Literature / The Caine Mutiny

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"Ah, but the strawberries! That-that's where I had them..."

"Situation quiet; the Captain's been put away for the night."
Lt. Keith

It was not a mutiny in the old-time sense, of course, with flashing of cutlasses, a captain in chains, and desperate sailors turning outlaws. After all, it happened in 1944 in the United States Navy. But the court on inquiry recommended trial for mutiny, and the episode became known as "the Caine mutiny" throughout the service.

The 1951 Pulitzer-Prize winner for Literature, The Caine Mutiny was written by Herman Wouk. He adapted the novel into a play, "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial", which opened shortly before a film version of the novel, also titled The Caine Mutiny, was released in 1954 starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson, and Fred MacMurray.

A young sailor, Ensign Keith, graduates from Officer Candidate School and is immediately assigned to the destroyer-minesweeper U.S.S. Caine. Its first CO, Commander DeVriess, is uncouth and sloppy, but also an effective and well-respected commander. When he receives a promotion, he is replaced by the mercurial Lt. Cmdr. Queeg, a strict and unreasonably demanding man.

The story follows the Caine's tour of duty through the Pacific Theatre of World War II. During its voyage, Queeg gradually loses the respect of his crew through various instances of incompetence, bullying, paranoia, and perceived cowardice. After he becomes so obsessed with a missing quart of strawberries that he begins to ignore his other duties, some of his officers begin to suspect that he is insane.

Everything comes to a head when the Caine is caught in a typhoon, during which Queeg becomes paralyzed by indecision. His second-in-command, Lt. Maryk, relieves him, citing mental illness, and brings the ship safely through the storm. Such an extreme act must be justified if Maryk (and Keith, who, as officer of the watch, supported him) is not to be found guilty of mutiny.

The next part of the book deals with Maryk's trial. His defender, Lt. Greenwald, chooses to focus more on Queeg's actions than on Maryk's, eventually causing Queeg to break down on the stand. Maryk is acquitted (and Keith is never charged), but his and Queeg's naval careers are effectively over.

Keith returns to the Caine, where he serves as Executive Officer. When the ship is struck by a Kamikaze off Okinawa, he keeps his head and saves her and most of her crew when the current commander, Keefer (who was instrumental in Queeg's downfall) panics and jumps overboard. Instead of being repaired, the Caine is ordered to New York for decommissioning. As the officer assigned to take her home, Keith has the bittersweet honor of being the last captain of the Caine.

Captain Queeg's character has since become a model for The Neidermeyer.

