Published in 1951, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny is set aboard the fictional USS Caine, a destroyer-minesweeper assigned to the Pacific Fleet in WWII.
SPOILERS AHEAD! This book is heavily character-focused, so the plot section will be long.
The story follows the young Willis “Willie” Seward Keith, a spoiled graduate of Princeton University who plays the piano at nightclubs and generally lives a privileged lifestyle. While playing at a club, he meets and begins a relationship with the club singer Marie Minotti (AKA May Wynn), the daughter of Italian immigrants. As the U.S. enters WWII, Keith enters Midshipman School (today referred to as Officer Candidate School) at Columbia University. Despite accruing a significant number of demerits for various foul-ups, Keith is commissioned as an Ensign and assigned to the USS Caine (DMS-22), a fictional WWI-era “four-piper” destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific.
Note: Sources differ as to whether or not the fictional USS Caine was a converted Wickes-class or a Clemson-class destroyer. Both were very similar in appearance. Keith’s drawing of the ship is even more misleading since it depicts only 2 funnels and is grossly out of proportion.
After a brief stint of entertaining an admiral in Hawaii with his piano talents, Keith catches up with the Caine and meets the other officers, especially Lieutenants Tom Keefer, the communications officer, and Steve Maryk, the First Lieutenant. Keith quickly takes a disliking to the decrepit condition of the crew and the ship, as well as to the captain, Lieutenant Commander De Vreiss. Captain De Vreiss has a slovenly, unorthodox, and lackadaisical command style, but is well-respected by the crew and gets an efficient performance out of them and the ship. However, he continuously harps on Keith for his slack performance and pompous attitude towards duties that he considers beneath him. Keith is assigned as the assistant communications officer under LT Keefer and begins to learn the different personalities aboard the ship and the performance of his duties.
Captain De Vreiss is soon relieved by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg who has come from convoy duty aboard destroyers in the Atlantic. It soon becomes clear that Queeg has a much more uptight command style than De Vreiss, which Keith initially feels is suitable for turning the ship and crew into something more presentable and Navy-like. Unfortunately, the officers and crew quickly begin to learn that Queeg is petty and frequently dishes out harsh punishments for minor infractions, such as docking liberty for not wearing life jackets or reading while on watch. Queeg also exhibits a nervous habit of fidgeting with a pair of steel ball bearings he keeps in his pocket. Having never handled a minesweeper before, Queeg also demonstrates poor ship-handling abilities, and he frequently ignores sound suggestions and attempts from the crew to correct his mistakes. For example, he brushes up against the side of the destroyer they’re tied up next to and then runs the ship aground while backing away from the buoy and getting underway. Later, he nearly causes the Caine to collide with a battleship while transiting down the wrong side of a channel in heavy fog*. Despite these serious incidents, Queeg denies any personal fault, shifts the blame to other sailors for his mistakes, and makes it clear that under his command, he will always have the last word.
*FYI, I don’t know how things worked in WWII, but nowadays, any of those incidents will result in the skipper being relieved of command.
The crew of the Caine starts to settle into a routine under their new captain, however, incidents continue to occur, both in training and during combat. While towing a target sled off Pearl Harbor, Queeg orders the helmsman to turn and loses situational awareness while reprimanding a sailor for not having his shirt tucked in. Consequently, with the helmsman afraid to deviate from Queeg’s orders for fear of reprimand, the Caine circles back around and steams over the towline, cutting the target sled adrift. During the invasion of Kwajalein, the Caine is ordered to escort some landing craft to the shore. Prior to reaching the line of departure, Queeg prematurely orders the men to throw over a yellow dye marker and promptly leave the area. Due to this incident, the crew quickly gives Queeg the moniker, “Old Yellowstain,” in reference to his cowardice.
As their cruise continues, Queeg isolates himself in his cabin and gives orders indirectly. The Caine spends several months on convoy escort duty throughout the Pacific and Queeg cements himself as a martinet by restricting the water usage near the equator and cutting off the showing of movies; further eroding the morale of the crew. Keith notes that in combat, Queeg tends to shelter himself on the side of the ship that’s opposite the incoming fire. During the invasion of Saipan, a nearby destroyer comes under fire from a shore battery, but instead of engaging the battery and assisting the destroyer, Queeg orders the Caine to retreat from the area. Later on, a quart of frozen strawberries is found to be missing, whereupon Queeg orders the ship and crew to be exhaustively searched for a duplicate key to the freezer that he is convinced exists, despite an officer coming forward with a confession from several of the mess stewards.
