Page Two: Mutiny: A Ballet in Several Parts
Part II, Illustration Not Validation
– The Caine Mutiny, opening credits
Set during World War II, The Caine Mutiny (1954) tells the story of troubles at sea on board a Navy ship, caused by ever-escalating tensions between the crew – especially the officers – and its newly assigned captain. Used to the loose and friendly ways of the ship's previous captain, they find their new commanding officer difficult because of his strictness and style of leadership. A minesweeper, the Caine is old and close to completely worn out, with its crew in not much better shape.
Produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by Edward Dmytryk, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk, the film is a classic 1950s socially conscious mainstream drama (more on this later). It features a superb cast. The story is related through the point of view of Princeton-educated, newly commissioned Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis), on board Caine as his first assignment. Just three years before his death, Humphrey Bogart gives one of his finest performances as Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, new to the Caine but a veteran of naval conflicts in the North Atlantic. The crew is led by Queeg's second in command, Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson). Other officers include Communications Officer Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray) – an aspiring novelist – the navigating helmsman Stillwell (Todd Karns), and seamen Horrible (Claude Akins) and Meatball (Lee Marvin).
The Caine is assigned to an invasion task force in the Pacific Theater. Old-school and by-the-book, Queeg incurs the dislike of the crew almost immediately. It doesn't help that he starts off by informing them, "Aboard my ship, excellent performance is standard, standard performance is substandard, and substandard performance is not permitted to exist – that, I warn you."
The situation on board rapidly deteriorates as the other officers come to distrust not just Queeg's leadership abilities but his mental stability. During a terrible storm, the officers become convinced that Queeg has finally completely lost it and is unfit to command the ship. Led by Maryk, they stage a mutiny. Queeg is imprisoned as the mutineers take over the ship.
When the Caine returns to shore, however, rather than being rewarded, Maryk is court-martialed for treason. The heart of the film is the trial that follows. Away from the stormy ocean battlefield, many of the most damning indictments of Queeg seem far less charged and outrageous. What was so evident out on the high sea, under the most intense conditions, seems far less definitive or threatening when related in a well-lit courtroom with everyone in their dress uniforms.
The film is basically about how a situation that can seem so obvious can appear completely different in retrospect. The certainty of the moment does not even distantly promise infinite validity. A set of interconnected incidents that, when experienced, seemed to be open to only one interpretation are later related under very different conditions and don't really hold together as a damning indictment. In the bright, clean light of day, rather than a coherent narrative driving toward an inevitable conclusion, it sounds like a list of minor irritants artificially forced together to make a point.
Fueled by the war and the storm, the crew's distrust of Queeg seems more and more like discontent brewed into an almost self-fulfilling prophecy. Questioning his every judgment while looking for any weakness, rather than indict Queeg, the case against him seems more like the minor grumbling of the ship's officers. Even if one accepts that Queeg is unstable, with some serious emotional problems, it is impossible to dismiss the idea that their skepticism may well have been a major factor in triggering the crisis.
Finally, even if the officers' perceptions are completely accurate, they don't appear nearly as cogent and coherent when explained in a different setting. What seems absolutely damning at sea seems petty on shore.
The Caine Mutiny brilliantly encapsulates and illustrates the ways that perception can become reality in the minds of some. When this happens, the biggest problem is not the incidents themselves, but how those experiencing them are so certain that they are absolutely right: They become convinced that their perceptions, rather than skewing things in any way because of personal beliefs, are instead the absolute truth. The consequences of viewing situations in this way can be far more deadly than any of the actions being interpreted. In the film, the consistent and exaggerated misinterpretation of intentions and incidents exacerbates the problems. As they egg each other on in a paranoid direction, at the very least the officers harbor distrust that skews normal daily interactions on board this fighting ship.
The Caine Mutiny offers no near-biblical truth, nor do its story and themes resonate as universal absolutes. Instead, it beautifully encapsulates, and thus efficiently illustrates, a number of fascinating ideas. It does seem that often during discussions between people who disagree with each other, a film, or book, or thoughts of a respected, well-known figure are often cited not simply to illustrate a point but because they contain a deeper truth. Almost always, rather than open the heart of the heavens to show what unquestionably "is," these sources simply reinforce the already established beliefs of whoever is offering them up.
This column regularly offers quotes from different sources as a way of illustrating a point but never as a way of objectively validating it. These references often far more eloquently illustrate points than does my writing. When one is watching The Caine Mutiny, normal human interactions open themselves up to be thought about in interesting ways – but the room will not suddenly glow with light or the image emerge from the screen into three-dimensional glory.
What the film does focus on is not just the distances between perception and reality but the dangers inherent in those distances. Currently, in the real world, some involved in ongoing political and social public discourse have insisted that those they are opposed to and in disagreement with are unquestionably guilty of crimes. There have been situations described as so clearly illegal that their perpetrators could be successfully indicted in front of any court in the land. Many times, certain pieces of legislation and governmental actions have been almost nonchalantly labeled unconstitutional.
If these extreme charges are metaphoric ways of making a point, that is one thing. But often they seem to be offered up not simply as indictments but as absolute convictions – as though they know the true verdict in a situation, making dragged-out, often ambiguous legal proceedings unnecessary.
One of the basic American ideals is that the law is above man and woman and that it should be administered equitably, regardless of social, political, or economic situation. In these current dialogues, the casual arrogance of "knowing" how the law would and should be applied without needing to rely on the workings of the judicial system is all too common. There are many who feel that what is just or unjust, legal or illegal should be determined almost independently of the courts, because some judges and lawyers are corrupt and the system too easily manipulated. Invariably, it turns out this has more to do with a person's absolute beliefs than any conception of blind justice.
Even without being in the courtroom or considering the evidence, these observers can declare with unquestionable authority that a court's verdict is either correct or incorrect. Essentially, this attitude insists that the frailties of how laws are administered by the judicial system so calls into question the whole system's integrity and objectivity as to make verdicts invalid. Rather, the opinions of people, especially ones that are widespread among the population, are far more valid. This is not even about jury nullification. Instead, it is about the rhetoric of those so certain of their absolute rightness that the verdicts they advocate, independent of any judicial procedures, are far more accurate than ones handed down by judge and jury.
This is not to question anyone's right to suspicion, advocacy, and questioning of legal judgments – or even being so troubled by a legal conclusion that one aggressively challenges it. It is, instead, to damn as fascist the certainty that one knows the truth and can personally administer it better than the courts; it is to damn the position that the result of any trial is so completely corrupt and wrong that individuals should be empowered to make decisions based on their absolute certainty rather than on the law. Accusations of legislating from the bench are almost always more about a person's insistence that the verdict that his or her personal ideology determines is the correct one is far better than the one rendered by the court. Fox News has made it crystal clear that those attacking the liberal bias of mainstream media cared not at all about the bias, but only about its specific political slant. Claiming Fox News is "fair and balanced" is as much a distortion of language as insisting that the only true way to support "civil rights" is to neither question nor address existing inequities and current realities that are the clear consequences of discrimination (keeping in mind that 200 years of slavery was bad enough, but more than 100 years of segregation meant the most base and prejudiced racial biases were not just acceptable but legal).
Things are not always as they seem, but actually are quite frequently very different. The conclusive clarity of a Polaroid snapshot offered as concrete and unquestionable proof of something fades over time into a much less accurate, much more limited, two-dimensional snippet of a multidimensional event. When a collection of seemingly objective evidence is offered in advocacy of a polemical thesis (especially a preconceived one), it can often be more damning than confirmational.