This book / film / play features examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Queeg achieves this in record time.
  • Accuse the Witness: The meat of Greenwald's strategy during the court-martial is to unrelentingly cross-examines Queeg this way, eventually calling him as a hostile witness for the defense and accusing him of several illegal and unethical acts in order to portray him as incompetent and unfit for command. The prosecutor eventually realizes that Greenwald has turned the whole thing into a trial where the defense is prosecuting a witness. (And it works.)
  • Adaptation Distillation: Most notably cutting down the Token Romance to only a scene or two, and skipping past nearly everything leading up to Willie coming aboard the Caine, and after the trial.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: It's very hard not to feel bad for Captain Queeg when he has his paranoid episode on the stand, as his mind simply collapses under the stress and strain of it all. The look on his face when he finally stops rambling and realizes that's he babbling non-sense and the subdued defeat in his tone as he and everyone else in the courtroom realizes his career in the navy is over is almost heart-wrenching.
  • The Alleged Ship / What a Piece of Junk: The Caine is a rusty, obsolete Wickes-class tub left over from World War I. She's constantly being repaired, and the crew fights a neverending battle against the spreading rust. But not even a direct hit from a kamikaze can sink her.
    The Caine is not a rusty, miserable, run-down looking hulk — the Caine is a rusty, miserable, run-down hulk! But she's a good ship! — From the MAD parody
  • Anti-Mutiny: The mutineers justify their actions with the rationale that Queeg's state of mind during the typhoon rendered him unfit to carry out his duties as The Captain.
  • Anti-Villain: As Greenwald points out during his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to the mutineers, Queeg (who previously served as a junior officer on a destroyer in the Atlantic, and had survived his ship being sunk by a U-boat) was not intentionally a tyrant, but rather a Shell-Shocked Veteran who was placed in a position he was unsuited for because the Navy didn't recognize that he needed help. Greenwald even points out that the only reason America and its allies are winning the war in 1945 is because guys like Queeg held the line in 1941-42.
  • Artistic License Ships: Averted in the adaptations, which replaced the novel's Wickes-class four-piper destroyer-minesweeper conversion (all of the real Wickes- and visually-identical Clemson and Caldwell-class destroyers were scrapped immediately after the war, with the only exceptions being two hulks so stripped and rusted that they're unrecognizable that remain even today in San Francisco Bay) with a Gleaves-class conversion.
  • Author Avatar: An unusual case. Tom Keefer closely resembles Herman Wouk in many respects - and is also cowardly, conniving, lazy, and disliked by the rest of the crew (except Keith). Greenwald even goes so far as to call him "the real author of the Caine mutiny."
    • Keefer, like Wouk, is an author - Wouk began to write his first novel, Aurora Dawn while serving onboard USS Zane (DMS-16).
    • Greenwald, like Wouk, is Jewish reserve officer—an outsider in a Navy run by Anglo-Saxon Protestant Regular Navy men.
  • Badass Boast: After Greenwald throws his drink in Keefer's face, he says he'll be outside if Keefer wants to do anything about it, and...
    "I'm a lot drunker than you are, so it'll be a fair fight."
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Or rather, bluff The Neidermeyer: the defense goads Queeg into a Villainous Breakdown on the stand, thus proving his removal from command was justified.
  • Captain Queeg: Trope Namer for The Neidermeyer in Real Life, hence the expression "Queeg-like".
  • Character Development: Willie Keith matures a lot over the course of the novel.
  • Contemptible Cover: Maryk once bought a book by Ernest Hemingway because there was a naked girl on the cover. He was disappointed by the content.
  • Character Tics: Queeg has a compulsive habit of rolling steel ball bearings in his hand when under strain.
  • Court-Martialed: The characters are tried for mutiny by a military court.
  • Dead Man Writing: From the main character's father.
  • Dirty Coward:
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Queeg turns the men of the Caine against himself with handing out severe punishment for minor offenses. However, nothing he does is against the regulations; he just applies them very harshly.
  • Door Stopper: The novel itself is a robust 500 or so pages depending on what edition you're looking at. And in-story, Tom Keefer's novel is longer than War and Peace!
  • Embarrassing Nickname: After the Battle of Kwajalein, Queeg is dubbed "Old Yellowstain" by the officers.
  • Engineered Public Confession: Queeg is a victim of this.
  • A Father to His Men: Captain DeVriess. Under him the Caine performs admirable (if unconventionally), crew morale is high, and there's an almost brotherly bond from Captain, to Officers, to Sailors. The crew even buys him a silver wristwatch as a going away present when he's finally relieved of command. Of course, this is in direct opposite to Queeg.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The title of the work.
  • Foreshadowing: In the movie, when Queeg is having his first officer's meeting, he tells the other officers about his exploits on an earlier ship, and cracks that the way things were in the last couple of years, he thought some of the enemy ships had it in for him personally. While he says it as a joke, it's an early indication of Queeg's paranoia/incipient case of PTSD.
    • Moments later, after the briefing, Maryk states that Queeg certainly is taking it "by the book", to which Keefer sardonically replies: "So did Captain Bligh".
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: May Wynn.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Queeg was far from a great captain, but the officers aboard the Caine hardly make things easier for him. Greenwald maintains that the whole situation with the typhoon would have been avoided if the officers had just given him the support he needed despite his failings—and Maryk and Keith essentially agree with him.
  • Hidden Disdain Reveal: In the movie, Defense attorney Lt. Greenwald gets the mutineers an acquittal, then delivers an epic "The Reason You Suck" Speech in which he wishes he could have prosecuted them (keep in mind that mutiny is a capital offense; he's quite literally saying he believes they deserve to be shot), calling them out as mutineers who betrayed their captain. (In the book, his disdain is focused on Keefer only).
  • Heel Realization: Arguably, the finest moment for Bogey in this film (and one of his best in his career) is the part where he, playing Queeg, is questioned by Greenwald, and realizes just how crazy he's sounding.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Queeg in the middle of the Taifun. He just clings to the calling system and stares blankly into space. The main reason why Maryk had to take the helm.
