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Literature: The Caine Mutiny

"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, Josť Ferrer, Van Johnson, and Fred MacMurray.

A young sailor, Ens. Keith, graduates from Officer Candidate school and is immediately assigned to the destroyer-minesweeper 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.
  • 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.
  • The Alleged Ship / What a Piece of Junk: The Caine is a rusty, obsolete tub left over from World War One. 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.
  • Anti-Mutiny
  • Artistic License - Ships: Averted in the adaptations, which replaced the novel's four-piper destroyer-minesweeper conversion with a Gleaves-class conversion.
  • Author Avatar: An unusual case, verging on Anti-Sue. 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 villain of the Caine mutiny."
  • Backed by the Pentagon: The film got the support of the US Navy, under condition that a disclaimer be put in the opening credits that the story is completely fictional, and there had never actually been a mutiny on a Navy ship.
    • It must be noted, however, that three sailors aboard the brig USS Somers were convicted and executed for conspiracy to mutiny in 1845. The conspirators may have actually made an attempt to carry it out, the Navy's records note that the Somers suffered some extremely suspicious damage while at sea.
  • 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.
  • Dead Man Writing: From the main character's father.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Keefer, who put the idea of relieving Queeg into Maryk's head, but denied any involvement at the court-martial. Later, when he became the captain of the Caine, he panicked and jumped overboard after the kamikaze attack. He's painfully aware of all this, comparing himself to Lord Jim.
    • It's Queeg's cowardice in battle that ultimately turns the men of the Caine against him. In the novel, at least, it's implied that it's more due to having been on active duty for too damn long than being a coward, since by all accounts he served with distinction in the Atlantic escorting convoys.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: May Wynn.
  • Grey and Grey 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.
  • 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, calling them out as mutineers who betrayed their captain. (In the book, his disdain is focused on Keefer only).
  • Jerk Ass: Lieutenant Thomas Keefer.
  • 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.
  • Momma's Boy: In the book Keith starts out like this, but matures over the course of the story.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Lt. Keefer, who pushes Keith and Maryk into mutinying and then denies all involvement during the court-martial.
  • The Mutiny: Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Never My Fault: Queeg doesn't accept responsibilty for any of his mistakes, always blaming the crew instead.
  • Noodle Incident: The court martial of Bellison and Crowe. All we know is that it involved a riot in Auckland, and that De Vreiss rigged it to get them acquitted.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • World War II: The setting of the story. The Caine takes part in the invasion of Kwajalein, and survives a kamikaze attack near Okinawa.

The Broken SwordLiterature of the 1950sCat Among the Pigeons
...And Justice for AllLaw ProceduralA Civil Action
La Cage aux follesTheatrical ProductionsCaptain Sabertooth
The Wild OneFilms of the 1950sThe Dam Busters
All the King's MenPulitzer PrizeThe Old Man and the Sea
BeachwalkerMilitary and Warfare LiteratureCarrera's Legions
Buru QuartetHistorical Fiction LiteratureThe Candlemass Road
A Bridge Too FarMilitary and Warfare FilmsCity of Life and Death
On the WaterfrontAcademy AwardSeven Brides for Seven Brothers
Devil's GateSea StoriesThe Captain's Wife

alternative title(s): The Caine Mutiny
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