In brief, Ensign Willie Keith, a fictional alter ego for author Herman Wouk, was commissioned as a 90-day wonder reserve officer. He traveled to Pearl Harbor in 1943 to join the crew of the USS Caine, a destroyer converted to perform high-speed minesweeping and other support operations. Keith’s first skipper, Lieutenant Commander William H. De Vriess, struck him as too lax, so the ensign rejoiced when a new commanding officer came aboard—Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg. Queeg’s name has entered the lexicon as an insecure martinet with badly misplaced priorities. Such things as sailors’ flapping shirttails were more important than operational capability.
Queeg obsessed on small misdeeds by subordinates but flinched when challenged in action, especially when he displayed cowardice in combat. The loyalty of his executive officer, Lieutenant Steve Maryk, was in constant turmoil. He tried to defend the old man on one hand while acknowledging the complaints of junior officers on the other. The communication officer, Lieutenant Tom Keefer, was a part-time novelist and full-time cynic. He encouraged Maryk to believe that Queeg was mentally unstable. Queeg completely lost control during a typhoon, leading Maryk to relieve him of command in order to save the ship. Maryk and Keith were subsequently court-martialed for mutiny but acquitted when Queeg’s wandering testimony revealed the same qualities of paranoia and insecurity he had demonstrated on board ship.
My first reading of the novel came 15 years after the movie’s release. In 1969 I was preparing to report to the battleship New Jersey (BB-62) and read about World War II to prepare myself. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book version of The Caine Mutiny has been my favorite work of fiction ever since, in part because the story is so compelling and in part because it so well captures the feel of life on board a surface ship. In one chapter, Wouk has the potential mutineers visiting the New Jersey to report their skipper to Admiral William Halsey, though Keefer leads them in chickening out. Wouk’s verbal description of the battleship’s towering superstructure and forest of gun barrels mirrored my own first impression when I went aboard. As Keefer put it, “This is the Navy, here, the real Navy.”
Given my last name and my experience steering ships, my favorite character in the book is Gunner’s Mate Second Class Stilwell. In the movie he became a quartermaster first class, correctly depicted from the World War II era with the eagle and chevrons of the rating on the right sleeve of his dress uniform. As I examined the movie closely on DVD, I observed that the costumer who wrote the name on the helmsman’s blue chambray shirt added an extra “L” to make it Stillwell.
The climactic moment in the film came when Queeg broke down during the height of the typhoon. Stilwell tried unsuccessfully to respond to the irrational skipper, leading the captain to exclaim: “Maryk, get another helmsman. Keep that idiot’s face out of my sight.” I truly loved the exec’s reply: “But Stilwell’s our best man.” At the subsequent court-martial, Stilwell almost said “Damn,” the closest approach to profanity anywhere in the film. Vulgarity was often rife in ships of that period, but Wouk avoided it as an unnecessary distraction. I was amused by one bit of trivia—that actor Todd Karns, who played Petty Officer Stilwell/Stillwell, took a “demotion” to be in the film. In the 1946 Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, he played the brother of the movie’s star, Jimmy Stewart. In that film Karns was a Navy commander, fighter ace, and Medal of Honor recipient.
In a June 1995 article in Proceedings, author Wouk told of the struggles to get Navy cooperation for a film that certainly didn’t portray the service in the best light. Senior officers deliberately dragged their feet when producer Stanley Kramer asked to use Navy ships and shore stations. But Admiral William Fechteler, chief of Naval Operations in the early 1950s, gave the go-ahead with some modifications to the story and an explanation at the beginning of the film—not quite accurate—that there had never been a mutiny in the U.S. Navy. The next sentence of the disclaimer captured the essence of the story: “The truths of this film lie not in its incidents but in the way a few men meet the crisis of their lives.”
The eventual Navy cooperation was wholehearted, involving real 1950s warships plus Navy facilities in Pearl Harbor and San Francisco—in color. As I have watched the movie many times over the years, I have so often been taken back in memory to my own shipboard experiences. And I have found the presentation a wonderful depiction of Wouk’s artistry. Perhaps CNO Fechteler provided the best-ever evaluation of The Caine Mutiny: “Well, in a long naval service, I’ve met every one of those sons of bitches but never all in one ship.”