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Literature / Mister Roberts

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Doc: What is it you want to be, Doug, a hero?
Roberts: Hero? Doc, you haven't heard a word I've said. Look, Doc, the war's way out there, and I'm here. Well, I don't want to be here, I want to be out there. I'm sick and tired of being a lousy spectator.

Mister Roberts was originally a 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen, about the struggles of Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Roberts, the junior officer aboard a U.S. Navy supply ship that's suffering under the command of a tyrannical captain while servicing "backwater" Pacific bases during World War II. Roberts, who longs to get in on the fighting, is desperate for a transfer to a combat ship, but Captain Morton, who despises him, continually blocks his transfer, while casting about for other petty ways to make the lives of his crew miserable.

Heggen adapted his novel into a 1948 Broadway play, starring Henry Fonda in the title role, which became a Tony Award winner and a long-running production. By 1955 Hollywood had taken notice and adapted the play into a film, co-directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy and starring Fonda as Roberts, Jack Lemmon as the eager Ensign Pulver, James Cagney as Captain Morton, and William Powell (in his final film role) as Doc, Roberts' ally in his long-standing war against Morton.

Ensign Pulver, a sequel to the first film, was released in 1964, starring Robert Walker Jr., Burl Ives, Walter Matthau, Tommy Sands, Millie Perkins, Larry Hagman, Kay Medford, Peter Marshall, Jack Nicholson in an early role, George Lindsey, James Farentino, and James Coco. A short-lived TV sitcom of the same name as the first film was also produced in 1965.

The novel, play and film provide examples of:

