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Literature / The Caine Mutiny

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

"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 of inquiry recommended trial for mutiny, and the episode became known as "the Caine mutiny" throughout the service."

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

The 1951 Pulitzer Prize winner for Literature, The Caine Mutiny was written by Herman Wouk. A film version of the novel, also titled The Caine Mutiny, was released in 1954, was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk, and stars Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Fred MacMurray, and Van Johnson.

Wouk also adapted the novel into a play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, directed on Broadway by Charles Laughton. In 1988 CBS aired a well-regarded television adaptation of the play, directed by Robert Altman. A second film adaptation of the stage play (and the final film directed by William Friedkin before his death) was released in 2023, with a Setting Update to the modern era. For tropes applying to the latter adaptation, see here.

A young sailor, Ensign Willie Keith, graduates from Officer Candidate School and is immediately assigned to the destroyer-minesweeper USS 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. Phillip 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—of note is an infamous incident in which Queeg loses his nerve and abandons a group of landing craft, only leaving them a yellow dye marker to guide their way; an ordeal which earns the captain the ignominious moniker "Old Yellowstain". 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. At the advice of Lt. Thomas Keefer, his second-in-command, Lt. Stephen 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. Barney 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. However, at a party after the trial, an intoxicated Greenwald turns on Keefer: He reveals his shame at having to break down Queeg on the stand, reflecting that Queeg's and the regulars' careers in America's peacetime Navy in the Atlantic had done more than the commissioned officers had ever done, and that the crew, particularly Keefer, had spurred the situation by disrespecting and mistreating Queeg, whose service in the Atlantic had left him in a fragile state of mind and should have been helped rather than publicly humiliated by being stripped of command of his own ship. He then goes on to accuse Keefer of being the true force behind the mutiny rather than Maryk, and throws a glass of champagne, the "yellow wine," in Keefer's face, shaming him and symbolically calling him a coward, thus bringing full-circle the nickname "Yellowstain" — coined by Keefer himself.

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, panics and jumps overboard, having become the coward he had accused Queeg of being. 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:

  • Abandon Ship: In the book, after the kamikaze hits the Caine, Keefer prematurely gives the order to abandon ship and is one of the first men in the water. However, thanks to Keith's quick work, the Caine survives and Keefer suffers the ignominy of having to re-board the ship he abandoned.
  • Accuse the Witness: The meat of Greenwald's strategy during the court-martial is to unrelentingly cross-examine 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.)
  • Adaptational Heroism: The film version of Queeg is a much more sympathetic character than his book counterpart. In the book, Queeg's behavior is implied to be simple incompetence and stupidity rather than the toll of combat duty. He also has virtually no Pet the Dog moments and his undoing at the court martial is more from getting caught in numerous lies rather than his breakdown.
  • Adaptational Intelligence: Judge Advocate Jack Challee demonstrates some rather baffling courtroom strategy in the novel, such as objecting to Greenwald asking leading questions during cross-examination (being able to ask leading questions is one of the key traits of cross-examination, and it's one of the reasons a good lawyer needs to prepare witnesses before getting to trial), often re-objecting after being overruled, and multiple times making objections without even a proper basis. His antics being to very demonstrably irritate chief judge Blakely as the trial wears on. None of this behavior is demonstrated in the film version.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The movie makes Keefer into much more of a slimeball by significantly playing up his manipulative behavior, while removing almost all of his sympathetic moments.
  • Adaptation Distillation:
    • The movie cuts 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.
    • Wouk's play features only the court-martial scenes and one scene after the trial ends. All the action of the first two-thirds of the book is simply talked about during the characters' testimony.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Judge Advocate Jack Challee, who prosecutes Maryk, eschews being a Punch-Clock Villain by making the case very personal, regularly insults or trivializes the concerns of the accused and the other officers of the Caine in his questioning, launches numerous petty objections at Greenwald, and is implied to be an anti-semite. None of these traits show through in the film version.
  • 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 nonsense 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. Bogart is so magnificently in the role at this point that he is visibly on the verge of tears, holding them back (as Queeg) only by monumental effort
  • 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.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Greenwald asks one of the mutineers during his "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
    "You didn't approve of his conduct as an officer — he wasn't WORTHY of your loyalty! So you turned on him. You ragged him — you made up songs about him. If you'd given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon? [to Maryk] You're an honest man, Steve, I'm asking you. You think it would've been necessary for you to take over?"
