The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Tully), Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing and Best Dramatic Score (Max Steiner). Dmytryk was also nominated for a Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. It was the second highest-grossing film in the United States in 1954.
Newly commissioned Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) reports to the minesweeper USS Caine commanded by William De Vriess (Tom Tully), also meeting executive officer Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) and communications officer Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray). De Vriess, popular with the men but disliked by Keith, is relieved by Phillip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), who immediately attempts to instill strict discipline on the Caine's lax crew.
After a day of gunnery target towing, Queeg orders a turn to head back to Pearl Harbor, but distracts himself by berating Keith and Keefer over a crewman's appearance. Ignoring the helmsman's repeated warnings, he lets the ship turn full circle and hit the towline, setting the target adrift. Queeg tries to cover up the incident.
Assigned to escort a group of landing craft during an invasion of a small Pacific island, Queeg abandons his mission before he reaches the designated departure point, and instead drops a yellow dye marker, leaving the landing craft to fend for themselves. Queeg asks his officers for their support, but they remain silent and nickname him "Old Yellowstain," implying cowardice.
Keefer, believing Queeg to be paranoid, encourages Maryk to consider relieving Queeg for the basis of mental incapacity under Article 184 of Navy Regulations. Maryk angrily rejects that possibility, but starts a log documenting the captain's behavior.
When some strawberries go missing from the officers' mess, Queeg convenes an elaborate investigation to determine the culprit, recalling an earlier incident where he received a commendation for uncovering the theft of food. Despite the small nature of the theft, and the likelihood that the kitchen staff had eaten the missing strawberries, Queeg pushes ahead with his investigation, insisting that a duplicate cabinet key must have been made and used, and demanding an onerous search of the entire vessel to find it.
Keefer convinces Maryk and Keith to go with him to personally see Admiral Halsey about the matter. Arriving aboard Halsey's flagship, Keefer backs down, realizing that Queeg's actions could be just interpreted as attempts to instill discipline. As they leave without seeing the admiral, an aide tells them that a typhoon is approaching.
At the height of the storm, which takes place on July 31, 1944, Maryk urges the captain to reverse course into the wind and take on ballast, but Queeg refuses, having received no order from the fleet to change course or to maneuver at will. Concerned that the ship will founder, the officers and crew look to Queeg for guidance, but he appears to be frozen, either by indecision or fear. With Keith's concurrence, Maryk relieves Queeg of command. The Caine returns to San Francisco, where Maryk and Keith face a court-martial for mutiny. Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer) becomes Maryk's defense counsel.
At the court-martial, Keefer lies on the stand, claiming he never observed any mental illness in Queeg, and also denies counseling Maryk to relieve him of his command. A Navy psychiatrist testifies that Queeg is fit for command, but confirms that Queeg shows some symptoms of a paranoid personality. Under Greenwald's relentless cross-examination, Queeg has a mental breakdown, confirming that he was unfit for command. Maryk is acquitted by the court-martial.
Following the acquittal, the officers of the Caine hold a party. At the party, a drunken Greenwald berates the officers for not appreciating Queeg's long service and failing to give him the support he asked for. He denounces Keefer as the real "author" of the mutiny, a man who "hated the Navy" and manipulated others, while keeping his own hands clean. Then he throws champagne in Keefer's face. The officers depart, leaving Keefer alone in the room. Keith is assigned to a new ship that turns out to be commanded by De Vriess.
Herman Wouk had already adapted his novel as a stage play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which premiered on Broadway in January 1954 and ran for more than a year. The play was directed by Charles Laughton and was a critical as well as a commercial success. Wouk was initially selected to write the screenplay, but director Dmytryk thought his work was not successful. He replaced the novelist with Stanley Roberts, an experienced screenwriter. Roberts later quit the production after being told to cut the screenplay so the film could be kept to two hours. The 50 pages worth of cuts were made by Michael Blankfort, who received an "additional dialog" credit.
