There have been many versions of “The Caine Mutiny,” starting with Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel, which he then adapted into a stage play in 1953. In 1954, it was made into a movie that was a huge hit thanks to Humphrey Bogart’s presence as Captain Queeg, the obsessive paranoiac whose command of a US Navy minesweeper was taken away by his second-in-command, Lt. Maryk (Van Johnson). Fred MacMurray played Maryk’s friend, Lt. Keefer, who convinced him Queeg was unfit for command.
Since then, the play has been re-staged many times, including several runs on Broadway, and a 1988 made-for-TV version starring Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, and Brad Davis.
This new version has Kiefer Sutherland as Queeg, a role that almost seems like his “A Few Good Men” character with a couple more decades of military experience (I know the latter was a Marine and the former is a naval officer, but the connection is still apt). Sutherland makes the role his own, without invoking any of the facial tics or deeply furrowed brow that made Bogart’s portrayal so iconic — although the steel marbles still make an appearance.
What makes the play different from the movie is that nearly all the action takes place in the courtroom, with Queeg’s veneer in the first act making him seem like a sane, veteran naval officer whose position was usurped by an incompetent underling. It’s not until the second act that the truth behind several incidents on the ship comes out, revealed in pieces by the examination of Maryk and other crew members, plus the devastating cross-examination of Queeg by Maryk’s lawyer, Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke), which reveals the depths of the captain’s mental disability.
“The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” marks the last screen appearance of the late Lance Reddick, who plays the judge in the case, and to whom the film is dedicated. It was also the last project helmed by director William Friedkin, who died this summer. In re-working the script, Friedkin updated the story so it no longer takes place during World War II, but rather in late 2022 in the Persian Gulf. He also ramped up the pace of the testimony, leaving no dead spots as the reality of what occurred on the ship — during the minesweeper’s regular assignments and ultimately in the midst of a typhoon — become readily apparent.
The play is also more efficient at telling the story because it doesn’t get sidetracked by young officer Willie Keith’s relationship with his fianceé and mother-in-law-to-be, characters who were central to Wouk’s novel. I always felt that subplot bogged down the action, so I’m glad it is absent from this version. Wouk no doubt included that tangent because someone complained all the characters were male, which they would have been in the US Navy of 80 years ago. Friedkin solves the problem by making the prosecuting attorney (Monica Raymund) and the psychiatrist who examined Queeg (Elizabeth Anweis) female, as they would be in the modern Navy.
While I have never liked Wouk’s denouement, with Greenwald chastising both Maryk and Keefer at a party after the verdict comes down, I have always found the story compelling, and Friedkin’s version stands up as one of its best productions.
I give “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” an 8.5 out of 10. Now streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime.