Well I have the duty pager for the hospital this weekend so I have been hanging out at the Island Hermitage with my dog Molly watching classic Navy movies.
Friday night I watched the classic film Mister Roberts. Yesterday I watched In Harm’s Way and The Caine Mutiny.
All three films are fictional and because of that I find them great for understanding the complexity of Navy life and leadership. Mister Roberts and the Caine Mutiny the films deal with the complexities of life and leadership on small and rather insignificant ships while In Harm’s Way deals with more senior officers and their lives. All three deal with subjects that are uncomfortable because they still exist not just in the Navy but throughout the military. Thus all three offer insights into toxic leaders, poor morale, discipline, mental illness, alcoholism and subjects such as sexual assault and suicide.
Mister Roberts stared Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon and William Powell. It is set on the USS Reluctant a Light Cargo Ship in the backwaters of the Pacific in the closing months of the Second World War. Released in 1955 the film was based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Thomas Heggen.
Cagney plays a despotic former Merchant Marine Captain, LCDR Morton an officer of the type that the Navy did not want portrayed on film then, and still doesn’t today. He is petty, self serving and rules as a tyrant in order to secure his promotion to Commander. His prize possession is a palm tree which was awarded to the ship for handling the most cargo which he believes will be his ticket to promotion. Lemon plays the ship’s Laundry and Morale Officer Ensign Frank Pulver who creatively finds ways of avoiding work. He is so successful that Captain Morton doesn’t know who he is despite having been on the ship 14 months. Pulver provides amusement and aggravation to Henry Fonda plays the ship’s Cargo Officer LTJG Doug Roberts. Roberts is liked by the crew and always in conflict with hs captain. He is desperate to be transferred off the Reluctant and serve on a ship on the front lines. He fears that the war will pass him by and sends in letter after letter to get transferred to a fighting ship only to have Morton send them on without recommending approval.
Roberts is caught in the position of many young leaders where they are torn between their duty and their loyalty to their crew. Eventually he William Powell in his last film plays ship’s Medical Officer, the wise sage whose advice and counsel is invaluable to Roberts. Eventually Roberts gets off the ship because the crew forges a request for transfer along with a forged recommendation from the Captain. When he leaves the ship the crew presents him with their “Medal” the “Order of the Palm.” He is transferred to a destroyer and is killed in action. His final letter to Ensign Pulver tells of his appreciation for the crew and comes along with a letter from a friend of Pulver’s on board the destroyer Roberts was transferred telling of Roberts being killed when the ship was hit by a kamikaze.
In the letter Roberts expresses that he finally understood the enemy faced by those in rear areas and all of those that cannot see why they matter or know their place in a war. The challenge of leaders to understand “that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide.” He finally after having seen combat that those that he served with on the Reluctant “Right now I’m looking at something that’s hanging over my desk. A preposterous hunk of brass attached to the most bilious piece of ribbon I’ve ever seen. I’d rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor. It tells me what I’ll always be proudest of: That at a time in the world when courage counted most I lived among 62 brave men.”
The Caine Mutiny adapted from the novel written by Herman Wouk deals with a another ship where leadership challenges abound. The Captain of the ship, LCDR Queeg played by Humphrey Bogart is plagued by doubt, fear and paranoia. A Regular Navy Officer on with a wardroom of reservists he comes to the ship battered from two years in the Atlantic. He is also plagued by his Communications Officer, LT Tom Keefer played by Fred MacMurray who spends the time not writing a novel in spreading poison about his ship, the Navy and his commanding officers. Queeg begs for their support and understanding.
However Keefer is so successful at undermining Queeg that in the midst of a typhoon the Executive Officer, LT Steve Maryk played by Van Johnson takes command and relieves Queeg on the bridge supported by the Officer of the deck Ensign Willie Keith.
Maryk is tried and acquitted at court marital but his defense attorney, LT Barney Greenwald played by Jose Ferrer has to destroy Queeg on the witness stand to do it. During the trial Keefer is called as a witness for the prosecution lies on the stand to avoid incriminating himself while damaging the case of his friend Maryk. At the end Greenwald confronts Kiefer at a party and provides the leadership lesson for a wardroom which abandoned their sick captain long before the mutiny occurred.
