The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a legal drama film that is also the last work by renowned filmmaker William Friedkin. The film follows a trial in which a lieutenant of the US Navy, Stephen Maryk, faces court martial for mutiny after relieving the captain of his ship, the USS Caine. Adapted from Herman Wouk’s play of the same name, the film holds on to the aesthetics of theater mostly through its decision to remain restricted inside the courtroom for almost the entirety of the duration. Helmed by great acting performances and with a simple but intriguing matter at its heart, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is quite a serious but refreshing watch.
Plot Summary: What Happens In The Film?
If a sequence of events is to be arranged based on the reporting in the court-martial proceeding in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, then we were to begin in December 2022. During this time, the US Navy ship USS Caine had been deployed on a mission to detect and neutralize any mines in the sea and had been in the Persian Gulf as per its usual practice. On the 18th of December, the ship faced a horrible cyclone, which caused most of the crew to panic, and efforts were shifted from the mine-searching operation to escaping the storm. However, amidst this chaos, the executive officer of USS Caine, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, had officially relieved his superior, the captain of the ship, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg, asking him to step down from his position. Lieutenant Maryk then took the position of the ship’s captain, and this essentially counted as a mutiny on board against the original captain.
With the allegation of mutiny against his name, Lieutenant Maryk now faces court martial and has been called for the procedure. His defense against the allegations, led by defense attorney Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, against prosecutor Commander Katherine Challee, forms the subject of this court drama film. As Captain Luther Blakely, the head judge in the matter, listens to both sides’ arguments and the handful of people who give their testimonies, the audience is also made to pick sides and judge for themselves who is to be supported.
What are the claims made by Lt. Maryk?
When the mutinous act was committed by Lt. Maryk, the captain, Lt. Queeg, was scared, confused, and therefore unfit to lead his unit, according to the accused man. Since The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial only presents the entire matter through dialogues, we get to know about this particular moment through the testimonies. On the morning of the 18th of December, while trying to dodge the storm, Captain Queeg ordered the ship to follow a route to the south, as he had been ordered to do by his superiors and also as he deemed fit in order to get away from the storm. However, Lt. Maryk had wanted the ship to be turned and taken towards the north, as this would be more effective, according to him. When Queeg refused to listen to this advice, Maryk officially made use of his power as the executive officer to relieve the captain of his duties after citing him as unfit to lead.
Maryk had used Article 1108 of the Navy Regulations, which stated that an executive officer could indeed relieve the captain in an emergency situation where the captain was evidently unfit physically or mentally. As described by Queeg during his testimony, the emergency situation required for the article to be triggered would essentially be a condition where the captain would be completely deranged, which he absolutely was not. However, Maryk’s claims are against this very opinion of Queeg about himself, and the morning of the storm was only a culmination point. As the court-martial proceedings are carried out, and Lt. Maryk is asked to clearly talk about his claims, the man lists all the apparent problems with the captain, Lt. Queeg.
Incidentally, two other officials aboard USS Caine, Lt. Thomas Keefer, and Lt. Willis Keith, are also in favor of Lt. Maryk’s claims, and they provide testimony in his defense. It is through the statements of these three men that the eccentricities of Lt. Commander Queeg are revealed. The captain had a habit of being extremely harsh, to the point of being cruel, on his crew members, and a specific incident about a Gunner’s Mate named Stilwell is mentioned. Stilwell had been caught reading a book during his watch hours, and for this, Captain Queeg ordered the man to spend six months entirely on the ship without ever setting foot on land. When USS Caine returned to its home waters in the US, Queeg refused to grant leave to Stilwell even then, despite the man having to deal with some personal matters urgently. It was then the executive officer, Maryk, who granted the man leave for three days by going against his superior’s orders. The lead prosecutor, Commander Challee, makes a note of this, as this was evidence of Maryk refuting his captain’s orders even before the cyclone incident, but the accused or his supporters are not deterred by this.
Like the incident with Stilwell, Captain Queeg had been similarly harsh on his crew members for relatively small and insignificant reasons. On one occasion, a screening of a film was conducted aboard the ship, but Queeg had not been invited due to some mistake. The captain felt extremely offended at the fact that none of the crew members noticed that their leader was missing, and therefore, as a punishment, he banned all screenings and even the use of the internet onboard for six months. In some incidents, even stranger than these acts of insensitive harshness, Queeg had apparently given proof of questionable mental health. When a crew member accidentally led to the captain’s beloved coffee machine getting blown out and destroyed, he suspended all other work on the ship and called for a detailed interrogation of each person to find the perpetrator. This comparatively needless interrogation went on for 36 straight hours.
When Queeg found someone among the deck workers taking an extra shower out of turn, he restricted the water use for everyone aboard the ship for two entire days. Despite the ship being in the middle of a dust storm at the time, which meant that it was excruciatingly hot and dirty outside, the crew members could not take a bath because of the captain’s erratic order. When members ate up extra reserves of cheese or strawberries, as it was customary for them to do so, the captain protested by claiming theft of food reserves and conducting extreme investigations to unnecessary extents. The search would sometimes go on for three straight days, and the members were even stripped naked in some instances to find the perpetrators.
Lt. Maryk talks of an incident in which Captain Queeg was overseeing the transfer of a trunk full of alcohol for himself from the land to the ship, and the men boarding the trunk were startled by the captain’s loud words. As a result, the trunk was dropped into the water, with all the goods inside lost, and Queeg demanded Maryk pay a fine of $1000 to compensate for the alcohol since Maryk was in charge of the boat at the time. It was because of the culmination of these and another major reason that Lt. Maryk started to maintain a medical log of Captain Queeg showing signs of mental or physical instability. This major incident was something with regard to the safety of the ship as well as the crew, and it had taken place at least a year before the cyclone incident. During a mine-sweeping operation in the Strait of Hormuz, which is a narrow and difficult area of water, some threats had been found, and so the ship was ordered to destroy the mines with precision explosives. Some time was spent figuring out the exact locations of the mines since the job needed to be done very precisely as the safety of the ship was involved. However, Captain Queeg then decided on his own to not set the charges to the explosives, and he instead threw down a yellow dye marker at a position where he believed the mines to be. Communicating with the other ship, he asked them to destroy the mines with the help of the dye marker he had just dropped. Although no harm was faced by the USS Caine or its members, this could have been extremely dangerous for everyone.
It was after this exact incident that Lt. Maryk started to maintain a medical log about his captain’s mental health, believing him to be growing mentally incompetent. It was also for this incident that Queeg had been nicknamed Old Yellowstain by his crew members. Even on the day of the cyclone, Maryk reports, Captain Queeg had been acting shaky and nervous, and he was in no state to give any more correct commands. According to Maryk and the others, the ship had apparently turned full 360 degrees and went over its own tow cable, which was extremely dangerous. This showed immense incompetence on the part of the ship’s captain, and it was then that Maryk decided to step up and relieve the elderly Captain Queeg. Most of the crew members, most importantly Keefer and Keith, supported Maryk, and the captain was ousted from his position.
To make matters worse for the captain, Maryk claims that Queeg called him to his private room soon after the incident on the morning of the cyclone. During this meeting, which was confidential between the two men, Queeg asked Maryk to not send in the log about this change of power aboard the ship, and in return, he would not report Maryk for mutiny. First threatening Maryk about the court martial and then pleading with him by mentioning his love for the US Navy, Queeg somehow wanted to take back his position as captain, despite knowing that not reporting these incidents would be an extreme criminal offense in the Navy.
What Happens As A Result Of The Court-Martial?
When Captain Queeg is called for his testimony and to defend the claims against him made by Maryk, the elderly man clearly falters and starts to lose control of the case. The man denies the more severe charges, like trying to convince Maryk not to report about the dismissal or the events of the cyclone. Queeg states that he obviously knew about the illegality of such an act and would, therefore, never try it. When questioned about the money that he had taken from Maryk as compensation for the loss of his trunk, Queeg denies that it contained alcohol. It is only upon further questioning that he agrees that the trunk was full of alcohol, which was against the Navy rules, and claims that he was confusing it with some other instance when a similar thing had happened.
It is perhaps not very clear as to whether the captain is actually lying or has really forgotten about the time. He states that it was Maryk who had himself offered to pay for it, and that he did not demand any money from the lieutenant. At times, Queeg does seem like he is lying or covering matters only to save himself, while at other times, he looks genuinely confused and shaken by the whole ordeal. His response to the accusations of harshness to the extent of cruelty is that the captain only wanted his crew to learn more discipline in life. It is very evident that he was a man of older days and, therefore, of older beliefs and perspectives, and so the restrictions that he had brought on his men were all his way of keeping them in shape. It has to be stated that, from a modern perspective, Queeg’s statements, whether lies or actual beliefs, are not very adequate. Although the judgment of the court martial is not announced in the end, Queeg’s case does not look very strong. The most likely result would be that Maryk would be acquitted, and Queeg’s career in the Navy would be over.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial leaves the courtroom in the very end, as the defense lawyer Barney Greenwald is invited to a party by Lt. Thomas Keefer on the occasion of his first war novel being published. Along with being a lieutenant in the Navy, Keefer is also a writer, and he has received money from his publisher for his first novel, “Multitudes, Multitudes.” Greenwald visits the party and is requested to give a speech after he has had a few drinks. It is in this state that the lawyer speaks his heart out, for he had not personally supported Lt. Maryk’s cause from the very beginning and had only defended the man out of professional duty.
During The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial‘s ending, Greenwald finally realized that it was Keefer who had instigated Maryk and the others to act against the elderly captain Queeg, simply because they could, as the man had flaws in him. The lawyer does not really deny that the old ways of the likes of Queeg should be questioned, but to him, these old guards, or people of the older generations who have always been ready and willing to protect their country at all costs, are much more heroic than any of the young officers or lieutenants. Unlike Keefer or Maryk, Queeg did not act only for his own personal benefits in life but genuinely wanted the betterment of the country and of the youth in their own old-school ways. Although Queeg was perhaps to blame during this entire court-martial, there was no need to persecute the man for very natural mistakes, as he did not have any intentions to hurt or demean anyone. Thus, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial ends with Greenward throwing his drink at Keefer’s face as a direct expression of his disgust towards the selfish, conniving lieutenant.