  • Accidental Public Confession: See Is This Thing Still On? below.
  • Anti-Hero: A mild version. Roberts is clearly a model officer, but under Morton's cruel command he becomes rebellious.
  • Armed Farces: A comedy about the misadventures of the crew of a supply ship, far away from the front lines of the Pacific war.
  • Batman Gambit: With the ship docked at Elysium, the native welcoming committee aboard, and the crew champing at the bit to leave the ship, Morton abruptly announces that liberty is canceled. Then he pulls out his pocketwatch to time how long it takes Roberts to storm into his cabin demanding justice for the crew.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Roberts wants to serve in combat. He dies during a kamikaze hit within weeks of his transfer to a destroyer.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Roberts gets the transfer to combat duty he wanted, but dies as soon as he gets there. The bosun requests the letter describing Roberts' death, to post for the crew of the Reluctant; instead, Doc has him post Roberts' own letter, thanking the crew for his transfer and praising them. Ensign Pulver, who has been afraid of confronting Captain Morton the whole movie, realizes he's letting Roberts down... and charges to the replacement palm tree, tosses it overboard despite it being chained in place, and storms into the Captain's office:
    Pulver: Captain! It is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinking palm tree overboard! Now — what's all this crud about no movie tonight?
  • Bothering by the Book: This is Roberts' preferred method of insubordination. When Morton orders him confined to quarters, Roberts dutifully prepares to go, in the middle of a cargo shift; Morton quickly calls him back. He points out that Morton is legally not allowed to edit or prevent him from making transfer requests. And when Morton accuses him of "stabbing [him] in the back" Roberts points out that he hasn't broken the terms of their deal to get the crew liberty (to not write letters).
  • Bowdlerisation: The chief's lackadasical order of "off your hot and grab your sock" is a significantly less dirty version of the actual phrase.note 
  • Canned Orders over Loudspeaker: At regular intervals an unseen crewmember laconically announces "Now hear this, now hear this" followed by Captain Morton's latest act of petty tyranny. This serves as a Chekhov's Gun for the Is This Thing Still On? moment.
  • The Captain: Morton, only in title. He's really The Neidermeyer. Roberts is the one really running the ship. And Morton knows it. Which is one of the reasons — the other is sheer spite — why Morton refuses to let Roberts go.
  • The Drunken Sailor: The crew routinely brews up "jungle juice" while aboard. When they're let loose on Elysium, some of them come back so utterly soused that they have to be hauled aboard in the cargo net.
  • Face Palm: Morton, in the last moments, when he realizes that Pulver is going to be as much of a thorn in his side as Roberts.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • Roberts wants nothing more than to leave the USS Reluctant and the odious command of his Captain. Captain Morton knows this, and knows full well that — even worse than a court martial — the worst thing he can do is keep Roberts right where he is.
    • Subverted when Roberts gets his wish at last... and he dies with days of leaving the Reluctant.
  • A Father to His Men: Roberts. He's the one who really runs the supply ship, and he takes care of the men. Completely averted with the ship's official captain Morton.
  • Freudian Excuse: Morton makes clear late in the film that his borderline Irrational Hatred towards Roberts is the result of a whole life and career of being poor and dealing with Ivy League and Naval Academy-educated people like Roberts treating him like the help.
  • Gargle Blaster: "Scotch" that's actually a mixture of grain alcohol, Coca-Cola, iodine and hair tonic.
  • His Quirk Lives On: At the end of the movie, Pulver seems determined to take up annoying the Captain the same way that Roberts had.
  • Horny Sailors: The crew of the Reluctant become practically giddy upon learning that they being sent to a port with a hospital. With nurses. FEMALE nurses!
  • Hypocritical Humor: Pulver complains about the lack of sanctity for a person's personal property. This is just after ransacking Roberts' locker looking for a bottle of scotch.
  • I Gave My Word: How Morton gets Roberts to stay silent on their deal over liberty for the crew. Part of Morton's backstory was how he resented college-educated officers like Roberts, but he also knew full well that someone like Roberts can never go back on his word. Though see below under Loophole Abuse.
  • I Take Offence to That Last One:
    Doug Roberts: Frank, I like you. There's no getting around the fact that you're a real likable guy.
    Ensign Pulver: Yeah? Yeah!
    Roberts: But...
    Pulver: But what?
    Roberts: Well, I also think you're the most hapless, lazy, disorganized, and in general most lecherous person I've ever known in my life.
    Pulver: I am not!
    Roberts: You're not what?
    Pulver: I am not disorganized!
  • Interservice Rivalry: The Army forces on the Elysium island are not thrilled with how the Navy crew of the Reluctant are behaving during their shore leave.
  • Is This Thing Still On?: Morton leaves the mike to the ship's PA switched on when screaming at Roberts. This lets the crew know the truth about Roberts' strange behavior and that Morton is really the one to blame.
  • Jumped at the Call: Roberts is eager to serve on the front lines of the war but is stuck on a supply ship that's miles away from any action.
  • Kneel Before Zod: When the crew realise the Captain's precious palm tree has vanished from its pot (Mr. Roberts having thrown it overboard) they all kneel before the empty pot and pretend to worship it.
  • Large Ham:
    • Pulver's endless energy, whistling, and enthusiastic "BAM! POW!" as he's anticipating the effect his firecracker will have.
    • Captain Morton is as hammy as they come, particularly at the climax with his yells of "SOUND THE GENERAL ALARM!" and flailing around as he bawls out Roberts. Nobody does an impression of James Cagney like James Cagney.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Roberts is a Lieutenant Junior Grade. (It's more pronounced in the movie, as Fonda was in his fifties—originally, the character was in his twenties, which wouldn't be unusual.) The crew consider this a virtue because Roberts cares more about doing right by them than pleasing the captain. Morton later publicly offers a promotion to drive a wedge between the crew and Roberts, but Roberts really doesn't care what rank he is. He just wants to serve on a fighting ship.
  • Loophole Abuse: Yes, Roberts stuck to his deal with Morton, but what Morton doesn't realize is that college-educated guys like Roberts can figure out a loophole like angering Morton into making an open confession over the ship's intercom, even as Roberts can claim he kept his word. After all, Morton never said anything about that palm tree...
