The Caine Mutiny and the politics of informing

The Caine Mutiny (1954) was about a mutiny aboard a ship because of a demented captain.  The first part of the film demonstrated the complete incompetence of Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

On The Waterfront was not an isolated example of a film by the disaffected left about HUAC.  The year 1954 saw the release of another popular film which attacked those who criticised or rebelled against authority.  The Caine Mutiny (1954) was about a mutiny aboard a ship because of a demented captain.  The first part of the film demonstrated the complete incompetence of Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart.  The films showed that his judgment was deeply flawed and he had deep psychological problems.  The aspiring novelist Keefer called him paranoid and aroused the executive officer Maryk’s suspicion about Queeg’s mental stability.  Maryk began a medical journal of Queeg and he had plenty of material.  Queeg was both obsessive and paranoid and few in the audience could forget the performance of Bogart with the continuous rolling of his steel balls in his hands.  Incident builds on incident.  Queeg was cowardly, deceptive, arrogant, evasive, and dishonest.  He finally fell apart during a typhoon and the film make it clear that mutiny was the only way to save the ship when Queeg was incapable of giving proper orders.

Up to this point it was clear that Queeg was in the wrong.  The film then executed a reversal and attacked the mutineers for being disloyal.  The defence attorney Greenwald, played by Jose Ferrer, by a vicious cross examination proved Queeg’s incompetence and paranoia.  Yet in the penultimate scene of The Caine Mutiny, Greenwald turned on the crew, and in particular Keefer, for not supporting Queeg.  Greenwald’s final outburst was a real jolt, because at no time had the men failed in their duties or responsibilities or both.  The film made it clear that Captain Queeg was too paranoid to command the ship.  According to Greenwald, however, the crew was wrong not to have followed a leader who may have killed them.

Film historians Roffman and Purdy point out the reason for the unsettling savage twist may have come from the film’s director Edward Dmytryk who was the only one of the Hollywood 10 who later testified before HUAC.[1]  Dmytryk went to prison for contempt of Congress, but after being released from prison, testified before HUAC.  His testimony allowed him to regain his position in Hollywood and The Caine Mutiny was on of his first films after his return.  He later claimed that he opposed the Hollywood 10 before going to prison, but was afraid that recanting before imprisonment would brand him a coward.[2]  The casting of Ferrer as the lawyer Greenwald was also interesting.  Like Dmytryk, Ferrer appeared before the HUAC hearings in 1951 as a friendly witness.  His testimony was described by one historian as ‘cooperative to the point of obsequiousness’.[3]

The film was based on a bestselling novel and a long running play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1953), both of which were written by Herman Wouk, but was sharply different from them both.  In the play, which focused entirely on the court martial trial, Queeg was depicted as a reasonable man until the weight of evidence crushed his spirit and revealed him to be a paranoid incompetent.  Even then some doubt remained.  In the film, it was clear from Bogart’s opening scenes that Queeg was an unstable and dangerous leader.  The film also has an important scene where Queeg, after a cowardly display escorting marines into battle, asked for support from his crew.  The crew continued to ostracise him through a mixture of fear of his madness and disgust at his cowardice.

The Caine Mutiny did not contain a personal commentary like On the Waterfront, but it had clear parallels with Dmytryk’s situation.  The mutiny was blamed on an intellectual writer and officer who had manipulated events for his own ends.  Keefer was the left wing figure who had duped the naive liberals, Maryk and Keith into rebelling against authority.  Keefer was depicted as the true enemy which made The Caine Mutiny one of he most subtle defences of the HUAC investigations and the attacks on communist subverters.  The communists, as represented by Keefer, were cowardly manipulators.[4]  Both the book and the play leave some area of doubt about the dubious role of Keefer in undermining Queeg.  In the film, Keefer accepted that he was guilty and cowardly and all the officers accept their guilt and walk away from him.

In more general terms, the film argued that authority should not be challenged no matter how inept or how dangerous it became.  However, in Bogart’s memorable depiction of the insane Queeg, it was clear that the officers had no choice.  Wouk’s message that brave little men like Queeg stopped Jews from ending up as ‘bars of soap’ and therefore deserved the crew’s full support was lost in the film version.  When the lawyer Greenwald condemned the men, his speech seemed unjust and unnecessary.  Perhaps the film reflected he divided state of Dmytryk’s allegiances which he described in his autobiography.