  • Artistic License – Ships: In the novel, the Caine is a Clemson-class flush deck four-piper destroyer-minesweeper conversion built in 1918 for World War I and thoroughly outdated and obsolete as destroyers by World War II, thus the conversion for second-line tasks, based on Wouk's service on Zane and Southard of the same class. As all of the real Clemson-class destroyers (and visually-identical Wickes- 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, the Caine is instead represented by several Gleaves-class destroyers which were built in 1941 and 42, making the comments of it being a rustbucket ready for the scrappers out of place for what should be almost brand new ships.
  • 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 a Jewish reserve officer — an outsider in a Navy run by Anglo-Saxon Protestant Regular Navy men. Writer Ron Kampeas speculated that Greenwald represents the plight of American Jews like Wouk during World War II.
  • 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."
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Both Willie and Keefer long to see Captain DeVriess replaced with a more by-the-book Navy man. They get their wish in the form of Queeg and quickly come realize how good they had it under DeVriess.
  • 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.
  • Bothering by the Book:
    • Maryk going by the book is partially what saves his bacon. The Navy realizes they can't charge him with mutiny because he never actually committed it as he relieved Queeg but remained in contact with and under the command of the appropriate Navy superiors above Queeg. As the JAG prosecutor puts it, Maryk misapplied the law, he didn't break it.
    • Keefer talks Maryk out of presenting their evidence to Admiral Halsey for this reason: everything Queeg has done so far is within regulations (such as ordering everyone to wear their helmets and lifejackets during action or enforcing the Navy's dress and grooming standards), which would make them come off as complaining about having to follow regulations.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Tom Keefer, who is an excellent writer and codebreaker who can run through an entire week's worth of coded messages in minutes where it would take others hours or days. But he's apathetic towards all his naval duties and gets pissed when Queeg tells him he's not allowed to write his novel until his duties are all finished.
  • Brutal Honesty: Captain DeVriess does his best to dispel Willie Keith's romanticism of the Navy when he first boards the Caine, outright admitting the ship is a hunk of junk and not the carrier or battleship Keith had in mind. He also calls out that Keith has higher powers who are trying to pull strings to make Keith's life easier by getting him an opportunity to transfer to a cushy staff job. He then forces Keith to choose between taking the job or staying with the ship.
  • Character Development: Willie Keith matures a lot over the course of the novel. He starts out as a spoiled rich kid, and ends up becoming a responsible man who is fit to command a warship.
  • 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.
  • Cowardly Yellow: Capt. Queeg releases a yellow dye into the water as he retreats, earning the nickname "Ol' Yellowstain" as a reference to his apparent cowardice.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: In the novel, Keith receives a 3/5 on his service testimonial, with Commander DeVriess commenting that Keith "[...] seems to have the potential for becoming a capable officer [...]," obviously implying that he isn't one. However, it's actually a gambit on DeVriess's part, as he shows Keith the report as a way of saying "Prove me wrong". He actually defends Keith as a fine officer during Queeg's transfer of command.
  • Dead Man Writing: In the book, Dr. Keith gives a letter to Willie telling him not read it until he arrives on the Caine. Delayed in Hawaii, Willie reads it only to learn his father was dying when he wrote the letter and had died several days before he read it.
  • 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 and movie, at least, it's heavily implied that it's more due to having been on active duty for too damn long and had too many traumatic experiences (including the deaths of many friends on a previous ship sunk by a German U-boat) than being a coward, since by all accounts he served with distinction in the Atlantic escorting convoys (where he notably wasn't in command).
    • One of the parts of the book that didn't make it into the movie is even more damning than the yellow stain incident. During the landings, another U.S. destroyer comes under fire from a shore battery that the Caine is in a position to engage. Rather than come to the other ship's aid, Queeg orders the Caine to flee. This seriously disgusts everyone who learns about it, including the officers presiding over Maryk's court martial.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Queeg turns the men of the Caine against himself by 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.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: In the movie, when Greenwald cross-examines Queeg at the court-martial, he manages to get Queeg warmed up over the matter of the strawberries and the allegedly missing key. Queeg launches into a rambling tirade about how all of his officers were conspiring against him, then stops dead after he realizes just how crazy he sounds to his audience.