  • The Medic: The ship's doctor, nicknamed appropriately enough 'Doc'. He's also Roberts's best friend on the ship and the one who realizes Roberts made a secret deal with the Captain, explaining Roberts's surly anger during the second half of the story.
  • Meaningful Name: The ship? USS Reluctant.
  • Military Moonshiner: There is no designated member, but Mister Roberts and others make a quick substitute with random liquids.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Roberts is laughing his ass off after Pulver blows up the laundry, then he finds out Pulver's used up all the explosive so they can't blow up the Captain's bunk after all.
    • For the movie as a whole, a light-hearted romp about the misdeeds of a supply ship stuck behind the lines of the Pacific War Effort... up until Pulver reads the letter about Roberts' death. The stunned look on Pulver's face before he tells everyone "Mister Roberts is dead" would silence any laughter in the audience.
  • Naughty Birdwatching: The supply ship makes a stop at an island with a hospital. With nurses. And the hospital shower rooms have windows.
  • The Neidermeyer: Not the Trope Namer but as close to Trope Codifier as Hollywood would allow during that era.
  • New Meat: Pulver. He's actually been serving for fourteen months, but he's still hapless and downright terrified of the captain.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • When the nurses visit the ship, Pulver very helpfully offers them binoculars so they can look at their hospital while the men frantically try to stop him. The nurses quickly spot that their showers are easily visible and leave immediately to put up some curtains.
    • Pulver successfully tests his first firecracker on V-E day, planning to throw one under Morton's bunk to cheer up Roberts. Unfortunately, the explosive—fulminate of mercury—completely destroys all of his other supplies and he can't make another.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Roberts. Which upsets the higher-ranking Morton, whose life — before The War made him a captain — was getting ordered about by high-class Naval officers.
  • Oh, No... Not Again!: The very last thing we see Norton do before cutting to the final credits is him cradling his head after Pulver tossed his new tree overboard and makes obvious he will be the new "Mr. Roberts" (read: thorn on his side) from now on.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: After Morton forces Roberts to stop requesting transfer by holding the crew's shore leave hostage, Roberts becomes sullen and no longer says anything against the captain (which was part of the deal). When the crew starts up with friendly badgering about Roberts' next letter, Roberts puts one of them on report and storms off.
    • Also Played for Laughs when the Reluctant's crew is on Liberty; while everyone on the crew indulges in drunken behavior, it's clean-cut Bookser who ends up staying out all night, and not returning to the ship until they've been kicked out of port.
  • Parenthetical Swearing: An MP on Elysium tells Mr. Roberts that his men were pranked by a soldier who led them to a governor's mansion claiming that—he pauses to say what they call it in Alabama, and Roberts says they call it the same thing in Nebraska. Based on the rest of the conversation, the sailors thought they were being taken to a brothel.
  • Persona Non Grata: It's understandable why the crew of the "Bucket" would not be allowed ashore on Elysium again, after hearing what they did while on liberty there.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Yes, the US Navy really did make a fuss about shirts. The reason wasn't just pettiness though. It was found out by the medical branch that shirts provided protection against burns in the case of an explosion. (Such an incident was unlikely on the Reluctant, Pulver's laundry lab notwithstanding, so some leeway to prevent heat stroke would still be warranted.)
  • Screen Shake: The explosion from Pulver's firecracker rocks the officer quarters, demonstrated by William Powell and Henry Fonda doing a precursor of the maneuver made famous by Star Trek. Though Powell's flying drink is very convincing.
  • Soldiers at the Rear: The USS Reluctant is far from the front lines.
  • Stress Vomit: After Roberts throws the palm tree overboard and Morton makes himself sick railing at him, the scene cuts to a bunch of the crew clustered around the cabin window while one describes the scene: Doc holding a wastebasket with the captain's head inside.
    "Whoops, there he goes again!"
  • Southern-Fried Private: The MP who informs Roberts that the admiral has kicked the Reluctant out of port is an Alabama boy who relates the misdeeds of the six sailors in a laconic drawl.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: Roberts dies mere weeks before World War II officially ends, thanks to his transfer to a frontline ship. Be Careful What You Wish For! Segues into more of a "Sudden Bittersweet Ending" because the anger and shock of this discovery is what fuels Pulver's decision to continue to torment Captain Morton for the sake of the crew.
  • Suspiciously Specific Sermon: On VE Day, Mr Roberts is listening to the radio and hears someone giving a speech on the need to destroy the symbols of tyranny and oppression. "You must tear up its roots like a poisoned tree, and cast it from the earth!" Inspired, Roberts salutes the radio, then throws the palm tree of his tyrannical captain overboard.
  • Tempting Fate: Roberts dismisses Pulver's claim that the firecracker's explosive is fulminate of mercury because it's too insane for even Pulver and there's no way he could get a hold of it out there anyway. Cue the big boom.
  • Third Wheel: The head nurse on the first island who, being well aware that Pulver wants to seduce her, brings her whole staff along with her. Doc and Mr. Roberts happily make excuses for why they can't be the ones to give them all a tour of the ship, leaving Pulver to escort all of them around. Platonically.
  • Took a Level in Badass: When Pulver realizes it's up to him to stand up to the tyrannical Captain. In the film, he breaks the chain from the bulkhead and chunks the new palm tree, bucket and all, over the side.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The captain has one when confronting Roberts for the last time.
  • War Is Hell: Played with for much of the movie. The real hell the crew of the Relunctant involves dealing with a tyrannical Captain. Then played horribly straight when Pulver reads the letter telling everyone Roberts died in a kamikaze attack.
  • Well-Intentioned Replacement: After giving away a half bottle of whiskey as a bribe to secure a visit to a liberty port, the officers discover that Pulver had promised it to a nurse. They create a substitute out of medical alcohol, Coca-Cola, iodine and hair tonic. It is surprisingly effective.
  • Wham Line: Just before the ending. "Mr. Roberts is dead."