Throughout the cruise, Queeg’s erratic and paranoid behavior flares the tempers of the officers who gradually lose respect and loyalty for him. Eventually, Lieutenant Keefer convinces Lieutenant Maryk, now the Executive Officer, that Queeg may be mentally unstable, citing Navy Regulations Articles 184, 185, and 186, regarding the possibility of relieving Queeg of command under extraordinary circumstances. As a result, Maryk begins to keep a “medical log” chronicling Queeg’s eccentricities, harsh punishments, and paranoid behaviors. All of this comes to head when, stuck in a typhoon (Typhoon Cobra AKA Halsey’s Typhoon) and in danger of foundering, Queeg freezes up in a panic, forcing Maryk to assume command. Keith, as Officer of the Deck, supports Maryk’s actions. Despite protests from Queeg, Maryk safety brings the Caine through the storm.
When they arrive back in San Francisco, Maryk is court-martialed for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.” Keith is to be tried pending the outcome of Maryk’s trial. Maryk’s defense attorney is Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a civilian lawyer-turned-naval aviator. While testifying, Keefer effectively removes himself from any responsibility in the act of relieving Queeg. With three Navy psychiatrists having given Queeg a clean bill of mental health, the weight of the evidence and further testimonies appear damning to Maryk’s case. That is until Queeg takes the stand. During his cross-examination, Greenwald relentlessly questions Queeg to the point of getting him to go on a long and contradictory rant about the disloyalty of his officers; effectively incriminating himself. In the end, Maryk is acquitted and Keith is spared a trial.
While celebrating Maryk’s acquittal and Keefer’s new book deal, Greenwald interrupts the party and admonishes Keefer for manipulating the officers against Queeg. He notes that while all of the reserve officers were enjoying life in peacetime, the regulars, like Queeg, were standing watch over the nation and keeping Greenwald’s Jewish family from being turned into bars of soap. After calling Keefer, “the true author of The Caine Mutiny” he throws a glass of champagne in Keefer’s face and walks out.
Despite aspiring to a command in the regular Navy, Maryk instead ignominiously ends his career as the captain of a Landing Craft Infantry and Queeg is transferred to a supply depot in Iowa*. Keith returns to the Caine as the Executive Officer while Keefer takes command. Despite their shared experiences, Keefer turns out to be as much of a hard disciplinarian as Queeg, but when the Caine is hit by a kamikaze off of Okinawa, Keefer gives the order to abandon ship and jumps overboard. Keith, in contrast, rallies the remaining crew and saves the ship. Upon being rescued, Keefer commends Keith for his levelheadedness, recommending him for the Navy Cross, and admits his own cowardice (comparing himself to Lord Jim).
*Simplistically speaking, for unrestricted line officers, getting a non-combat assignment/command basically means the end of their careers and is the Navy’s way of saying that it no longer finds them useful.
With the war nearly over, the Caine finally sweeps several mines and the crew spends the remainder of their time making minor repairs on the damaged ship. Ironically, Keith receives a Bronze Star (in lieu of the recommended Navy Cross) for his actions during the kamikaze hit and a letter of reprimand for his part in the mutiny, both on the same day. As it turns out, a higher review of the court-martial overturned the findings, and Keith reflects that relieving Queeg was probably unnecessary.
After the war ends, Keith is given command of the Caine and sails her back to New Jersey to be decommissioned. Having previously come to the realization of his love for May Wynn during the kamikaze attack, Keith tracks her down and proposes to her, but finds that she is now in a relationship with a jazz musician. The story ends with Keith and May watching a ticker-tape parade celebrating the end of the war; the future of their relationship is unresolved.
Unlike other war novels, there’s not much action in the book. It’s mostly about the officers and is a very character-driven story. Thankfully, Wouk is a good writer, and the book received the Pulitzer Prize.