[Greenwald staggers into the Caine crew’s party, inebriated]
Lt. Barney Greenwald: Well, well, well! The officers of the Caine in happy celebration!
Lt. Steve Maryk: What are you, Barney, kind of tight?
Lt. Barney Greenwald: Sure. I got a guilty conscience. I defended you, Steve, because I found the wrong man was on trial.
[pours himself a glass of wine]
Lt. Barney Greenwald: So, I torpedoed Queeg for you. I had to torpedo him. And I feel sick about it.
Lt. Steve Maryk: Okay, Barney, take it easy.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: You know something… 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.
Ensign Willie Keith: But no matter what, Captain Queeg endangered the ship and the lives of the men.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: He didn’t endanger anybody’s life, you did, all of you! You’re a fine bunch of officers.
Lt. JG H. Paynter Jr.: You said yourself he cracked.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: I’m glad you brought that up, Mr. Paynter, because that’s a very pretty point. You know, I left out one detail in the court martial. It wouldn’t have helped our case any.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: Tell me, Steve, after the Yellowstain business, Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn’t you?
Lt. Steve Maryk: [hesitant] Yes, we did.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: [to Paynter] 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?
Lt. Barney Greenwald: You’re an honest man, Steve, I’m asking you. You think it would’ve been necessary for you to take over?
Lt. Steve Maryk: [hesitant] It probably wouldn’t have been necessary.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: [muttering slightly] Yeah.
Ensign Willie Keith: If that’s true, then we were guilty.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: Ah, you’re learning, Willie! You’re learning that you don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job or you’re no good! Well, the case is over. You’re all safe. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
[long pause; strides toward Keefer]
Lt. Barney Greenwald: And now we come to the man who should’ve stood trial. The Caine’s favorite author. The Shakespeare whose testimony nearly sunk us all. Tell ’em, Keefer!
Lieutenant Tom Keefer: [stiff and overcome with guilt] No, you go ahead. You’re telling it better.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: You ought to read his testimony. He never even heard of Captain Queeg!
Lt. Steve Maryk: Let’s forget it, Barney!
Lt. 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.
Lieutenant Tom Keefer: Except I never fooled myself, Mr. Greenwald.
Lt. Barney Greenwald: I’m gonna drink a toast to you, Mr. Keefer.
[pours wine in a glass]
Lt. Barney Greenwald: 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. Now here’s to the *real* author of “The Caine Mutiny.” Here’s to you, Mr. Keefer.
[splashes wine in Keefer’s face]
Lt. Barney 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.
In Harm’s Way was filmed a decade after the Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts. Starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Burgess Meredith and Tom Tryon it was a epic that was panned by critics as having a shallow plot. It involved the intersecting lives of a number of officers during the war with John Wayne playing Rear Admiral “Rock” Torrey. Although the plot is relatively shallow the film brings up several very serious subjects that are faced by leaders even today. The topics of alcoholism, sexual assault and suicide are touched upon through the character played by Kirk Douglas, Captain Paul Eddington. Eddington is plagued by alcoholism and a failed marriage that ended when his wife was killed while with an Army Air Corps Officer on the morning of the Peal Harbor attack. Sentenced to a backwater assignment he is called to be Torrey’s Chief of Staff. In that position he ends up raping a nurse played by Jill Howarth that happens to be the fiancee of Torrey’s son. She then commits suicide. When Eddington discovers that she is dead he sets off on a suicide mission to find the Japanese fleet.
The questions raised in the film are not answered, there is no Barney Greenwald to point out the moral of the story. John Wayne plays a flawed hero surrounded by characters of that are all in some way dealing with their own personal demons. However the questions are those that have been faced by military leaders for generations. How does a leader deal with men and women in failing marriages? How does one deal with those that simply are advancing their own careers? How does a leader deal with key staff that are dealing with alcoholism? How does one prevent sexual assault in a combat area and prevent suicide? The truth is that we still deal with all of these questions and none of us or any military in the world has solved any of them. Perhaps Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz sums up the situation that we still face “Well, we all know the Navy’s never wrong. But in this case, it was a little weak on bein’ right.”
Taken as a whole the three films all are valuable for today’s naval leader as well as military leaders in general. The I do learn something new every time that I watch them and all challenge me to be a better leader.