The film differs from the novel, which focused on the Keith character, who became secondary in the film. The film instead focuses on Queeg. Kramer "mollified the Navy" by modifying the Queeg characterization to make him less of a madman, as portrayed by Wouk, and more a victim of battle fatigue. Studios did not want to purchase the film rights to Wouk's novel until cooperation of the U.S. Navy was settled. Independent producer Stanley Kramer purchased the rights himself for an estimated $60,000 – $70,000. The Navy's reluctance to cooperate led to an unusually long pre-production period of fifteen months. Principal photography took place between June 3 to August 24, 1953 under the initial working title of Authority and Rebellion.
Stanley Kramer and Columbia Pictures intended to cast Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg. Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn knew Bogart wanted the part and took advantage of that fact, and Bogart eventually settled for much less than his usual $200,000 salary. "This never happens to Cooper or Grant or Gable, but always to me," Bogart complained to his wife, Lauren Bacall.
Van Johnson was loaned to Columbia by MGM, where he was under contract. Being cast as Maryk was a breakthrough for the actor, who felt that he had been in a "rut" by being typecast in light roles. During the filming of the scene off Oahu in which Maryk swims fully clothed to retrieve a line, his life was saved when a Navy rifleman shot a shark that was approaching Johnson. Lee Marvin was cast as one of the sailors, not only for his acting, but also because of his knowledge of ships at sea. Marvin had served in the U.S. Marines from the beginning of American involvement in World War II through the Battle of Saipan, in which he was wounded. As a result, he became an unofficial technical adviser for the film.
Before choosing Dmytryk for The Caine Mutiny, Kramer had hired the director for three low-budget films. He had previously been blacklisted, and the success of the film helped revive Dmytryk's career.
The Caine Mutiny would be the first feature role in Robert Francis's short four-film Hollywood career as he was killed when the private plane he was piloting crashed shortly after take off from Burbank airport in California on July 31, 1955.
May Wynn is the last surviving cast member.
The Navy was initially uncomfortable with both the portrayal of a mentally unbalanced man as the captain of one of its ships and the word "mutiny" in the film's title. After Stanley Roberts' shooting script was completed and approved by the Navy, the Department agreed to cooperate with Columbia Pictures by providing access to its ships, planes, combat boats, Pearl Harbor, the port of San Francisco, and Naval Station Treasure Island for filming. Dmytryk recalled in his memoir that after "noisy" protests from the Navy subsided, the film production received wholehearted cooperation.
An epigraph appears on screen immediately following the opening credits that reads: "There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy. The truths of this film lie not in its incidents, but in the way a few men meet the crisis of their lives." However, in 1842 an incipient mutiny was quashed on board the US Navy Brig USS Somers resulting in the court martial of its captain.
Location filming took place at Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles; at Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco; at Naval Station Charleston, South Carolina; Pearl Harbor, on Oahu in Hawaii, and at Yosemite National Park in California. The USS Thompson (DD-627) was used as the USS Caine. In the final scene, Keith's new destroyer is the USS Richard B. Anderson (DD-786).
This was the last of a number of Bogart films scored by composer Max Steiner, mostly for Warner Bros. The main title theme, The Caine Mutiny March, was included in RCA Victor's collection of classic Bogart film scores, recorded by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
The lyrics of the song, "Yellowstain Blues," which mocked Queeg's perceived cowardice during the landing incident, were drawn from The Caine Mutiny, the novel by Herman Wouk on which the film was based.
The original soundtrack album for The Caine Mutiny was not officially released until 2017, and copies of the soundtrack made before that are very rare. Perhaps a dozen copies survive. RCA Victor planned an LP release with musical excerpts on the first side and the complete dialogue of the climactic court-martial scene on side two, but Herman Wouk believed that including this scene was an infringement on his recently opened Broadway play dealing with the court-martial. He threatened to prohibit Columbia Pictures from making any further adaptations of his work. According to Wouk, "Columbia head Harry Cohn looked into the matter, called me back, and said in his tough gravelly voice, 'I've got you beat on the legalities, but I've listened to the record and it's no goddamn good, so I'm yanking it.'" Max Steiner's score was finally released by Intrada Records in 2017 as Special Collection Volume ISC 382.
