Most classic movies hold up well on an second or third viewing. A few don’t. I’m going to have to put this one on that short list. It’s a personal opinion, and a result of changes in me more than anything. The central point of my objection is that I no longer admire nor really believe the standard cliché of the day: “Just let me get into combat, sir! Let me at ‘em!”
Sure, I know there must have been guys like that. I suspect most of them were around at the beginning of the war, right after Pearl Harbor, when lots of guys enlisted. But most of the guys who died in that war were drafted, never forget that. And sure, I know the Marine Corps was probably full of gung-ho guys like that—the Marines have always been a special case in our armed forces, all volunteer—but don’t forget that once they’d been in a landing or two, those tough leathernecks suffered the same rate of mental breakdown as any other service. And plenty of them were hoping for that “million-dollar wound” that would send them back stateside, slightly disabled but alive and unfit for duty. Most of the films of WWII and the decade after were goddam lies, damnable lies! Our troops were just a bunch of overgrown boys, acting childish, having a lot of fun, eager to get in the fight. Truth: Most of them were ordinary fellows who quickly became cynical, terrified, shitting their pants in combat. I would have been one of those, no question.
So I no longer have much interest in a dope like Mister Roberts, who finally gets his assignment on a destroyer, and two weeks later is dead, blown to pieces by a kamikaze. Fuck him, the idiot. He was doing much more for the war effort on his rusty old bucket of a cargo ship. They don’t need you on the front lines, Roberts! They’ve got plenty of cannon fodder up there! And those guys on the destroyers? They would give their left nut—literally! (you’ve got a spare, and it’s better than dying—to transfer to the USS Reluctant.
I’ll admit that I can still enjoy many of the best WWII movies on some level, in spite of knowing they are lies. Maybe I’m being unfair to this one, maybe I was just in a cynical mood. But I just couldn’t buy it.
That said, the acting is really great. Cagney is wonderful as the worst Navy Captain since Queeg. Fonda is good. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar, and deserved it. (The character of Ensign Pulver was so popular that they made a sort of sequel in 1964, starring Robert Walker, Jr., and Burl Ives as the monster Captain.) And I was especially impressed with William Powell, in his last feature role.
Hollywood dirt: John Ford, who started directing but had to hand the reins to Mervyn LeRoy, was a legendary asshole. He ruined a 16-year friendship by punching Henry Fonda in the mouth. He told Jimmy Cagney (who everyone agrees was a swell guy) that they would tangle on the set. Sure enough, Ford got pissed at him one day, and Cagney said “You want a piece of me? Now’s the time. Let’s duke it out, and I’ll wipe the floor with your raggedly old ass.” Or words to that effect. And Ford backed down.
Hollywood fun stuff: Cagney couldn’t get through the scene where Jack Lemmon admitted that he’d been on the ship fourteen months, unseen by the Captain. He insisted they rehearse it over and over, so it would become routine and he wouldn’t crack up. And he admitted he still barely made it through the take without losing it. Lemmon and Cagney remained lifelong friends.