Generally speaking, Wouk’s skill as a writer definitely shows. The book is well-written and paced. Unlike other war novels, The Caine Mutiny relies heavily on its character arcs to tell the story. We see Keith undergo a lot of development from being a spoiled Ensign to a more experienced Lieutenant and mature man by the end of the novel. There’s a lot of depth to the other characters, as well, and all of their interactions are believable, too.
The only major issue I have with the story is that the romance subplot between Keith and May Wynn is a little dry and doesn’t have much payoff until the last 1/4th of the novel. To the modern reader, the whole issue with May’s ethnic Italian background and lower social class just reek of prejudice and not a little elitism. Furthermore, the portrayal of the black mess stewards, particularly their speech, is pretty stereotypical, with phrases such as, “Yassuh!” and “Chowduh, suh.” I half expected one of them to call the officers “Uncle Charlie” and “Massuh.” Thank God, Wouk didn’t go down that path. Another issue comes up during the court-martial when one of the psychiatrists testifies about the Freudian excuses for Queeg’s behavior. Anyone who has studied psychology or psychiatry knows that, while Freud was a pioneer in the field, his theories on psychoanalysis have been largely dismissed as unscientific in the current field. As a result, it definitely dates the book. However, it does provide an interesting snapshot into the societal values of the time. Remember, this book was published in the ’50s.
With regard to the infamous LCDR Queeg, in some ways, I felt a little sorry for him…just a little, though, not a lot. Yes, he was petty, in denial, divorced from reality, and incompetent, but by the end of the book, I got the feeling that Queeg was a victim of the Peter Principle, which is where a person is eventually promoted beyond their level of competence. It’s implied (in the film, as well) that Queeg had served for too long and had finally cracked under the stress of command. The officers aboard the Caine certainly didn’t make things any easier. While Maryk was a brave and competent sailor, the real fault lies with the manipulative Keefer who brought up the suggestion of Queeg’s mental instability and a mutiny in the first place. As a result, the rest of the ship adopts an “us vs. the captain” mentality when it came to Queeg.
That being said, the book portrays Keefer much more sympathetically than the film (Actor Fred MacMurray portrays him superbly as this conniving, manipulative, bastard that you just want to punch in the face). He treats Keith in an almost brotherly fashion when he comes aboard and serves as a cynical, intellectual counterpoint to Keith’s naivete. Although Keefer has similar pettiness and even greater cowardice than Queeg, the difference is that he has the self-awareness to admit his faults and lets the more competent Keith run the ship after the kamikaze attack.
I’ve heard that many consider this to be an accurate depiction of life aboard a destroyer in the Pacific during WWII (similar to how Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea accurately depicted life aboard British corvettes & frigates in the Atlantic). Given that both authors included autobiographical experiences in their novels, it makes sense. I’ve also heard that the personalities of the officers in The Caine Mutiny are a good depiction of the surface warfare community. The stereotype is that Surface Warfare Officers are all hyper-ambitious, backstabbing opportunists, who will gladly throw you under the bus just to advance their own careers.
That stereotype definitely applies to Queeg and Keefer. Except that Keefer, being a writer, has a very erudite, pompous, and cynical, albeit somewhat accurate, way of looking at the Navy which he describes to the new and inexperienced Keith:
It’s all child’s play. The work has been fragmentized by a few excellent brains at the top, on the assumption that near-morons will be responsible for each fragment. The assumption is sound enough for peacetime. There’s a handful of brilliant boys who come into the Navy with the long purpose of becoming the nation’s admirals, and they succeed invariably because there’s no competition. For the rest the Navy is a third-rate career for third-rate people, offering a sort of skimpy security in return for twenty or thirty years of a polite penal servitude. What self-respecting American of even average gifts, let alone superior ones, will enter such a life? Well, now, comes a war, and the gifted civilians swarm into the service. Is it any wonder that they master in a matter of weeks what the near-morons painfully acquire in years? …The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and commonsense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them.p. 110-111
Keefer’s evaluation isn’t entirely off the mark. The military is very much a reflection of the population it serves, and there’s no shortage of geniuses, average Joes, and complete imbeciles in the ranks. True, most naval officers will never become an admiral, but many don’t want to or aren’t willing to stoop to the levels of cronyism required to get that far. For officers, anything less than a stellar fitness report means bye-bye to promotions and sayonara to your career (which is essentially what happened to Queeg and Maryk, in the end).
