“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.
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.
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.
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.