  • A Father to His Men: Captain DeVriess. Under him, the Caine performs admirably (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 contrast 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".
  • The Ghost: Admiral William Halsey, who Maryk and Keefer try to see to get Queeg removed from command. It was Halsey who decided to try and brave the typhoon, which sets in motion the mutiny.
  • 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 Maryk and Keith an acquittal, then delivers an epic "The Reason You Suck" Speech in which he calls out the officers of the Caine for betraying 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. The Caine officers have a collective one when Greenwald forces them to realize how badly they failed to help Queeg when he needed it. Even Keefer quietly accepts his tongue-lashing instead of offering his usual wise cracks.
    • Notably in the book, Queeg does not have one. While in the movie, he comes to realize he's speaking nonsense after about twenty seconds, in the book Queeg rambles on for almost ten minutes before stopping and is perfectly content with what he said.
    • The book has Keefer get his own when he’s made captain after the trial, only to succumb to cowardice himself during a Japanese attack. The knife is twisted further after the war ends and he learns his brother died heroically in a similar attack.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Queeg in the middle of the typhoon. He just clings to the calling system and stares blankly into space. The main reason why Maryk had to take the helm.
    • In the book, after a year of abuse from Queeg and a crisis involving his wife, Stilwell snaps when charged with mutiny. He lies down in his bunk and basically shuts down. The crew eventually has to carry him off the ship and he's hospitalized with acute melancholia.
  • Honesty Is the Best Policy: In the book, when Willie and the other cadets reach the end of midshipman school they are given a form to request the three top postings they'd like. The cadets debate whether or not the Navy is secretly testing them and try to figure out how to game the system. Turns out it wasn't a test and almost everyone gets the top posting they requested, for better or worse. Of course since they're in the military and it's wartime, just because they get the posting they request doesn't mean they'll stay there as Willie and Roland Keefer later find out.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: May and Willie have sex for the first time when he's on leave after spending months on the Caine. Afterwards, Willie proposes to May, but she tells him: "I don’t want you to marry me because you’re sorry for me, or because you want to do the manly thing by me". In the end, they neither marry nor break up.
  • Hollywood Law: When Lt. Maryk and Ens. Keith are on trial for mutiny, Greenwald is "considering" taking the case. In fact, he states 8 other lawyers had "turned it down". This is of course ridiculous. In the U.S. Navy, lawyers are assigned their cases; not chosen themselves.
  • Hostile Weather: The typhoon, in the Real Life, the Typhoon Cobra. Known also as "Halsey's Typhoon", it 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. Herman Wouk himself had survived the typhoon onboard destroyer-minesweeper USS Zane (DMS-14).
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Maryk pretty much says this at his court martial to justify relieving Queeg, saying that his actions saved the ship and the only way to prove otherwise would have been to let the Caine sink.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Queeg calls it "geometric logic". Played pretty seriously with the strawberries incident, wherein Queeg just slides down into full-blown I Reject Your Reality territory when the guys who took the strawberries finally try to confess.
  • Interservice Rivalry: In the book there is tension between officers of the regular Navy and those of the Naval Reserve. Queeg is a regular Navy man and doesn't trust his wardroom of Reserve officers. The problem is that Queeg, despite being a Naval Academy graduate, has little sea experience and none on a destroyer minesweeper. Maryk, on the other hand, is the longest serving crew member of the Caine and was a fisherman in civilian life, but he can't get Queeq to listen to him because of his Reserve status.
  • Jerkass: Lieutenant Thomas Keefer.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Keefer's an asshole, but his amateur diagnosis of Queeg's condition is pretty much right on the money.
  • Kangaroo Court:
    • In the novel, Queeg setups one of these so he can cash Stilwell out of the Navy. The jury, which is made up of the senior officers, are polled by Queeg before their deliberations and he makes it clear in no uncertain that he wants a guilty verdict. So they convict Stilwell...and sentence him to a loss of six liberties. As he'd already been confined to the ship, it's a slap on the wrist for Stilwell and a slap in the face to Queeg.
