Monday, October 26, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

TCM is showing The Caine Mutiny tomorrow at 7:00 AM ET. Humphrey Bogart stars as Capt. Queeg, the martinet who is newly assigned to the USS Caine during World War II. His subordinate officers quickly begin to suspect that he is a holy terror, as he's a hell of a lot stricter than their previous captain, and some of his orders and punishments seem arbitrary at best, such as when Queen can't get a second helping of strawberries for dessert, and he's convinced somebody on the boat is hiding the strawberries. The subordinates try to get Queeg relieved of command through official channels, but there's no hope that this will happen. Eventually, the Caine is part of a convoy but has to go through a typhoon in order to stay with the convoy. Queeg intends to keep the ship with the convoy, although his subordinates believe doing so would put the ship in jeopardy, and so conspire to take the ship over during the typhoon. The thing is, that's technically a mutiny, and the officers are going to have to stand trial for it.

The second half of the movie is the trial, and it shines just as much as the first half. The thing is, each of the subordinate officers is just as flawed in his own way as Captain Queeg, and their military defense attorney (played by José Ferrer) hates them for it. Fred MacMurray plays a non-career Navy man (this is a war, after all) who if anything is arrogant about being more competent than anybody else, when the opposite is actually true. Van Johnson is the first officer who, above all else, doesn't want to make waves, and deliberately scuttles the attempt to force a psychological evaluation of Queeg. Finally, there's Robert Francis. He's an ensign fresh out of college, and his fault is the forgivable one of being too inexperienced to know whom to trust. For him, Navy life turns out to be not quite what he expected.

The interesting thing is that the mutineers might have been right. Queeg isn't just a strict taskmaster; he really does seem to be paranoid and megalomaniacal to the same extent as Captain Bligh is generally portrayed in Mutiny on the Bounty. Bogart depicts these dark qualities brilliantly, to the point that he got an Oscar nomination for his role. And he could have been a contender for that Oscar, too, as could everybody else involved in the making of the movie, if he hadn't had the bad luck of being up against On the Waterfront. The Caine Mutiny is one of the underrated movies out there, and one that's well worth watching, even if war films aren't your thing. (There's not that much actual war in it, anyway.)

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