When erratic Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) tells his officers, “There’s the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way—and if you do things my way, we’ll get along!” you get the picture. Cutting away to officers Van Johnson (blue collar sensible) and Fred MacMurray (smarmy cynic) looking at each other and their fellow crew members, we immediately sense that Queeg might not be the right man for the job. As the captain obsesses over a missing quart of strawberries and tears the entire ship upside down in search of an imaginary key to the freezer, their doubts increase; and by the time he is heading their boat straight into a typhoon, they’ve had enough. The second half of the picture follows the subsequent trial, where the so-called mutineers defend their actions as the viewer wonders if Queeg will crack up on the witness stand. It’s all put together in what we might call “solid” fashion. It’s old-fashioned storytelling with a slight psychological twist, and standard three-act drama. But as Queeg tells his men in a laundry list of professional conduct: “Excellent performance is standard, standard performance is substandard.” The Caine Mutiny is not distinctive filmmaking or storytelling, and its idea of ethical debate is relying on familiar archetypes and arguments. It sure is standard, though. It’s like the well-constructed house that’s not meant to be distinctive, but was made to endure.
Bogart started out his career playing nervous villains sweating their way through packs of cigarettes as they waited for their bad karma to catch up with them. Nearing the end of his career (and his life), Bogart finds a little of that cowardly rat in Queeg. Yet he also finds a militant forcefulness in this role, bringing to it some of the world-weariness of Rick from Casablanca, minus the ideological code and veiled idealism. And, on top of that, he layers on some exhausted sense of pathos: “The captain’s job is a lonely one,” he sighs during a more paternal moment with the new ensign (young would-be star Robert Francis). Bogart was not just one of the great movie stars, but also one of the great actors. The Caine Mutiny surrounds him with other compelling players, such as the effortlessly authentic Johnson—every bit as good a character actor as Bogart, minus the charisma of a star. MacMurray, so dull when playing good guys, really comes to life when playing a fast-talking sneak. Rounding out the respectable cast is Jose Ferrer’s efficient, sardonic defense attorney. The main reason the film still excites today is because it offers the chance to see some of the finest studio actors working at the top of their game. The entire subgenre of WWII-era studio pictures at sea were never really about the boats, or even about the seafaring way of life. They were about the stars, and The Caine Mutiny is, as Queeg suggests, carried above the level of “standard” by its excellent performances.