Bright Lights Film Journal

Tunes of Mutiny, or Making the Job Bearable: On The Caine Mutiny

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Actually, in most cases, the new boss overstrives to be different from the old boss. To the point of pursuing a diametrically opposed way. Where I taught high school a few year ago, a new principal irritated the staff by enforcing rules for students, as well as for teachers, which had lain in the dust for many years. After a couple minor successes, she thought she could tackle bigger game.

Get the kids to tuck in their shirttails.

The teachers, however, couldn’t be convinced to give detentions for this offence. The principal harangued students in the corridor and over the loudspeaker, reminded teachers at faculty meetings, for several months. She wouldn’t desist on the shirttail issue despite other pressing problems, like slipping academic standards. Students, meanwhile, felt that the principal didn’t really care about them nor seemed to want to be at the school.

Amidst the uniform problem and the growing teacher and student resentment toward the principal, I couldn’t resist thinking of Captain Queeg of The Caine Mutiny (1954), not so much Bogart’s Nixon-like paranoiac performance but the course leading to the mutiny. Queeg too was trying to make his mark on his new but not especially glamorous command. In his limited imagination, doing things “by the book” amounted to a profound attempt to shape up the semi-misfit crew of the U.S.S. Caine.

Save for the movie’s narrator, Ensign Keith (Robert Francis), Queeg’s staff led by Lt. Maryk (Van Johnson) viewed their commander skeptically from the start; then their skepticism became sheer mockery for “Old Yellowstain.” By enforcing the shirttail rule at the wrong moment, Queeg’s authority could not recover — just as pressing problems at my school seemed to be ignored by a principal obsessed with getting kids to look dignified with proper uniforms.

Queeg is not a bad man. However, when things continue to go wrong, he’s incapable of looking at himself for some of the blame. He’s a poor man’s Patton (curiously, Nixon watched the movie Patton (1970) very often in the White House and was himself dedicated to draconian protocol and appearance — draw your own conclusions). There will always be a “frozen strawberries” incident that will expose his neurotic anxieties. Queeg will see only conspiracies, plots, not simple solutions.

The incipient and brooding sentiments against Queeg needed nourishment, which brings us to the film’s true moral worm, Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray), another “book” man, a novelist-to-be and armchair psychologist. He fuels the staff’s minds with enough claptrap to convince Maryk and Keith that Queeg’s mentally unfit to command the ship. Keefer’s position as advisor but not full participant in the relieving of Queeg’s command absolves him of responsibility for this advice. At the court-martial, he completely bails out on Maryk and Keith, leaving the impression that Queeg was not unfit.

Fortunately for the mutineers, Queeg self-destructs. And, although the situation never reached these extremes at my school, the principal had to deal with an allegedly insubordinate teacher, as well as an entire crew of juniors who believed that the principal hated them. Both the teacher and the juniors appealed to the principal’s superior to investigate their grievances.

Most of the teachers’ sympathy did not go to the principal. Although one teacher, who had shared the principal’s aversion to untucked shirttails, erupted one day in a hysterical tirade against a couple of ninth-graders and a tenth-grader. After school, no less! The ninth-graders were in tears. Faculty within listening distance didn’t want to show their faces for the next hour, not only because of the guilt by association but because the eruption was caused by the very issue that we had felt the principal had carried too far. The policy, the principal, the hot-headed teacher, and the entire faculty stood discredited.

Yet this incident seemed meaningful because of its resemblance to a similar outburst by John Mills in Tunes of Glory (1960). Moreover, upon further reflection, this movie likewise paralleled the situation and actions of The Caine Mutiny.

A new commander, Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills), is appointed to a peacetime Scottish regiment which has been run loosey-goosey. Few men like him, first, for his being a stickler for the rules, going by the book; second, everyone thinks Colonel Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) should have gotten the job. At every turn, Sinclair undercuts Barrow’s authority. Barrow, like Queeg, thinks that he can have his way and cut a singular figure as a commander by being unbending and demanding absolute adherence to the rules. This type of management might be considered “anal,” that is, the commander or boss cannot respond flexibly or creatively to a crisis. Whereas Queeg lost it when the Caine enters a typhoon, Barrow’s hysterical impulse is triggered at a social gathering between the townspeople and the regiment. He has told his men that, unlike previous years, they will not be allowed to dance a certain Dionysian jig. In drunken reverie during the party, the men dance anyway. Barrow, like the teacher seeing the shirttails, starts shouting and screaming for the men to stop, to the point that he jumps up and down in a tantrum. Suddenly the music stops, the men still themselves, everyone watches the mortified Barrow, who knows his command authority is over.

But Sinclair and other officers won’t let up. In particular, Major Charlie Scott (Dennis Price) betrays Barrow’s trust and sows discord, much like Lt. Keefer in Caine Mutiny. Scott is ambiguous, distant, in the struggle between Barrow and his staff, but Scott’s treachery provides the final measure to crush Barrow, who hangs himself. The victory, however, proves too much for Sinclair. In a great emotional final scene, Sinclair collapses beneath the weight of his responsibility for Barrow’s suicide.

Beware of what you wish for.

* * *

Barrow, Queeg, my principal.
Sinclair, Maryk and Keith, the teachers.
Scott, Keefer, and. . . .

Who should fill this last role to make the parallels complete? The insubordinate teacher (who was transferred) or the members of the junior class? Better, maybe, a faculty member who thought the teachers were spoiled and pampered from years of having things their way and not worth anyone’s sympathy. Someone, though, who cringed at the principal’s forced optimism and reliance on chickenshit rules to get by.

The defense lawyer at the Caine mutiny court-martial, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), turns to Lt. Keefer after the trial and says, “You’ll publish a novel, you’ll make a million bucks, you’ll marry a big movie star, and, for the rest of your life, you’ll live with your conscience, if you have any.” I hardly could get an article, let alone a novel, least of all one-millionth of a million dollars, from these episodes at school. Yet when life occasionally imitates the movie, it make the job bearable — for a while — until I get fooled again by thinking I want a new boss.