  • Hostile Weather: The typhoon. In the Real Life, the Typhoon Cobra or "Halsey's Typhoon" cost US Navy 790 men, three ships (all destroyers, which capsized) and 146 airplanes. Nine ships, including one light cruiser, three light carriers, and two escort carriers suffered enough damage to be sent for repairs.
  • Jerk Ass: Lieutenant Thomas Keefer.
  • Lost Food Grievance: A rare example both Played for Drama and deconstruction: the "strawberry incident", which Queeg believes is Serious Business, is used to prove his incompetence.
  • Love Epiphany: Keith suddenly realizes that he really loves May just when the kamikaze hits the Caine.
  • Mad Lib Thriller Title: It's not a thriller, but the title fits, and is ominous enough.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Lt. Keefer, who pushes Keith and Maryk into mutinying and then denies all involvement during the court-martial.
  • Meaningful Name: USS Caine (DMS-22) as a venue of a symbolic fratricide. Doubles also as a Meaningful Rename - the ship herself is based on USS Zane (DMS-16), Wouk's wartime vessel.
  • Momma's Boy: In the book Keith starts out like this, but matures over the course of the story.
  • The Mutiny: Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Naked First Impression: Captain De Vriess is completely naked and on his way to the shower when Keith first meets him. De Vriess thinks nothing of it, though it unsettles Keith.
  • Never My Fault: Queeg doesn't accept responsibility for any of his mistakes, always blaming the crew instead. Keefer as well, as he pushes and manipulates the other officers into mutiny, the denies any involvement when it's time to face the music.
  • Noodle Incident: The court martial of Bellison and Crowe. All we know is that it involved a riot in Auckland, and that De Vriess rigged it to get them acquitted.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: In the movie, this is what Lt. Greenwald does while cross-examining the psychiatrist, to get him to admit Queeg was paranoid and suffering under the strain of combat.
  • The Perfectionist: Mentioned by the Navy psychiatrist as one of Queeg's faults.
  • Pet the Dog: Queeg gets a few, explaining his motivations for an early near-breakdown to Keith, and more notably after the "yellow stain" incident when he asks his officers for help controlling his demons. The latter is specifically cited by Greenwald during his climactic harangue.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Maryk is acquitted, but his naval career is destroyed.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After the trial Greenwald gives one to the Caine crew and especially to Lt. Keefer.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The whole business with the strawberries. At one point, one of the officers proposes that the quart may have never even been loaded onboard (so its 'disappearance' is instead a clerical error), but an answer is never given either way.
  • The Scapegoat: Lt. Maryk
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The ultimate reason for Queeg's behavior. He doesn't want to be the bad guy, but the psychological trauma he's experienced prior to taking command of USS Caine has left him quite unstable. Humphrey Bogart's performance really sells it, as he switches from a calm, almost-apologetic demeanor in his Pet the Dog moments to screaming at somebody over some trivial (or imaginary) offense a minute later, and fidgeting with the ball bearings in his pocket as he tries to calm himself.
  • Shout-Out: After Queeg shares his no-nonsense command philosophy with the other officers:
    Keith: Well, he's certainly Navy.
    Keefer: Yeah. So was Captain Bligh.
  • Serious Business: The search for the strawberries starts to take an increasing amount of Queeg's time and he starts to take increasing amounts of punitive measures for the sake of Perp Sweating (such as denying a similar amount of food to the rations of all the crewmen and denying leave time). Understandably this becomes a Deconstructed Trope because when the time comes for the defense to talk about the situation, they point out Queeg's overkill... and even Queeg goes into shock when he figures out on the stand that he's being seen as an insane man because of this.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Roland Keefer, Tom Keefer's brother, is rough, crude, Book Dumb, but infinitely more honorable. He dies pulling a Heroic Sacrifice to save the ship he was on when it's hit by a kamikaze attack. When Tom gets into the same situation, he jumps ship.
  • Smug Snake: Lieutenant Thomas Keefer.
  • Stage Names: May's real name in the book is Marie Minotti. Donna Lee Hickey, the actress who played her in the film also used this stage name.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Arguably Keith, who doesn't really advance the plot much until after the titular mutiny and the court-marshal is finished. Maryk comes across more as The Hero of the story, and Keefer, Greenwald and Queeg also make for much more interesting characters. Even his role in the mutiny feels shoe-horned in; he was the Officer On Deck at the time and supported Maryk's decision, something most of the other officers (aside from Keefer, perhaps.) would likely have done.
  • Token Romance: Keith's relationship with May really doesn't advance the plot at all, and the chapters focusing on it arguably make up some of the most unbearable chapters of the book. It gets worse when Keith is spending half his time in those scenes trying to dump her.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Queeg, definitely.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Keith starts off this way, but improves over time while on board the Caine. Unfortunately, he seems to revert back immediately whenever he's not on the ship.
  • Uptown Girl: Gender-inverted. Willie Keith is an upper-class W.A.S.P; May Wynn is a daughter of poor Italian immigrants. Because of this, Keith thinks that his relationship with May can never end in marriage.
  • Villainous Breakdown: A classic, with Queeg goaded into a witness-stand rant about all the problems the crew gave him, with an unfortunate focus on the minor strawberries incident and also displaying his nervous tic of rubbing a pair of ball bearings. Partway through he realizes what it looks like, but it's too late.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Greenwald's final speech to the officers of the Caine (and himself as well).
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: Willie Keith. One of the reasons he thinks his relationship with May can't get serious is that she's the daughter of Italian emigrants.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: After Maryk announces his intent to carry out article 184, Keith becomes smug about the situation, but doesn't openly show it. Maryk, on the other hand, continues to treat Queeg with respect, which partly saves him during his Court-Martial.

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