It’s probably more of a reflection of the nature of a conscripted military, as well as the tensions between the regular Annapolis graduates, and the reserve officers who got their commission through Officer Candidate School (colloquially known as 90-day wonders) that Keefer is hinting at. Indeed, many of those social and political tensions are still there. In contrast to Keefer, many people don’t view the service so cynically. True, a lot of the work isn’t exactly rocket science, but it’s an opportunity to challenge yourself, learn new skills (even if much of the training is boring and you’re patronized most of the time), and serve your country. That being said, I don’t know exactly how qualifications worked in the WWII-era U.S. Navy, but in today’s service, you are well-trained and assessed for everything you do. If you want to do job XYZ, then you gotta get trained and pass the assessment to qualify for it. Usually, the passing mark is pretty high (75-90%), so you’re not going to scrape by on a D average. You get out of it what you put into it. Sounds like Keefer (already high off of his self-prescribed intellectual superiority) didn’t feel like he was being well-compensated or intellectually challenged enough by the lowly Navy busy work and the peons above or below him.
Overall, I’d give Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, a 4.5 out of 5.
The Film Adaptation
Released in 1954 and directed by Edward Dmytryk, the film stars Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Robert Francis, Fred MacMurray, and Jose Ferrer.
The plot mostly follows that of the novel, but there are some, understandably, truncated aspects of it. Mainly, the romance in the film between Keith and May Wynn is drastically cut down and ends with them getting engaged over the phone. Also, the ending in the film is different with Keith being assigned to another destroyer, commanded by his former captain, De Vriess.
In contrast to the book where the Caine is a converted WWI “four-piper” destroyer, in the film, the Caine was portrayed by the converted Gleaves-class destroyer-minesweeper USS Thompson (DD-627/DMS-38). This makes the description of the Caine as a beat-up, old, rusty, and tired ship somewhat inaccurate since the Gleaves-class destroyers were all commissioned shortly before and during WWII.
The production apparently had some difficulty in securing the cooperation of the U.S. Navy since they were naturally hesitant about supporting the depiction of a mutiny aboard one of their vessels. Eventually, a compromise was reached and a title card at the beginning of the film makes the disclaimer that a mutiny has never occurred aboard a U.S. Navy ship. (A similar situation happened with the production of the 1995 film, Crimson Tide, which depicts a mutiny aboard an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. However, the U.S. Navy flat-out refused to cooperate with that film. Hence, why that film begins on a French aircraft carrier.)
Having seen the film before reading the novel, I couldn’t help but hear the actors’ voices in my head as I read the dialogue in the book. Indeed, once you’ve seen the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg. The film came near the end of Bogey’s career, and at that time his health began to deteriorate. However, he played the role of a paranoid maniac to a T.
As is common in Hollywood, most of the actors were far older than their real-life counterparts would have been. At 54, Bogart was too old to be Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg*. Similarly, Fred MacMurray (in his 40s) and Van Johnson (in his late-30s) would’ve been pretty old as Lieutenants Tom Keefer and Steve Maryk, respectively. That being said, their characters are both reserve officers; it’s implied that they were in the middle of their civilian careers before the war broke out and then they joined the Navy and got their commissions. This would explain why they’re fairly old to just be mere Lieutenants. Johnson did well as Maryk, the fisherman-turned-naval officer, and MacMurray was good as the smarmy, lazy, and manipulative Keefer.
*Apparently this was a point of contention during the casting process as the production was aware that Bogart would’ve been too old to be a Lieutenant Commander. History repeats itself, though, since the 60+-year-old Tom Hanks plays a Commander in the 2020 movie, Greyhound.
The only person who was reasonably close to the age of their role would be Robert Francis who portrayed the young Ensign Willie Keith. He’s also the one actor I somewhat had a problem with. Perhaps it’s due to his young age or inexperience, but I found Francis’s portrayal of Keith to be very wooden and bland*. Furthermore, the romance between Keith and May Wynn in the film is totally lacking in chemistry and cringe-worthy in places. The resolution for it is different and it has almost no bearing on Keith’s character development in the film. TVtropes refers to this as a “Romantic Plot Tumor,” where the romance is totally irrelevant to the narrative. You could literally cut it out of the film and the movie wouldn’t suffer.
