The Caine Mutiny: A Lesson in Leadership

“Now you’re learning, Willie. You don’t support your captain because you like him; you support because he’s got the job or you’re no good!” Jose Ferrer as Lieutenant Barney Greenwald

I write this after seeing a number of officers do some really dumb things in my 28 year career in the manner in which they supported their commanders or chain of command in trying times.  While none of these incidents could be described as mutiny they were certainly acts which undermined the chain of command, endangered the mission and had they occurred in a combat zone or in emergent conditions could have gotten soldiers or sailors killed.  The Caine Mutiny is a classic on leadership either in book or movie form.  I prefer the book but I am captivated by the performances of Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer. In this essay I go through the movie and book and illustrate my point with quotations from it.

There has never been a mutiny on a United States Navy ship yet the book and later the movie The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk is one of the most poignant books on leadership in existence. The book gained popular success and was made into a movie in 1954 starring Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer and Robert Francis.

The story centers around the officers or the wardroom of the USS Caine, an elderly Destroyer Minesweeper which had been in continuous combat in the South Pacific.  In the book she is a First World War One 1250 ton Wickes or Clemson class four piper.  In the movie she is played by the USS Thompson DD-627/DMS-38 a 2500 ton Gleaves class destroyer converted into a Destroyer Minesweeper since by the time the movie was made no “four pipers” were left in existence.  It took the film’s producers many months to convince the Navy to endorse the film because of the subject matter with the Navy only relenting when the producers agreed to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that there has never been a mutiny aboard a US Navy ship.

In the book and film the ship has returned to Pearl Harbor and in the process picked up a couple of newly assigned Ensigns fresh out of Officer Candidate School, what back in World War II were known as “90 Day Wonders.”  The young and impressionable Ensign Willis Seward Keith a Princeton grad and scion of old money and political contacts is one of those officers and while the story focuses on “Willie” Keith the true drama comes with the assignment of a new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Francis Queeg, a career officer and Naval Academy graduate.  The Executive officer, Lieutenant Steve Maryk, another OCS officer from humble means is played by Van Johnson while Fred MacMurray plays the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Tom Keefer another reservist and a writer by trade who remarks early in the story: “There is no escape from the Caine, save death. We’re all doing penance, sentenced to an outcast ship, manned by outcasts, and named after the greatest outcast of them all.”


Keith is disappointed in his new assignment and his mother and uncle try to pull strings to have him assigned to an Admiral’s staff.  The initial commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander DeVriess questions the new officer on his feelings about being assigned to the Caine:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTt5iVP8-GM

DeVriess: Disappointed they assigned you to a minesweeper, Keith?
Keith: Well, sir, to be honest, yes, sir.
DeVriess: You saw yourself on a carrier, or a battleship, no doubt.
Keith: Yes, sir, I had hoped…
DeVriess: Well, I only “hope” that you’re good enough for the Caine.
Keith: I shall try to be worthy of this assignment, sir.
DeVriess: She’s not a battleship or a carrier; the Caine is a beaten-up tub. After 18 months of combat it takes 24 hours a day just to keep her in one piece.

Queeg on his arrival insists on strict military discipline on a ship that has little outward appearance of such qualities. He remarks to his officers: “Aboard my ship, excellent performance is standard, standard performance is sub-standard, and sub-standard performance is not permitted to exist – that, I warn you.” Keefer a malcontent with a cynical attitude about the Navy takes an immediate dislike of Queeg and goes out of his way to poison the wardroom against the new Captain and is aided by various quirky and even neurotic actions of the new commander.  In the next few months he creates an air of disrespect, distrust toward Queeg even to plant questions about Queeg’s sanity and emotional stability among his fellow officers, including the Executive Officer who begins a “medical log” on the Captain.  One remark when pushing the Executive Officer demonstrates how far he was willing to go in trying to plant the idea that the Captain is mentally ill: “Will you look at the man? He’s a Freudian delight; he crawls with clues!”


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiGVMshkwrY&feature=PlayList&p=6E5FDB52D2DC4238&index=6

After a number of incidents Queeg attempts to reconcile with his officers who reject him but his words are true: “As I always say, a command is a lonely job. It isn’t easy to make decisions. Sometimes the captain of a ship needs help. And by help, I mean constructive loyalty. What I’m trying to say is, uh, a ship is like a family. We all have our ideas of right and wrong but we have to pitch in for the good of the family. If there was only some way we could help each other.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtqf0CCVUek

When the ship is caught in the great typhoon, sometimes known as “Halsey’s typhoon” which in actuality caused the loss of three destroyers and heavy damage to numerous ships, Queeg freezes on the bridge in a dispute with his officers over the action that needs to be taken.  Queeg wants to maintain the fleet course and speed while the bridge watch including the Executive Officer and Ensign Keith want him to steer an opposite course.  In the exchange Queeg apparently frozen by fear insists on following fleet course and when Queeg freezes relieve him under Article 184 of Naval Regulations.  The ship survives the storm and upon the ship’s return to San Francisco a Court Martial is convened charging Maryk and Keith with mutiny.

In the trial they are defended by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a lawyer in civilian life and Naval Aviator on convalescent leave. While the prosecution breaks Maryk and makes Keith look foolish Keefer aids the prosecution’s case to keep his reputation untarnished and after pushing his shipmates into mutiny leaves them to hang.  Greenwald then gets to work.  He pushes the psychiatrist who certified Queeg as sane and fit for duty hard planting doubts about the diagnosis:

“Doctor. You have testified that the following symptoms exist in Lieutenant-Commander Queeg’s behavior. Rigidity of personality, feelings of persecution, unreasonable suspicion, a mania for perfection, and a neurotic certainty that he is always in the right. Doctor isn’t there one psychiatric term for this illness?”