    • Defied by the Navy when they court martial Maryk. Because of the explosive nature of the mutiny, the Navy goes out its way to ensure the trial is conducted with the utmost professionalism and that Maryk will receive a proper defense.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In his "The Reason You Suck" Speech after the trial, Greenwald calls Keefer "the real author of the Caine mutiny". Keefer is an avatar of Herman Wouk, the literal author of The Caine Mutiny.
  • Literary Allusion Title: In-story, Keefer's novel is titled Multitudes, Multitudes, which comes from The Book Of Joel 3:14 ("Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision").
  • Loophole Abuse: The crew buy Captain DeVriess a watch as a going-away present. He claims it is against regulations for him to accept it and he places it on the railing. Then he steps off the ship and is officially no longer the captain, and picks up the watch "someone left lying around."
  • Lost Food Grievance: A rare example that's both Played for Drama and a deconstruction: the "strawberry incident", which Queeg believes is Serious Business, is used to prove his incompetence. It starts out (in Queeg's mind) as a mere diversion and minor project to relieve the boredom of routine operation of the ship, but as Queeg gets more and more desperate in his quest to find a key that never existed, the nightmare grows darker and darker both for him and for the officers he relentlessly goads, never accepting any conclusion (including the truth, that some of the galley workers pilfered a few and were too afraid to admit it to Queeg) except his deduced version involving a duplicate key made from a wax impression.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Ever After: The book ends with Willie returning to New York to try and win back May Wynn, only to learn she's got a new boyfriend. However, it doesn't appear to be a serious relationship and it's left open as to whether they get back together.
  • 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.
  • Mirror Character: In the book, Keefer eventually becomes commander of the Caine and turns out to be just as inept as Queeg, eventually isolating himself in his cabin just like Queeg did. The difference, however, is that Keefer is aware of his failings as a captain and willingly allows the more competent Keith to run the ship in his absence.
  • 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. Though it turns out to be subverted, as the Navy never charges Maryk with mutiny because they know they couldn't convict him of it. They charge him with a lower and somewhat vaguer offense instead.
  • Naked First Impression: Captain DeVriess is completely naked and on his way to the shower when Keith first meets him. DeVriess thinks nothing of it, though it unsettles Keith.
  • The Neidermeyer:
    • Captain Queeg is the Real Life Trope Namer, hence the expression "Queeg-like".
    • In the book, it's implied the captain of the Caine's sister ship Moulton is, somehow, even worse than Queeg.
  • 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, then denies any involvement when it's time to face the music.
  • Nervous Tics: Captain Queeg has a nervous habit of rolling around some glass beads in his hand. When he does this at a court martial hearing, it pretty much guarantees that he'll be released for being mentally unstable.
  • New Meat: Willie Keith is the most junior officer aboard the Caine and it shows. He's unable to discern between a flight of Japanese warplanes and a flock of seagulls. The more senior officers try to take him under their wing for both good, like Maryk and DeVriess, and ill, like Keefer and Queeg.
  • Noodle Incident: The court martial of Bellison and Crowe. All we know is that it involved a riot in Auckland, and that DeVriess 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:
    • In the movie, 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.
    • In the book, despite Queeg being an even bigger jerkass he still gets two small moments. The first is when he affably supports Keith's promotion to lieutenant junior grade, something Keith didn't expect. The second is when we find out at the the court martial that, despite his threats to do otherwise, he'd actually given Maryk a glowing fitness report and recommended him for his own command of a destroyer minesweeper. Ironically, this is what ultimately destroys Queeg, as he'd spent his entire testimony raving that Maryk was a below standard officer.
    • In the book, Keefer gets quite a few of these moments, allowing him to remain sympathetic. He's a genuine friend to Maryk, something of a big brother to Keith, and his desire to get Queeg removed from command is out of genuine fear for the safety of the ship. He's aware of his failings as a captain when he takes over and his final act is to get himself removed from command so Keith can officially serve as captain on the final trip home.
  • The Peter Principle: Aside from being a tired man, it's implied that this is part of the problem with Queeg as the Sparknotes analysis of the book has pointed out that his steady by-the-book, perfectionist nature and adherence to discipline would have made him an excellent Captain in a peacetime situation. But when placed in a combat situation, he falls apart when being asked to perform tasks in a leadership position for which he is unprepared and to command sailors more educated and skilled than he is and used to a bit of autonomy from their previous commander.
