Three Caine Mutinies Pursue Justice in Imperfect Institutions

Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, one of the great World War II novels, has maintained its relevance for generations. In the Pacific theater, the minesweeping ship USS Caine is falling to pieces and seeing little action. Its lackadaisical captain is replaced by Captain Francis Queeg. Queeg is determined to impose some order and discipline on the ship, but he tries to do this through petty tyranny. He reprimands the crew for having their shirt tails untucked, and turns the whole ship over to investigate the theft of some frozen strawberries. Queeg’s behavior grows increasingly erratic. When the Caine gets caught in a typhoon, Queeg buckles under pressure. Lieutenant Maryk invokes an arcane bit of naval code and relieves Queeg of command. He steers the ship to safety, but  Maryk is court-martialed for mutiny. After several lawyers turn down the case, Maryk is reluctantly represented by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald. The court-martial raises questions about the good and the bad of ingrained hierarchies, and what it means to dutifully and faithfully serve. 

The Caine Mutiny won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Some critics dismissed it as middlebrow, as its lucid narrative lacked the techniques of literary modernism that were in vogue at the time. Yet even his detractors praised the detailed prose that vividly evoked the experience of being on a ship, and how starkly the story posited the tension between the individual and the institution. 

Edward Dmytryk, a journeyman B-movie director best known for the noirs Crossfire and Murder, My Sweet, doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a film version of Caine. But he does a workmanlike job navigating both the epic and intimate scales that the story requires. The actual Navy, after some reluctance, cooperated with the film, and it was the right choice. Overhead shots of giant ships plowing through waves and the perfectly choreographed movements of sailors on deck are genuinely stunning. The scenes of the boat caught in the typhoon still look realistic and terrifying. This stirring stuff seems to embody Wouk’s own perspective on the Navy: loving the institution while still seeing its flaws. 

Caine is dominated by Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Queeg. There’s no one better at playing labile hangdog-ery, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Every impulsive overreaction is followed by a panicked, wounded expression in his eyes. He knows that there’s something uncontrollable inside him. In one telling scene, Queeg obliquely asks for support by saying he regards his officers as family. They sit in uncomfortable silence. Familial support cannot exist within such a hierarchical institution, and Queeg’s cry for help is ignored.

In realist cinema, we assume the camera is showing the objective truth. From that point of view, we have no reason to doubt that Queeg did actually lose his wits under pressure, and that Maryk was justified. There’s no such certainty in Wouk’s theatrical adaptation of his book. Called The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, it focuses solely on Maryk’s trial, leaving the spectator to judge Queeg’s mental state, as well as the motives of the other characters. Its dramatic intensity made it a classic, becoming a mainstay in community theaters, and its speeches were analyzed in English classes. There have been numerous revivals; as American history unfolded, Court-Martial kept feeling relevant, as corruption and numerous fuckups in the armed services made the possibility of mutiny more understandable.

We often assume that on-screen courtroom dramas are a cinch to make—you just have to set up your cameras and hit your marks. There are stock moves: zooms in on witnesses, camera movement following lawyers as they question witnesses, and wide shots that give you the full view of the courtroom. Follow these steps and you’ve got yourself an A- Law and Order episode. We also presume that working with actors, and knowing how to manage and balance different performances, is a simple task. That two of the great American auteurs, Robert Altman and William Friedkin, both adapted the play tells us that there’s more cinematic and dramatic potential than might meet the eye.

Altman’s Court-Martial, a 1988 made-for-TV movie, respects the patterns of the courtroom drama, while also following a rambling rhythm that feels of a piece with Altman’s other work. He chooses not to be bound by the confines of the courtroom, taking some pivotal scenes, like defense attorney Greenwald’s complaints about the case, into the foyer, seen from a distance through chicken wire. He uses the expected zooms and pans, but sometimes they end up in unexpected places. Some shots are beautifully framed, and filmed from unusual angles behind the backs of the participants. He makes the space feel real through unexpected close-ups: the officers removing their galoshes, or a witness cleaning his glasses. Altman’s looser style makes the trial feel like a living, breathing organism. Instead of keeping everything tightly bound, we can catch what’s going on during testimony; lawyers and clients taking notes, conferring in hushed tones. It feels more like a real trial, with its whispers, its lulls, and its dull movements.

Watching different versions of the Caine story illustrates how a director’s vision will bring some characters to the fore, and how this changes the dynamics of the piece. Greenwald is, of course, the meatiest part; an actor can show his chops as a dogged attorney but also the self-loathing he feels for taking the case on. But the role is most impressive when played by a young Eric Bogosian. He hates his case, he says, but equally hates himself for wanting to win, knowing that the only way he can do so is if he destroys Queeg on the stand. Bogosian is disarmingly unflappable; even when there’s a fractious legal issue at play, he maintains his cool. No other version of the story makes much of the fact that Greenwald is Jewish, and how that affects his relationship with a racist institution, or his loyalty to it (because it involves a greater cause). Bogosian keeps this all muted until he doesn’t, and he emerges as a more fully-fledged character than his demeanor in the courtroom suggests.

(Marc Carlini/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.)

William Friedkin’s fans have been disappointed that his version of Court-Martial ended up being his final film. But it’s a fine grace note, reviving his interest in masculinity in crisis. Friedkin (who previously directed a version of 12 Angry Men) clearly sees the potential in the standard visual grammar of the courtroom drama. He does it, he just does it better than anybody else. Friedkin handles this technical stuff deftly, enough for dramatic emphasis (on the individual and the institution) without seeming overwrought or gimmicky. The camerawork and editing are relentlessly taut, emphasizing the dialogue and pulling us into this moral quagmire with barely any time to breathe. 

There’s not a bad performance in the film. Jason Clarke, with his great meaty face, is a fine Greenwald. But the star turn is Kiefer Sutherland’s Queeg, who tries to be casual and self-possessed in his first time as a witness. But you can see all the cracks on his face, how all the hail-and-well-met fellow stuff hides the fact that he’s hanging on by a thread. This is also the final performance by Lance Reddick, playing the head judge. He must be very still and staid, yet we know that he’s seeing everything, hearing everything. He has a stoic calm, but knows when to intervene. Reddick keeps his powder dry, only doing one or two of the arched eyebrows that say “Are you kidding me with this bullshit?” It’s the kind of performance that can restore faith in institutions, that can make you believe in things like honor and loyalty and decency. A performance, then, that would please Wouk as much as it pleases us.

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

Back to top