Steiner’s egregiously intrusive score) and misfit Hollywood odds-and-ends like musical numbers. Francis died tragically just over a year after The Caine Mutiny's release in a fatal plane crash, so it's hard to say what might have become of his short career on this evidence, but it wasn’t promising. He exudes the personality of Wally Cleaver from within a Triumph of the Will body, making him both almost too-severely striking for easy empathy and also wholly ineffectual as a respectable leading man. Wynn, as his romantic counterpart, is just as blank, like a vampire bride, confusingly ageless with an eerily empty human-like form, no qualities of which may be captured on film.
Whenever Bogart is the center of attention, however, The Caine Mutiny snaps into sharp focus — although director Edward Dmytryk continues to have trouble managing tone around the issue of mental illness and its potential for both amusement and tragedy. Bogart is not only at full movie star-wattage in The Caine Mutiny, but gives a precise, rich and emotionally compelling performance — as good as ever, on par with his chilling turn in In a Lonely Place (1951) — whether freezing under pressure or carefully buttering a single cracker for five minutes. His magnetism, alone, is a shot of adrenaline to this sagging wreck. Rising to the occasion is Van Johnson, who gives a quieter but no less compelling performance as Lt. Maryk, all but replacing Keith as the film’s protagonist during the best parts of the movie. Jose Ferrer also excels briefly during the last half-hour as a military attorney. In a bizarre chapter of Oscar history, Bogart lost out on the Best Actor Oscar to Marlon Brando, for On the Waterfront. If Bogart had been nominated in the more-apt supporting category, he surely would’ve won. Incredibly, neither Johnson nor Ferrer earned Best Supporting Actor nominations for the film; instead, that honor went to castmate Tully, who is nearly forgettable.
Overall, The Caine Mutiny is a core of dynamite nearly smothered by contrived theatricality — if ever an overbearing score deserved to take down an entire movie, Steiner’s is a prime candidate — and marred by an incessant need to mitigate its narrative of military mania with shameless boosterism for the U.S. Navy. It reeks of production-by-accountants rather than by artists, but if the accountants put Bogart in there, they more than broke even.