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THE CAINE MUTINY remains one of the finest films ever made about the Navy. It was also one the U.S. Navy had a complex relationship with. On the one hand, the navy provided considerable access to naval vessels. Significant scenes were shot on at least three: the destroyer-mine sweeper used to represent the Caine, a light cruiser at the very end, and the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which represented Halsey's flag ship the U.S.S. Enterprise, though he later moved to the U.S.S. Missouri. Despite this remarkable cooperation, the Navy very nearly withheld its approval for the film. It was afraid that the public might imagine that the story represented actual events or that it might be imagined that there had been a mutiny aboard some ship. Only after the filmmakers agree to begin the film with a historical disclaimer did they approve.
More than anything, despite the presence of ships, the film is mainly a showcase for great acting. The quality of the cast simply can't be exaggerated. There are a host of stellar performances, and they even have such future stars as Lee Marvin in throwaway parts. Humphrey Bogart absolutely dominates the screen with one of the finest performances of his career. Most of the fan and critic polls I have seen over the years of the greatest movie stars of all time invariably place Bogart in the number one spot, and when you see him in this role, and then realize that he has 7 or 8 roles just as great, it is easy to see why. He is such a forceful presence that one would imagine that he wouldn't have been capable of a variety of roles, yet you contrast this film with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and you realize that he had a capacity to play a surprisingly wide range of roles. Lt. Commander Queeg lacks almost all of the qualities of Rick in CASABLANCA, and possesses a host of lamentable ones as well. The scene in which Queeg cowardly has the U.S.S. Caine quickly outrun the landing crafts it is assigned to protect and then retreat to safety as fast as possible is made all the worse by the courage his characters in other films display. Queeg's final crack up on the witness stand at Lt. Maryk's court martial is justifiably famous, and is among the great scenes in cinema. It is now impossible for any character in any film to play with a pair of steel balls and not think of Bogart.
The rest of the cast is hardly shamed by Bogart. Van Johnson, as the loyal, enormously capable, conscientious Lt. Maryk is superb. (This is, by the way, the only film in which the make up department didn't cover the quite large scars on his forehead that he suffered over a decade earlier in a serious car wreck, which resulted in a steel plate being placed in his forehead.) Robert Francis, who had a promising career cut short at the age of 25 in a plane crash he suffered a year after this film, is solid as the young, idealistic Ensign Keith (though the parallels between his hesitancy to stand up to his mother and marry the woman he loves and his hesitancy to stand up to his commanders isn't developed as much as it is implied) holds his own against stiff competition. Fred MacMurray, who spent his entire career bouncing between utterly lovable and absolutely reprehensible characters, here takes the latter course as the complex, spineless Lt. Keefer. His character adds a delicious degree of ambiguity to the film. Jerry Paris, who would later play Rob and Laura Petrie's friend in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, is excellent as the ship's other junior ensign. Tom Tully managed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in his stellar performance as Lt. Commander DeVriess, the first commander of the Caine. Jose Ferrer (who is, by the way, George Clooney's uncle by marriage), whose screen roles never seemed to come up to the level of his talent, is outstanding in his small but memorable role as the mutineers' defense attorney.
On a minor note, I very much enjoyed the very unusual location scene in Yosemite National Park. Although we take location shots for granted today, Hollywood in the thirties, forties, and fifties was only very slowly willing to undertake location shots. It is hard today to realize how radical it was for directors like John Huston (who shot parts of THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE in Mexico and THE AFRICAN QUEEN in Africa) or John Ford (who shot extensively in Arizona for his Westerns and in Ireland for THE QUIET MAN) to shoot on location. The general preference was to build sets on Hollywood backlots. It is so unusual to see location shots that no sound film was shot on location in Chicago (many films were made at the old Essanay Studios in Chicago in the teens and twenties) until the superb Jimmy Stewart CALL NORTHSIDE 777. The scenes in this one, therefore, set in Yosemite are pretty unique.