The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)

Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, Brad Davis, Peter Gallagher,
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a TV movie starring Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, and Brad Davis. A full-length adaptation, originally staged as a play, of the court-martial segment from the novel "The Caine Mutiny".
  • 6.9 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2021-04-12 Added:
  • Herman Wouk, Writer:
  • Robert Altman, Director:
  • John Flaxman, Producer:

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8 / 10

The Caine gets the Altman treatment

This was an good adaptation of the Caine story. I've read the original book on which the story was based, and have seen the 1950s film version many times, but hadn't seen a stage version of this film. (Wouk wrote both the book and this play.) This version is interesting on several levels. First, unlike the original story, everything is stripped out except the courtroom scenes and the party afterward. This allows us to experience the story without having seen it first, which allows us to view the Queeg story fresh, without having seen it ourselves and formed opinions about it.

Also, Altman wisely chose actors which were very unlike (in most cases) the 1954 version of the story. The most noteworth, of course, is Queeg himself, with Davis doing a very credible job that is very different from the Bogart portrayal. (For one thing, Davis is a very different physical type than Bogart and is a lot younger.) Keefer is good too - and again, different than the 1954 version, with Fred McMurray in the role.

And, of course, this film has the usual Altman technique of using a lot of side conversations that are barely heard and added noises to make the film seem more naturalistic. As others noted, this is most evident during the party scene at the end, but it used with good effect during the rest of the movie too.

Overall a nice piece of work.

7 / 10

Queeg wasn't fit to stand alongside Skipper Jonas Grumby

Excellent dramatic rendition of the final segment of Wouk's great novel. All the players made this picture come off looking like a real court marshall. Davis' portrayal of the oddball Queeg showed a man with a skewed personality and totally obsessed with an authority complex. Finally, Bogosian's Barney Greenwald's rant at the celebration party was the high point of the film. Courtroom enthusiasts should go for this one.

8 / 10

An Interesting Variant on the story

The television movie version of THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL is a nice production by Robert Altman. It lacks the briny spirit of the film - so much of which was shot on ships or at sea (including a typhoon sequence). But it is taught and claustrophobic for most of the story - it being set in the Court-Martial room (a bit of the end of the play is at the post-trial acquittal party). The results is a different telling of the story, and one relying on the audience's own evaluation of the truth or lies of the different witnesses. While it still ends in the revelation of Queeg's (Brad Davis's) behavior on the stand, there is more that comes out.

I've mentioned this when reviewing the movie. Queeg is first taken down a peg by Greenwald (Eric Bogosian) not on issues of fitness of command, but on his honesty. It turns out that Queeg (like other commanders of the naval ships) were allowed a certain level of tax free purchases from Hawaii to the mainland of various luxury items, such as alcohol. Queeg had overused this right - actually exceeded the legal limit, and was chastised for this by the Pearl Harbor command. Queeg denies this happened, but Greenwald explains that he can ask for an hour's delay to get the necessary officers to come and testify if necessary. So Queeg suddenly "remembers" there was some kind of chastisement. It is the first misstep the Captain makes in his testimony.

Greenwald also faces secret hostility (not shown in the film, by the way) as a Jewish officer. There is an undercurrent working against Greenwald and his clients in the anti-Semitism of the Navy brass, especially the prosecutor. At the end of the trial, aware that Greenwald has destroyed what should have been an open-and-shut case of mutiny, the prosecutor actually reveals his anti-Semitic feelings about the "tricks" used by Greenwald.

The other major change is at the conclusion. In the film, a drunken Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) confronts Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray) at the celebration party as the real manipulator of the Caine Mutiny, who kept himself clean at the expense of Maryk and Keith), and after tossing a drink into his face and saying if he wants to make anything of it to come outside. Greenwald also tells off the crew officers present that they failed to give Queeg the support he asked for at one point - that Queeg for all his flaws was defending the country while they were nice and safe. The stunned men leave the party one by one, leaving a disgraced Keefer all alone.

