09 December 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: The Caine Mutiny

Buried somewhere within The Caine Mutiny is a tight, effective drama about men's egos clashing during wartime. While much of that manages to shine through in the finished film, it's bogged down by a hopelessly boring main character who remains a blank sheet unmarked by a rote back story no one asked for or cares about. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk which I have not read. I did read two of Wouk's later works back in high school, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and consider it telling that, despite a combined length of nearly 2000 pages, I only recall two particular characters and scenes.

The film opens with the graduation of Ensign Keith from naval school during World War II. Ensign Keith, unfortunately, serves as our entry character, a fresh-faced young'un who has a lot to learn about this man's navy. Before he does, we find out that he is seeing a beautiful songstress he won't introduce to his mother, who is apparently a smothering figure. This subplot about Ensign Keith and his lady folk takes up perhaps thirty minutes of the final film, and those minutes fucking DRRRRRAAAAAAGGG.

Why does he allow his mother to have such an influence on who he sees and engagement cockteases? We don't know and Keith doesn't explain. We only see his mother a few times, briefly, and she seems like a perfectly nice woman. Perhaps her high-society nature would dislike the idea of her son marrying a common entertainer. Then why doesn't Keith just man up and tell her to shove it? Again, the movie doesn't get into it, so we're stuck with a melodrama of "Marry me!" "Oh, jeez, I don't know, Mother wouldn't approve" when we'd much rather be elsewhere.

The director, Edward Dmytryk, was aware of these problems and wished the film could have been longer than the two-hour cut dictated by the studio, which would have given him time to more fully flesh out the characters. I shudder at the thought, because I imagine much of that time would be devoted to mama-boy Keith's bland emoting. Unless the answer for the terror he suffers under his mother is "She killed my father and stole my pee-pee Freud-style" or something equally grisly or bizarre, I say take the opposite tack.

After the introduction, Ensign Keith makes it onto the U.S.S. Caine to see service in the Pacific, and we finally get to meet the characters we'd prefer to spend the movie with. As each one appears, you think, "Hey! It's Lee Marvin as minor, colorful character! Fred MacMurray as a smartass! Van Johnson as a no-nonsense, scarred XO! Why didn't we just start off with these guys?" We then meet the lovable captain, an easy-going sort who overlooks the tiny rules to run an efficient ship with a happy crew. A by-the-book stick-in-the-mud, Keith does not approve of the captain, and we want to tell him to shove it up his ass, but alas, he cannot hear our entreaties.

Eventually, the cool captain is replaced by Queeg, a nervous paranoid played by Humphrey Bogart. Here the real drama starts, as Queeg turns out to be so obsessed with the details, and so wracked with post-traumatic stress disorder from combat in the Atlantic, that he is a monumentally shitty captain. At first Keith thinks Queeg's the commander of his dreams, but soon realizes that the man in charge is off his rocker, and teams up with the other officers to shun and, eventually, oust the old bastard.

Here is where the film is at its best: the conflict between Van Johnson's XO, Fred MacMurray's communications officer, and Queeg. When they take center stage and Keith is a mute or otherwise minimized witness, the great acting by all three (and later José Ferrer's jag-off JAG) trumps Dmytryk's pedestrian direction (the ur-Brett Ratner?) to provide a pretty entertaining drama well worth watching by any old time movie fan. Bogie's monologue at the end of the movie is a piece of real beauty, the highlight of one of his greatest performances. And Ferrer has a speech that provides a final twist; he pulls it off so well it makes me want to write a similar scene where a person enters a crowded room and proceeds to eloquently tear everyone a new asshole.

It's just too bad we have to keep putting up with that Keith guy. I don't know if Robert Francis would have developed into a good actor (he died in an airplane accident the year after The Caine Mutiny was released), or if he was hemmed in by stodgy writing and direction, but he does not do anything with the part. He just comes off as a Hollywood pretty-boy making his bones and biding his time. At one point, the Caine returns to port and the officers get a brief leave. We spend all of it with Ensign Keith and his dame touring Yosemite, and I wanted to scream "NO! Any other fucking character, please! I like all the rest! But not him! Not him!" But once again, the characters could not hear my cries.

Even the horses look bored.
If anyone out there wants to attempt a Phantom Menace-style fan edit on this thing, we might be looking at a real classic instead of a disappointment.

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