The film premiered in New York City on June 24, 1954, and went into general release on July 28. Made on a budget of $2 million, it was the second-highest-grossing film of 1954, earning $8.7 million in theatrical rentals in the United States. It was the most successful of Kramer's productions, some of which had previously lost money, and put his entire production company – as well as Columbia Pictures – in the black.
The film got a major pre-release boost three weeks before its premiere when Bogart as Queeg appeared on the cover of the June 7, 1954 issue of Time magazine. The accompanying cover story ("Cinema: The Survivor") praised Bogart's portrayal of Queeg as "a blustering, secretive figure in Navy suntans, who brings the hollow, driven, tyrannical character of Captain Queeg to full and invidious life, yet seldom fails to maintain a bond of sympathy with his audience. He deliberately gives Queeg the mannerisms and appearance of an officer of sternness and decision, and then gradually discloses him as a man who is bottling up a scream, a man who never meets another's eyes. In the courtroom scene, Bogart's Queeg seems oblivious of his own mounting hysteria. Then, suddenly, he knows he is undone; he stops and stares stricken at the court, during second after ticking second of dramatic and damning silence."
Director Edward Dmytryk felt The Caine Mutiny could have been better than it was and should have been three and a half to four hours long to fully portray all the characters and complex story, but Columbia's Cohn insisted on a two-hour limit. Reviewing the film in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the job of condensing Wouk's novel to two hours had been achieved "with clarity and vigor, on the whole." His reservations concerned the studio's attempt to "cram" in "more of the novel than was required" such as the "completely extraneous" love affair between Keith and May Wynn that Crowther found to be a plot diversion that weakened dramatic tension. Although he doubted whether the novel had a structure suited for film, he noted that Roberts had "endeavored to follow it faithfully." The result, he argued, was that the court-martial became "an anticlimax" as it repeated Queeg's visible collapse seen in the typhoon but still considered the core of the film "smartly and stingingly played" and "though somewhat garbled" was still "a vibrant film."
In his book American Literature on Stage and Film, historian Thomas S. Hischak says that Dmytryk handled both the action sequences and character portrayals deftly, and calls Queeg's breakdown during the trial "the stuff of movie legend."
For the 27th Academy Awards the film received nominations for Best Picture (won by On the Waterfront), Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart, losing to Marlon Brando for On the Waterfront), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Tully), Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording (John P. Livadary), Best Film Editing, and Best Dramatic Score (Max Steiner), but won no awards.
Dmytryk was also nominated for a Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.American Film Institute Lists
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg – Nominated Villain
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"Ah, but the strawberries! That's, that's where I had them." – Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Courtroom Drama
When Michael Caine, born "Maurice Micklewhite," first became an actor he adopted the stage name "Michael Scott". He was later told by his agent that another actor was already using the same name, and that he had to come up with a new one immediately. Speaking to his agent from a telephone box in Leicester Square in London, he looked around for inspiration. Being a fan of Bogart, he noted that The Caine Mutiny was being shown at the Odeon Cinema, and adopted a new name from the movie title. Caine has often joked in interviews that, had he looked the other way, he would have ended up as "Michael One Hundred and One Dalmatians."
Vince Gilligan used a clip of the film in a Breaking Bad episode ("Madrigal", 2012), and has stated that The Caine Mutiny was one of his favorite movies as a child. The final scene of "Chicanery", an episode of the Breaking Bad spinoff series Better Call Saul, is an homage to the film's climactic courtroom scene.
In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, members of the human resistance serve aboard the submarine USS Jimmy Carter. It is piloted by a reprogrammed Terminator that has been named "Queeg" by the crew.
In the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine", the obsessive Commodore Matt Decker, portrayed by William Windom, fusses constantly with two futuristic tape cartridges, much as Captain Queeg rubs together two ball bearings. Windom has publicly acknowledged that Decker's behavior was based on Queeg's.
In the Red Dwarf episode "Queeg", the ship's senile artificial intelligence Holly is temporarily relieved of command by his authoritarian, rule-obsessed backup, "Queeg 500".