Complexities of service

With The Caine Mutiny, Humphrey Bogart continued his drift away from movie-star roles, playing a part in which his character appears weak, unlikeable, cowardly and possibly lacking in mental stability. The film is an ensemble piece, which gives as much screen time to his co-stars, and which locates the narrative point-of-view with them far more than it does with him. Released less than two years before The Harder They Fall, Bogart’s last movie, this is clearly a late-career work, and his performance here demonstrates a real commitment to the art and craft of acting (notwithstanding his unwillingness ever to vary his accent).

This is a commercial Hollywood flick, yet Edward Dmytryk does not try to sugar Herman Wouk’s original story for mass consumption, presenting a drama which emphasises the moral complexity of real-world situations, and which lacks conventional closure in its denouement. The audience is very much left to decide for themselves who, if anyone, is in the right, and there is little sense that any character has achieved a goal or a victory. I haven’t seen any other films by Dmytryk, and I don’t know what his habits were, but he had a successful Hollywood career, so I doubt he did this too often. Perhaps it was Bogart’s involvement which made this grown-up approach possible, but in the event it doesn’t seem to have hampered the picture’s commercial appeal.

In roughly the last quarter of the twentieth century, cinematic naturalism began to adopt a new appearance, a new set of conventions in cinematography, in editing, and in the delivery of dialogue, and it can be hard now to see past that change to the naturalism of the Golden Age. Movies from the 1950s inevitably feel a bit wooden nowadays, a bit stagey and contrived. But if you take The Caine Mutiny’s storytelling conventions at face value, the story told by the cast and crew is a nuanced and involving one. A range of characters are realised with the kind of concrete details that make them appear to have a life outside the scenes in which they appear, and the dramatic power of the movie’s major moments is considerable.

Herman Wouk’s novel, on which the film is based, drew on his own experiences in the Second World War, and although he was not involved in a mutiny, the resulting picture of a ramshackle U.S. Navy using hastily repurposed ships at the limits of their and their crews’ capacities is extremely convincing. It’s not the sort of film that could have been made in wartime. This warts-and-all portrayal is still quite a patriotic one, however—a representation of the extremes and privations endured by naval personnel in a time of crisis, and the centre of this portrayal is the tragic figure of Captain Phillip Queeg, played by Bogart.

Queeg is a man who is not quite up to the demands that are placed upon him, unable to secure the loyalty of his crew or adequately manage the ship he commands, but he is also a man whose life has been given over to service, and who has been formed by the obligatory experiences of a naval officer. It is not a simple picture, but a picture which goes much further than more gung-ho wartime films towards explaining the degree of difficulty, the magnitude of the task faced by those charged with pursuing America’s military strategies. It’s not a tale of the big-ticket, high status ships and engagements, but of the unglamorous nitty-gritty of naval warfare, conducted by men who largely feel they’re better than the positions to which they’re assigned.

The last part of the picture is a classic courtroom drama, in which Bogart does some of his best acting, coming apart on the stand under cross-examination in a subtle and restrained performance which secures the audience’s sympathy even as it traduces his character. This is a flawed human being, just like the ones watching, not a hero or a movie star—not a two-fisted American Adam who’s going to knock you down if you question his manhood, but a simple man, trying his best, whose personal integrity is formed wholly in terms of his social position as a ship’s captain. This is a portrayal of duty, and of what it might cost. As such, it is clearly not uncritical of the bureaucracies and hierarchies of the armed forces, although such a critique is not its central thrust. Its core aim is to suggest that, contrary to the impression given in the majority of war films, the exigencies of conflict, for which many people even by 1954 were nostalgic, are not simple.

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