It has been 65 years since Herman Wouk published his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Caine Mutiny (A highly successful touring stage play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial was also based on the book)
Historic mutinies had already been the subject of two famous films: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, 1925 and Irving Thalberg’s Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935. In 1954 Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn selected Stanley Roberts to write the screenplay of The Caine Mutiny and selected producer Stanley Kramer and director Edward Dmytryk (one of the original “Hollywood Ten”, blacklisted for supposed “communist activities”) Columbia Pictures billed the adventure as “Big As The Ocean!” It was a big time Technicolor production. It is the classic tale of shipboard conflict and a mutiny aboard a WW II minesweeper and the subsequent court-martial trial of the ship’s captain.
The sea saga begins in Pearl Harbor with the strains of a rousing march by the incomparable composer Max Steiner. Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is assigned to the minesweeper USS Caine (A destroyer was used in the film) under the command of Captain DeVriess (Tom Tully). He is appalled by the “garbage scow” appearance of the ship but is soon relieved as “spit and polish” Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) is brought in as DeVriess’s replacement. Quickly, however, Queeg begins to display rather strange, erratic behavior ; he incredibly steers over his own towline during a gunnery drill, loses his nerve during a beachhead landing and obsessively overreacts to a few missing pints of strawberries. Suspecting mental illness, a group of officers; Ensign Keith, Lieutenant Maryk (Van Johnson), and Lieutenant Keefer (Fred MacMurray) become increasingly concerned and eventually forcibly relieve the Captain of his command during a violent typhoon as the ship is in eminent danger of capsizing. This results in a court-martial trial, with the mutinous officers against Captain Queeg. The defendants quoted naval regulations justifying their relief of the Captain due to “most unusual and extraordinary circumstances.”
The picture was almost never made because the Navy Department initially objected to even the idea of making a film about a mutiny on a US Navy ship; the picture would have been impossible without Navy Department help. However, Kramer and Cohn were allowed permission to use ships, planes and facilities by agreeing to a number of concessions to the script: the Cain’s sailors would be portrayed in a more positive light than in the novel; Captain Queeg was made more sympathetic and his cowardice would be downplayed; the opening credits would display the following disclaimer : “There has never been a mutiny in the United States Navy. The truth of this story lies not in its incidents but in the way a few men meet the crisis of their lives.” (This was not accurate, since there were several mutinous incidents in the Navy’s past.) The Navy even wanted the word “mutiny” removed from the title but, Kramer prevented this request by successfully arguing that so many people were already familiar with the Wouk novel.
Harry Cohn insisted on a standard romantic subplot be included involving Ensign Keith and his singer friend, May Wynn. (This is not found in the novel) and that the budget would be two million dollars.
Kramer always had Humphrey Bogart in mind play Captain Queeg; although many actors were interested in the role, including Dick Powell. This was Bogart’s last great screen role; he was later asked how he managed to be so convincing as a paranoid neurotic, he replied, “Simple, everybody knows I’m nuts, anyway.” Bogart received his third Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance (he lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront). Van Johnson is excellent as Lieutenant Maryk as is José Ferrer as Defense Attorney, Lieutenant Barney Greenwald. The Caine Mutiny also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Tom Tully), Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing, and Best Dramatic Score ( Max Steiner).