He then causes Queeg to have a breakdown on the witness stand.  The scene is dramatic as Queeg begins to fall apart:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9esAr7gLapE&feature=PlayList&p=6E5FDB52D2DC4238&index=12

“They were all disloyal. I tried to run the ship properly by the book, but they fought me at every turn. If the crew wanted to walk around with their shirttails hanging out, that’s all right, let them! Take the towline – defective equipment, no more, no less. But they encouraged the crew to go around, scoffing at me and spreading wild rumors about steaming in circles and then ‘Old Yellowstain.’ I was to blame for Lieutenant Maryk’s incompetence and poor seamanship. Lieutenant Maryk was the perfect officer, but not Captain Queeg. Ah, but the strawberries! That’s, that’s where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I would have produced that key if they hadn’t pulled the Caine out of action. I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. (He pauses – looks at all the questioning faces that stare back at him, and realizes that he has been ranting and raving.) Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory…”

The scene ends with everyone knowing that Maryk and Keith will be acquitted. Greenwald’s clients are exonerated but the story does not end there.  While the officers celebrate the acquittal a drunken Greenwald arrives announces that he feels guilty for “torpedoing Queeg” and excoriates the wardroom and brutally identifies Kiefer as the “author of the Caine mutiny” and makes very pointed comments that any officer would be wise to heed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKeISsYKROI

Greenwald: When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no! We knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys, tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.
Keith: But no matter what, Captain Queeg endangered the ship and the lives of the men.
Greenwald: He didn’t endanger anybody’s life! You did! All of you! You’re a fine bunch of officers.

Greenwald: Tell me, Steve, after the Yellowstain business, Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn’t you?
Maryk: Yes, we did.
Greenwald: You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon?

Greenwald: And now we come to the man who should have stood trial. The Caine’s favorite author. The Shakespeare whose testimony nearly sunk us all. Tell ’em, Keefer.
Keefer: No, you go ahead. You’re telling it better.
Greenwald: You ought to read his testimony. He never even HEARD of Captain Queeg!
Maryk: Let’s forget it, Barney.
Greenwald: Queeg was sick, he couldn’t help himself. But you, you’re real healthy. Only you didn’t have one-tenth the guts that he had.
Keefer: Except I never fooled myself, Mr. Greenwald.
Greenwald: I wanna drink a toast to you, Mr. Keefer. From the beginning you hated the Navy. And then you thought up this whole idea and you managed to keep your skirts nice and starched and clean, even in the court martial. Steve Maryk will always be remembered as a mutineer. But you, you’ll publish your novel, you’ll make a million bucks, you’ll marry a big movie star, and for the rest of your life you’ll live with your conscience, if you have any. Here’s to the real author of the Caine mutiny. Here’s to you, Mr. Keefer.
[Splashes wine in Keefer’s face]
Greenwald: If you wanna do anything about it, I’ll be outside. I’m a lot drunker than you are – so it’ll be a fair fight.

The movie ends with Keefer alone as his fellow officer leave the party and Keith receiving orders to a new destroyer commanded by Captain DeVriess.  However the book has another ending.  In it Keefer becomes the commanding officer of the Caine and Keith the XO. The ship is hit by a Kamikaze and Keefer loses his nerve and in a truly cowardly fashion abandons the ship and his crew leaving Keith to save the Caine which he does.

As a leader it is important to support the commanding officer, especially if he or she is going through a difficult time.  While this does not mean that subordinates should ignore illegal actions of a commander as the XO of a ship did recently resulting in his and the CO’s relief for cause, but officers from any service do not have the luxury of subverting their commander or chain of command based on any personal like, dislike or any ideological, political or religious agenda.  A prime example of the latter was former Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt who waged a vicious campaign against every Commanding Officer that he worked for and the Navy in order to push his own political-religious views on his sailors and in the media.  There are certainly other examples but no to belabor the point I will end here.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under History, leadership, world war two in the pacific

5 responses to “The Caine Mutiny: A Lesson in Leadership

  1. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:

    I’ve been watching a number of older movies over this Memorial Day Weekend. Last night I watched A Bridge too Far and The Bridge at Remagen. Tonight I just watched The Caine Mutiny and I am trying to decide on the second feature. However, the Caine Mutiny is one of my favorite movies on leadership and the novel by Herman Wouk is amazing. This is an article from about 3 years ago that I wrote about this great film. Peace, Padre Steve+

  2. Richard Williams

    Queeq, in retrospect, was clearly suffering from PTSD. Not detected yet in WWII. But ASW work is quite nerve-wracking.

  3. But, would the crew have lived if they had continued to follow Queeg’s orders? When it is life or death of hundreds of men who are on a ship that is being torn apart, then Van Johnson’s character did the right thing even if it sullied his reputation and ended his career. That is what a real person of character does: What is right. Moreover, Queeg would have come apart in that storm whether the other officers had supported him or not. And, if my family member had been on that ship, Van Johnson’s character would have been the real hero. Yes, you follow the leader in the military, but that doesn’t abdicate any officer from doing what is right.

    • padresteve

      That’s what makes it such a great book and film about leadership. It inspires great discussion like this. But the key to the film is where Queeg is rejected by his officers when he asks for help long before that.

      Thanks for the input, it makes for a great class on naval leadership.

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