*Wooden acting is common in older films since many actors traditionally trained for the stage. The art of acting and film-making has advanced significantly, and cameras catch far more subtle facial emotions. In contrast, stage actors have to exaggerate their expressions and emotions for audiences. Hence, why actors who traditionally come from the theater OFTEN…ACT…IN A…VERY…STAGEY…AND…STILTED…MANNER! OH DEAR, ME! I THINK I’M GOING TO FAINT!
Sadly, before Robert Francis had a chance to mature as an actor, he was killed in 1955 when the private plane he was piloting crashed.
Undoubtedly, most of us are more familiar with the film than the book.
While the book stays largely focused on Willie Keith, the film rapidly shifts focus to Queeg once he is introduced. But for good reason, because Robert Francis doesn’t have the same on-screen charisma as Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, or Fred MacMurray.
The romance, in the film, is one aspect I could’ve done without. It feels very dated, forced, and focused on the social mores of the time. It contributes very little, if anything, to the narrative or the development of Willie Keith.
In my opinion, the two best scenes in the film are when Queeg is being questioned during the trial, and Greenwald’s scathing speech to the officers during their party, however, there are some small differences in these scenes between the film and the book. It’s hard to imagine Bogie playing anything other than hard-boiled heroes, but the close-up camera shot on his face as he goes into his rant captures the lunacy of the Queeg character. You can slowly see him descending into madness, but he stops abruptly, catching himself pathetically rambling. Unlike the film, in the novel, Queeg rambles on for a good 8-10 minutes and doesn’t take any note of his ranting when he stops.
Greenwald’s speech at the end is masterfully executed by Jose Ferrer. Although, unlike the book, it’s directed at all of the officers, not just Keefer. Furthermore, Greenwald brings up a scene that was not in the book where the officers didn’t support Queeg when he came to them for help. Greenwald lays it on thick, calling the men out for living their privileged lives, and implies that had they helped Queeg in his time of need, then relieving Queeg wouldn’t have been necessary. He then drags Keefer over the coals for being a manipulative bastard, throws a glass of champagne in his face, and walks out.
In all fairness to Greenwald, he makes a very important point that you won’t always like or agree with your boss, but you’ve got to work with them and meet them halfway in order to get things done. However, I would argue against Greenwald’s assessment of Queeg possibly not needing to have been relieved of command. My reasoning is that Queeg was a man who was in denial that he was ever at fault, and he was probably too set in his ways to change. Queeg relished being in a position of authority where he never had to lose any arguments and always had the final say. The captain of a ship is pretty much a God at sea. Even the psychiatrists testified that Queeg had a rigid personality and over-inflated sense of self-righteousness. Subsequently, even if the other officers brought up criticisms or “suggestions” for improvement to Queeg, he was probably the kind of person who couldn’t accept criticism or “suggestions” without feeling personally offended and vindictive. In fact, throughout the film, Queeg just dismisses them every time as incompetent whining or excuses. But, who knows? How do you approach a person who is so convinced of their own superiority and righteousness that they dismiss any other alternative?
I’m sure many of us can relate to having to work for someone as petty and self-absorbed as Queeg or Keefer. We’ve all had bosses that are insane micromanagers to the nth degree! Similarly, we can all very much relate to the character of Willie Keith. Many of us remember the days when we had just graduated school or boot camp or OCS. We were proud of our accomplishments. We were young, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed. We could win the war all by ourselves and thought we had it all figured out. Some of us went off to our specialist schools and gained more book knowledge, while others decided to test the waters first. However, our illusions were quickly shattered when we arrived at our first job or unit and quickly discovered that we didn’t know jack-squat. We became the little fish in the big pond and had to essentially relearn everything from scratch. Our supervisor/sergeant/petty officer was a bastard, the boss/lieutenant was an idiot, and the CEO/commanding officer was a prick. Yep, the social dynamics and reality of the working world have a funny way of opening our eyes.
Overall, I’d give the film a solid 4 out of 5.