Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Caine Mutiny


It is my firm belief that if a good movie is made from a good book, it’s best to see the movie first, then read the book. I saw the television series of Lonesome Dove first, then read the book. That was perfect, as I absolutely loved the series, and then reading the book only enriched the experience by adding the elements that only a book can convey. Conversely, I read Cold Mountain before I saw the movie, and the movie, though not bad, couldn’t begin to match the book. The experience was lessened. I can only wish I’d seen Catch-22 before I read the book, as the movie failed miserably to live up to the incredible black humor of the book. I feel sure I would have loved the movie if I hadn’t read the book, and then reading the book would have blown me away even more than it did. (Catch-22 is my favorite book of all time.)

My experience with The Caine Mutiny sort of straddles those two examples. I saw the movie many years ago and was solidly impressed, particularly with Humphrey Bogart’s amazing performance as Captain Queeg. So I remembered most of the important plot points of the movie, though I had some details wrong. Recently I read the book, and now I’ve seen the movie again, and I enjoyed both experiences. It was interesting to see how the screenwriter tackled the challenges of this quite large book. Basically, he chopped almost 100 pages off both ends. This was entirely proper for a movie, as the first part dealt with the protagonist, Willie Keith, his experiences in school and apprenticeship with the Caine’s first Captain, and his relationship with his girlfriend. The last part dealt with the aftermath of the mutiny trial and the final end of the Caine. All this was great for a book, but a movie of this sort must get into the conflict quickly, and anything after the verdict would have been a long anti-climax. Movies can’t afford that.

Willie was cleaned up a lot, too. In the book his relationship with the girl, May Wynn, was complex and not flattering to him; he was rich and she was a poor Italian nightclub singer, and his basic attitude—helped along by his mother—was that she wasn’t good enough for him. He grew throughout the book, but all this would have been a distraction in the movie, so the relationship, and her character, was greatly simplified. Also, the phony intellectual Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray, in a really brilliant performance), the “real villain of the piece,” in the words of the defense lawyer, Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer), didn’t show his cowardice until the Caine went back into action after the trial under Keefer’s command and was hit by a kamikaze. It was vital that we see him for the worm he was, so the screenplay had him testifying—and lying, to cover his ass—at the trial, which he didn’t do in the book. This sets up the most shocking scene, when Greenwald throws a glass of wine into Keefer’s face, and Keefer is at least self-aware enough not to do anything about it. His position was, it seems to me, even worse than Queeg’s. Queeg the paranoid could delude himself that he was the victim of disloyal officers, so he didn’t have to face the fact that he was a coward. Keefer was a coward … and was smart enough to know it. I see him as withering in self-loathing over the years.

A word about casting. When I read a book, I tend to cast the characters as either people I know, or movie actors who seem to me to fill the bill. Sometimes I pay attention to the author’s descriptions; sometimes they’re merely guidelines. In The Caine Mutiny Herman Wouk spends a lot of time on physical descriptions of his characters … and in the movie not one of them bears the slightest resemblance to what Wouk wrote. Reading the book, there was no way I could cobble up a picture based on Wouk’s descriptions. I just couldn’t see Steve Maryk as a squat and ugly little guy. In my mind he had to be Van Johnson. (This is one of the reasons I usually limit my character descriptions in my own work; I assume the reader will do his or her own casting.) In the book Queeg was only in his thirties, and potbellied. Bogart, of course, was 55, but to my mind he was a perfect Queeg.

Interesting bit of trivia: The actress playing May Wynn (which is a stage name in the novel) is listed as … May Wynn! The former Donna Lee Hickey liked the name so much she adopted it as her own. Good choice, Ms. Hickey!