Surely one of the greatest movies of all time is the 1954 naval drama The Caine Mutiny, based on Herman Wouk's novel. It stars Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, E.G. Marshall and Jose Ferrer. Bogart's Captain Queeg is the skipper of an old minesweeper, USS Cain. One can hardly imagine a less glamorous ship. Queeg is quirky, rigid, and insecure. When he gets nervous, he rolls two steel balls in his hand.
His wardroom, instigated by Fred McMurray's character -- a writer -- lose respect for Captain Queeg after a number of lapses of judgment. When Queeg reaches out to his officers to try to repair mutual respect, he meets a stony rebuff.
When a typhoon threatens to capsize the ship, Queeg does not seem up to the crisis. His executive officer, played by Van Johnson, relieves Captain Queeg of duty and takes command of the ship.
During the ensuing court-martial (the Navy does not take mutiny well) Captain Queeg takes the stand. What follows may be Bogart's best performance, and is a film classic. We see in Queeg an ordinary man who was simply not up to the extraordinary responsibilities he had been given. Under the effective cross-examination of trial defense counsel, played by Jose Ferrer, Captain Queeg slowly strips himself of his dignity as his psychological unfitness for command is revealed.
Realizing what he has done, Captain Queeg, who has largely been allowed to testify in a narrative, offers to answer specific questions. There follows a series of tight shots of trial counsel, played by E.G. Marshall, and the other officers present, looking at Captain Queeg's train wreck with a mixture of horror and sympathy as we hear only the clack of Queeg's ball bearings.
It is hard for us to see a man who should command respect be revealed as incompetent. The captain of a U.S. warship is a father, a leader, and an exemplar. His commands are unquestioned. (The XO does all of his dirty work.) To see someone fall from such an exalted position is sad. What's even worse is serving under such a captain.
We're not sure if Van Johnson's "mutiny" saved Cain or not. A few ships were lost, but the vast majority survived. What was clear was that the circumstances were extremely dangerous, and the captain's actions were questionable. The trust between leader and led had already been eroded. It was a position no officer should have been put in. Van Johnson had to do what he thought best, and would never be certain he was right in substituting his judgment for his captain's.
After the trial, a drunken trial defense counsel, played by Jose Ferrer, is hardly in a celebratory mood, despite his win. He points out that while he was going to law school and the other officers were following their own civilian pursuits, Captain Queeg had the low-paying, unglamorous job, of maintaining a peacetime navy. He reminds them that when he reached out to them, they were cold. But it's Fred MacMurray's writer character, LT Keefer who is singled out for the worst treatment.
It was LT Keefer -- an above-it-all jerk, like many writers of all kinds -- who poisoned the wardroom's support for Captain Queeg. Yet at trial, LT Keefer had practically nothing to offer. Jose Ferrer's character toasts "the real author of the Cain mutiny," and throws his drink in LT Keefer's face. Fred MacMurray, who does not move a muscle, cannot deny the charge.
Why talk about an old movie? The Bear doesn't know. It is one you should see. It also shows what happens when the man at the top causes genuine worries for his subordinates. No one knows what to do. Some seize authority that is not lawfully theirs, but to them it seems like the only course of action possible. Nobody's quite sure. Nobody should be put in that position.
And it is not a happy sight to see someone who ought to command respect be revealed as unworthy of the position entrusted to him.