A few days ago I watched the movie “The Caine Mutiny,” for about the fourth or fifth time. A great movie, and a solid member of my Favorite Movies list. (You can see the list on this blog site.) But as I watched the movie, a couple of strange and odd things gnawed at me. I can remember thinking about this during some of those times I watched the movie before, so I decided to explore these questions in a little detail.
As a movie (released in 1954), it’s one of the all-time greats of World War II naval movies. It was based on the Pulitzer Prize-(1952)-winning novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. The Executive Officer of the USS Caine (played by Van Johnson) is moved to relieve his captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, during a storm at sea. The executive officer is court-martialed (of course), but is acquitted. Much of the evidence against Cmdr. Queeq is based on the idea that Queeg is “mentally unstable,” to use the words of his most senior crew. And throughout the first several months that the Caine is commanded by Queeg, they document in detail several incidents they feel establish Queeg’s mental illness. They say these incidents show he’s “paranoid,” even they don’t really know the meaning of the term. During the court-martial, testimony reveals that three Navy psychiatrists have examined Queeg and declare him to be free of mental illness, and the conspirators get called on their “armchair psychiatry”. How could they make such a diagnosis? They’re not medical doctors. But my viewing of the movie has consistently led me to wonder if Queeg isn’t really just scared. That’s what it looked like it during the storm, when Van Johnson took over command of the ship. The terror in Bogart’s eyes, and the fact that Johnson had to pry the captain’s arm from around some object on the bridge of the ship, perhaps the compass housing, as well as the fact that Queeg issues all sorts of unrealistic orders, orders that could conceivably sink the ship in the storm—all these point more to cowardice than paranoia. At least, that’s the way Bogart played the character, and Bogart is a fine actor. I don’t know if it was Bogart’s decision to play Queeg that way, or the director’s, Edward Dmytryk. This is where the first difficulty comes in.
During the trial, the defense attorney, played by Jose Ferrer, states quite explicitly that a Captain in the US Navy could never be guilty of cowardice on duty, because he has to rise through the ranks to command his own ship, and anyone who ever exhibited any evidence of fear or timidity would be cut long before he reached command rank. Yet that’s the way the captain was played, and it brought a question to my mind just exactly what the movie was trying to say.
The second difficulty I had with the movie was that the “real” reason the Executive Officer took over command of the ship had to do more with the manner in which the captain was handling it, not his paranoia. All of that didn’t seem to matter at the time, though. The ship was in imminent danger of capsizing, and only Van Johnson’s orders kept the ship upright and brought it safely into port, especially after it had sustained major damage. I got the strong feeling from the movie that this was the “real” reason for the mutiny, not the Captain’s mental illness, but it never came up in the trial. That seems rather odd.