The film argued that authority should not be challenged no matter how inept or how dangerous it became.  However, in Bogart’s memorable depiction of the insane Queeg, it was clear that the officers had no choice. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

I had long been convinced that he fight of the Ten was political, that the battle for freedom of thought, in which I believed completely, had been twisted into a conspiracy of silence.  I believed that I was forced to sacrifice my family and my career in defense of the communist party, from which I had long been separated and which I had grown to dislike and distrust.  I knew that if it ever got down a choice between the party and our traditional democratic structure I would fight the party to the bitter end.

On the other hand, I would have to name names, and I knew the problems this would cause.[5]

Dmytryk argued that he was forced by communist tactics to refuse to testify before the HUAC and strongly objected to the uniformity.[6]  When Kefer testified and lied before the court martial hearings abandoning Merrick to his fate, the scene mirrored the abandonment he felt when John Howard Lawson testified before HUAC.  Dmytryk felt that the sympathy was ‘oozing’ away from the Hollywood 10 because of Lawson’s screaming and yelling.[7]  The Caine Mutiny was a popular film and was ranked second in rentals by Variety.[8]

Broken Lance can be read as a defense of Dmytryk’s actions as the hero was prepared to go to jail for a noble cause and at the end of the film was welcomed back to the ranch, of which he is now owner. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Dmytryk’s first effort after The Caine Mutiny was a successful western called Broken Lance (1954) in which the hero is forced to falsify evidence in a trial to ensure that his guilty father will not be sent to prison.  The film can be read as a defense of Dmytryk’s actions as the hero was prepared to go to jail for a noble cause and at the end of the film was welcomed back to the ranch, of which he is now owner.  The film was ranked 20th by Variety. Dmytryk’s flair for box office successes abandoned him when he came to direct Soldier of Fortune in 1955.  It was about the rescue of an American taking pictures of military bases in China.  The Chinese tortured him by sowing him pictures of his wife eating dinner with another man.  She was actually trying to arrange his rescue.  The escape was ludicrously simple.  Overall, the film as anti-communist propaganda and as drama was exceptionally poor.  The film did poorly at the box office despite having a big budget and the draw cards of Clark Gable and Susan Hayward.[9]

The strained logic of the Caine Mutiny can also be seen in a minor film called The Rack (1956) which dealt with the collaboration of American soldiers during the Korean War. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The strained logic of The Caine Mutiny can also be seen in a minor film called The Rack (1956) which dealt with the collaboration of American soldiers during the Korean War.  The film was based on a TV play by Rod Sterling.  Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr, played by Paul Newman, returned from Korea accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The defence of his actions rested on the mental and physical torture he was given by the communists during his internment.  The communists discover that Hall had a strained relationship with his father and respected career soldier Colonel Edward Hall, Sr, played by Walter Pidgeon.  For several days, he was locked in a small cellar with wet rags a denied sleep.  The communists made him relive again and again his strained relationship with his father.  He was told constantly that he was totally alone and no one cared for him.  To be released from this torment, he must sign some leaflets.  Under pressure, Hall Jr eventually cracked and collaborated with the enemy.

His defence, however, appeared strong.  The ordeal suffered by Hall Jr was monstrous and his testimony revealed him to be a man on he edge of a mental collapse.  Yet under questioning from the prosecution, he admitted that he could have kept on going.  In a further statement, he said that under a torture a man came a to a critical point where he could be a saint or a sinner.  The decision to collaborate was a simple moral choice between good and evil.

The film argued that any soldier who collaborated was guilty of a moral crime.  Hall Jr invited a guilty verdict from the court and it was brought down on a vote of two to one.  The film wrenched form being a plea for understanding for Korean prisoners of war who collaborated to being the hardest of hardline statements.  Even under torture, there must be no concession to the communists.  Those people who willing aided the communists had no defence under any circumstances.  It  would have been difficult for a film of the 1950s to extol or defend a collaborator with the communists.  Yet by not even allowing a compassionate view of those people who collaborated with the communists under torture, the film certainly had no sympathy with any voluntary communist sympathisers.


[1] Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics From The Depression to the Fifties, Midland, USA, 1981, p. 294.

[2] Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Hollywood Writer’s Wars, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 308.

[3] Bernard F. Dick, Radiacal Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood 10, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 1989, p. 154.

[4] Roffman and Purdy, Historian, p. 294.

[5] Edward Dmytryk, It’s a Hell of A Life But Not A Bad Living, Times Books, New York, 1978, p. 146

[6] ibid., p. 94.

[7] Ibid., p. 100

[8] Variety, 5 January 1955.

[9] Variety, 5 January 1955. 

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