  • Pre-War Civilian Career: Before the war, Keefer was a fisherman, which is contrasted with career officer Queeg, who was on duty before the war and served in the grueling Battle of the Atlantic. Greenwald was a lawyer who joined as a fighter pilot, but was grounded due to injuries and changed trade to legal officer.
  • Punch-Clock Hero: Lieutenant Greenwald only defends Maryk out of dedication to duty. Once the trial is over and he punches out, he tells Maryk and the Caine officers (especially Keefer) exactly what he thinks of them.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Maryk is acquitted, but his naval career is destroyed. Keefer meanwhile loses the respect of most of his fellow men, and ends up torpedoing his own naval career after taking up the captain's position and proving to be just as much a Dirty Coward as Queeg in the heat of battle.
  • Rank Up: At the end of the film, Keith is promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade and DeVriess returns as a full commander (with it implied that Keith is his new XO). In the book, this happens fairly often, with Keefer and eventually Keith promoted to commander of the Caine.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Willie is awarded the Bronze Star for saving the Caine after the kamikaze attack.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • After the trial Greenwald gives one to the Caine crew and especially to Lt. Keefer.
    • Followed by his tossing a drink in Keefer's face and challenging him to do something about it.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: In the book, it's implied Keith is posted to the Caine as punishment for almost being expelled from midshipman school. After the court martial, Maryk is given command of a landing ship (in what's implied to be peacetime, making the position useless) and Queeg is sent to a supply depot in Iowa, which signals the end of both of their careers in the Navy.
  • Riddle for the Ages: For Queeg, at least, 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. In the movie, galley workers admit to Maryk and Keith that they pilfered a few strawberries, but once he's reached his conclusion, by "geometric logic", Queeg doesn't believe them, even after they confess.
  • The Scapegoat: Keefer supports Lt. Maryk in his mutiny plot at first, but backs out and leaves him to be blamed. While Maryk is tried under a general article ("conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline") rather than for actual mutiny, is acquitted of those charges, and the whole thing is something of an pretense to test Queeg's mental fitness, Maryk is still reassigned to Landing Craft Infantry as an unofficial demotion.
  • Scary Science Words: The book takes a brief detour to illustrate just how overwhelmed the landlubber Keith is by both nautical jargon and U.S. Navy slang.
    "Sir, it was my fault," spoke up the boatswain's mate. He began an alibi which sounded to Willie like this: "The port bandersnatch got fouled in the starboard rath when we tried to galumph the cutting cable so as not to trip the snozzle again. I had to unshackle the doppelganger and bend on two snarks instead so we could launch in a hurry."
    "Well," said De Vriess, "couldn't you have vorpaled the sillabub or taken a turn on the chortle wort? That way the jaxo would be clear of the varse and you could forget about the dudelsak. It would have done the same thing."
    "Yes, sir," said Bellison. "That might work okay. I’ll try it tomorrow."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, more so in the movie than the book.
  • So Was X: After Queeg shares his no-nonsense command philosophy with the other officers:
    Keith: Well, he's certainly Navy.
    Keefer: Yeah. So was Captain Bligh.
  • 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.
  • Stunned Silence: In the movie, when Queeg has his breakdown, everyone else in the courtroom just stares at him in shock and pity.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Arguably Keith, who doesn't really advance the plot much until after the eponymous mutiny and the court-martial is finished. Maryk comes across more as The Hero of the story, and Keefer, Greenwald and Queeg also make for much more active 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.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Maryk looks very sad when Queeg has his breakdown and he and the other Caine officers come to admit they failed Queeg as much as he failed them.
  • This Is the Part Where...: In the film, after Queeg gives his speech after the "yellow-stain" incident, the other officers all stare silently at the table until Keefer says, "This is what is known in literature as a 'pregnant pause'."
  • 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.
  • Undying Loyalty: Subverted. As the Caine's executive officer, Maryk has this for DeVriess and initially for Queeg. Unfortunately, Keefer's poisonous influence destroys it.
  • 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.
  • Verbal Tic: Queeg has a couple of them - "'kay?" and "I kid you not."
  • 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 Catholic Italian immigrants.
  • 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.
  • You Are in Command Now: In the book, after the court martial, Keefer is given command of the Caine. After the war ends, he turns the ship over to Keith for the final trip home.