David Hoppe

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:: The Caine Mutiny

We're all on board

By David Hoppe

Ever seen the movie, The Caine Mutiny ? As the title indicates, the film is about the takeover of a ship during World War II.

The action takes place aboard a Navy mine sweeper in the Pacific. According to the film, mine sweepers were considered the drek of the fleet, the place where inexperienced sailors and washed-up skippers were sent to be tested or finish their careers.

Humphrey Bogart plays Capt. Queeg, an officer who takes command of a ship that's fallen on hard times. Discipline is lax, officers and enlisted men treat each other casually, bad attitudes are on open display.

Unfortunately, it's not long before Queeg's fellow officers begin to suspect that their captain has a few flaws of his own. He has a disconcerting way of flying off the handle over little things, like a sailor's shirt-tail not being tucked in, while completely overlooking much bigger problems like, for example, his ship's sailing round in circles.

Anybody who's ever had a dodgy boss can relate to this story. Queeg makes mistakes - errors of judgment and flat-out blunders. But rather than take responsibility for these gaffes, or ask for help, he tries to paper over what's happened or, worse, pass the blame on to subordinates.

The officers serving under Queeg gossip among themselves about the captain's erratic behavior. A couple of them think Queeg's lost it and one begins keeping a log of incidents involving the captain to try and see if there is actually a trend developing. At one point, they consider going to the admiral in charge of the fleet to report their suspicions. They back down at the last minute, fearing they won't be believed and could be accused of treachery.

Events reach a climax during a storm at sea. The Caine is literally being torn apart by heavy waves. But, on the bridge, Capt. Queeg seems paralyzed. He won't listen to the advice of his officers and what directions he does give only appear to place the ship and crew in greater jeopardy. With things on the brink of veering completely out of control, Queeg's second in command takes charge and, with the support of other officers, relieves Queeg of his post. The Caine is successfully guided through the storm and brought to port, where a trial ensues over whether the mutiny was justified or a criminal act.

No one, it seems, wants to defend the mutineers. There's a war on, and the act of wresting a ship away from its captain could set a dangerous precedent. Nevertheless, a military lawyer reluctantly agrees to take the case.

It doesn't look good for the defense. Although the record of Queeg's behavior raises questions, there's no absolute proof that he was mentally ill. But when Queeg takes the stand, everything changes. Obsessively clicking a pair of steel balls in the palm of his hand, Queeg cracks up when he's asked to relate the chain of events that took place aboard his ship.

The mutineers are exonerated. Now they're heroes.

Except the story includes a coda. As the officers - along with everyone in the audience -- celebrate their acquittal, the lawyer who defended them crashes the party. He's drunk and belligerent and, while he says the verdict was correct, he blames the Caine's officers for letting things get out of hand. He says the wrong man was convicted. Queeg, he tells the officers, spent his life defending America. Queeg and his kind kept the country safe so the officers (and the rest of us) could lead their lives, could, indeed, come to regard Queeg as a loony martinet.

It's a dandy scene, a vintage slice of sturdy mid-20 th century American humanism that we rarely see these days. For almost two hours we witness what amounts to an open-and-shut case for rebellion. The story makes it clear that the officers on the Caine were more than justified in taking the law into their own hands; their lives depended on it.

As the trial unfolds, and it looks like the two officers who took charge during the storm could face hanging for what they did, the injustice of this potential ending is practically sickening.

But the story, which was originally a novel by Herman Wouk, who turned his book into a play, slams on the brakes. As unhinged as Queeg is, he also represents an idea of order -- order we overthrow at our peril. Wouk makes it clear the mutiny is not heroic - it is a tragedy that undermines a way of life.

There's a metaphor here worth contemplating. As 2010 comes to a close, Barack Obama's administration seems to be foundering. Some see the president's failings as cause for celebration. Others feel betrayed. Most of us, though, are like the sailors on the Caine: hanging on and hoping our ship makes it home in one piece.