In the play, Greenwald does show up, and does tell off Keefer and the crew's officers, but all the officers (except Keefer, who is disgraced), are already drunk, and they don't listen to what Greenwald is saying. Not even Maryk and Keith (Jeff Daniels and Daniel Jenkins) - who are too busy celebrating to care. It is an interesting difference from the movie's conclusion. Nice production, with a different style and angle to the story.

6 / 10

faithfully prosaic

Overall, this is an entertaining, if not instructive, rendition of what Wouk got onto paper. It's well worth watching for everyone who loved Wouk's novel. The richness of what he wrote has led us to the world of private imagination, and films can seldom satisfy the complexity here. The problem seems to be miscasting in several directions. One is expecting a little more gray and perhaps a bit more subtlety in Davis's performance of the paranoid Queeg; this constant rolling of steel balls is probably overdone. That is to say, perhaps, there is only one Bogart, but there is a certain plausibility missing here. Bogosian makes a capable Greenwald, but once more, there is no solid grounding here of a wounded flier -- and so we also have a puny Keifer and a Maryk without the hue of seamanship. The callow Willie, however, fits the bill, as does Ken Michels as Dr. Bird, the smug psychiatrist. That, we found entertaining. We agree with the first reviewer that the director stepped on some lines with background noise, and we'll never understand why Greenwald had to fight to be heard at the party. In addition, everyone seems about the same age in this movie, like a fraternity costume party. Wouk's work has much to tell us about our own times. We'd like to see someone do this again, with a deeper commitment than what Robert Altman has provided.

8 / 10

A curate's egg...

We have a phrase in England, a 'curate's egg', which means, good in parts.

On the positive side, this is very much a Robert Altman film in the best sense, He displayed again here to best advantage how he can create not just one backstory but a whole world of backstories just in a converted naval gym which is serving as ad hoc courtroom for a court martial. There were the stories of the principal characters, to be sure, to be given time and attention in the script - the Caine officers, crew, judges and advocates - but what Altman did even better I think than in his other films was make each person on screen, even in the background, and I stress every person you can see either in background or foreground, appear existentially real and three dimensional. They all appear more than just either a principal actor or an extra, as we know them variously to be as members of a cast, but in Altman's subtly shifting focus on screen, in what they are shown doing, even if we can't hear what they are saying or not quite sure what they are doing, they come across as real people, mostly naval personnel, of course, with real activities and real lives taking place simultaneously with the people and events staging in the foreground. I am not sure that any other director ever has managed that as well as Altman.

Focussing on the trial itself, the script is highly literate and gives a fascinating insight into naval protocol, attitudes and tradition, and, of course, into the conflict of personalities and within personalities, of men at war, with the advantage of the extra detail that such focusing allowed, in comparison with the 1954 Edward Dmytryk original film which had to cover both the actual naval action and the court room drama. Though, I want to say here, that the Edward Dmytryk film managed to portray with admirable faithfulness and admirable economy a long book, and with first class acting and production values of its own.

On the negative side, and it is no reflection on Brad Davis, but I have seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and also the stage play in London with Charlton Heston and none of them quite manages right the moment when Captain Queeg starts slipping from a reasonable officer, if something of a martinet, into one who, it turns out, has been over-promoted, probably because of the exigencies of war, to the point where he presents clear symptoms of mental disintegration. That is maybe a weakness of the writing in what is otherwise a very fine war drama by Herman Wouk which perhaps no actor can overcome.

I do miss the drama of the actual scenes aboard ship. As I say, the original film managed to portray the gripping action of the sea drama and then with well-judged economy the trial and compressed it successfully into about the same length of time as Altman's film concentrating almost solely on the trial. Also, the final party scene is far better handled in the 1954 film with the confrontation between the defending advocate, played by Jose Ferrer, and Fred MacMurray as the barrack room lawyer Keefer striking a far more dramatic note. After an otherwise taut film, Altman's ends on rather a flat note.

However, I am glad of this new adaptation of the Caine Mutiny, because it is fascinating to compare the two films which nicely complement each other. I think Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny is one of the best ever World War II stories ever written and subsequently screened, not just for its action but its psychological subtlety and depth. Sadly, his Winds of War is a let-down but that is matter for another review.