Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny appeared in 1951, one of many post World War II novels. The book sold well and won a Pulitzer Prize. The story of Ensign Willie Keith’s experiences aboard the minesweeper U.S.S. Caine resonated with men and women trying to make sense of the war that shaped their adult lives.
Willie Keith sinks, swims and flounders in his new environment. Executive Officer Steve Maryk worked fishing boats before the war. This marks him as a man with first-hand experience on the sea. Lt. Tom Keefer is the pseudo-intellectual who knew everything but did nothing.
Finally, there’s Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, commanding officer and career navy man.
Queeg is a stickler for rules and regulations, but commanding a ship at war seems above his capabilities. Queeg’s orders are idiosyncratic. And when he’s nervous or disturbed, the captain pulls two marbles out of his pocket and strokes them like worry beads.
Keefer concludes the captain is mentally unstable and urges Maryk to relieve his commanding officer. Keefer’s accusations are constant and insidious. Maryk begins an anecdotal record of the captain’s eccentricities.
Matters come to a head in a massive typhoon. The ship is in imminent danger of sinking. Maryk urges Queeg to reverse course into the wind and take on ballast. The captain refuses because he has neither an official order to do so nor permission to maneuver at will. Maryk seizes command. The ship survives. Maryk faces charges of Mutiny in a Court Martial.
Does the story sound familiar? If so, I suspect it’s due to Humphrey Bogart’s performance in the 1954 movie.
Steve Maryk comes into his Court Martial with no clear defense. The Caine didn’t sink. Captain Queeg asserts he behaved correctly during the typhoon. He followed protocol and obeyed orders. Maryk unlawfully took over the ship.
Lt. Keefer, incidentally, denies he ever saw Queeg manifest unstable behavior or that he urged Maryk to relieve him. This leaves Maryk up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Maryk’s only defense is to prove Queeg mentally unstable. His attorney proceeds with a line of questioning that pushes Queeg beyond “reason.”
The Court Martial acquitted Lt. Maryk of the charge of mutiny. It was not a decision the judges wanted to take, because it undercut the rule of discipline. But they couldn’t deny the evidence of their own eyes.
A Few Good Men starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson came out in 1992. Based on a true story, the movie is about the Court Martial of two Marines for the death of a third Marine during a hazing incident. The accused have nothing to say for themselves.
Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) believes the accused carried out a “Code Red” order — an extrajudicial punishment. She wants to defend the accused. The case goes to Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a man not unlike Wouk’s Willie Keith.
Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup comes to the stand. As Kaffee questions the colonial, it’s as if Humphry Bogart’s Queeg has returned to the screen. Only this time there’s nothing cautious or diffident about him.
“You can’t handle the truth,” Nicholson’s colonel bellows.
In comparison, Bogart’s Queeg fixates on some strawberries that went missing.
“Ah, but the strawberries, that’s, that’s where I had them, they laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, with geometric logic, that a duplicate key to the ward room icebox did exist, and I’d have produced that key if they hadn’t pulled the Caine out of action.”
My current project is about a woman named Mary Pigot. In 1883 she sued Rev William Hastie for malicious libel. Hastie swore he couldn’t have libeled Pigot, because the allegations were true. Pigot and Hastie are fighting for their professional reputations. Court records show drama, surprise, and disgust.
Like Queeg and Jessup, Hastie lives in a cultural microcosm. Like them, he follows rules and codes. Hastie believes the ends justify the means.
Wouk’s Caine Mutiny and Reiner’s A Few Good Men are part of my on-going character research.
Featured image is from The Caine Mutiny trailer. U.S. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Herman Wouk. The Caine Mutiny. Little Brown & Company. 1951/1979.
The Caine Mutiny. 1954. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Produced by Stanley Kramer.
A Few Good Men. 1992. Directed by Rob Reiner. Produced by Rob Reiner, David Brown, & Andrew Scheinman
Roger Ebert. “A Few Good Men.” Dec 11, 1992
Bosley Crowther. “The Screen: ‘Caine Mutiny’ Arrives; Vibrant Depiction of Novel is Capitol.” New York Times. June 25, 1954
Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth and Two Coins are available as audiobooks.
Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.