Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Caine Mutiny (1951)

by Herman Wouk

Though I have watched and enjoyed the 1954 film version of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Caine Mutiny, for years, I never took the time to read the original novel until recently. It was quite a revelation. As good as the film The Caine Mutiny is there’s a lot to admire in the original work, especially in the depth of character Wouk is able to achieve. Based on his personal experiences during World War Two, the novel was published in 1951 and author goes to great pains to assure the reader that the character of Captain Queeg is not based on a real person, and that certain events and their timing were manipulated for dramatic purposes. The novel veritably drips with a fifties sensibility in the writing, both in the dialogue and the way the characters are drawn. Wouk was also apparently fascinated by the profanity used onboard ships during wartime, and writes about trying to capture the ubiquity of its use without actually writing it out. His reasoning is that it, “is largely monotonous and not significant, mere verbal punctuation of a sort, and its appearance in print annoys some readers.”

As in the film, Ensign Willie Keith is still the protagonist and still the focal point of the story, but his experience is much richer and fuller than the limitations of film allowed, and the extensive detail given to his girlfriend, May Wynn, as well as those aboard the Caine, add immeasurably to the reader’s understanding of motives and decisions those characters make. One of the major differences, at least in the beginning of the book, is with Willie himself. While he is the Everyman character in the film, the lens through which the viewer understands the events in the story, Wouk infuses much more of his privileged background into the character of the novel, imbuing him with a mild sexism and racism that were part and parcel of the day. When he meets may Wynn, he’s the piano player at a club where she is auditioning. She keeps her coat on during the audition and it’s not until she goes out with him later for dinner that he finally coaxes her into taking it off:

          May Wynn rose, almost as reluctantly as if she were being compelled to strip. “I'm beginning
          to think you’re very silly-- Well,” she added, her face flushing, “stop looking at me like that--”
          Willie had the appearance of a startled stag--for good enough reason. May Wynn’s figure was
          glorious. “You have a figure,” said Willie, taking his seat in slow motion. “I thought you proba-
          bly had elephant thighs or no chest.”

He’s just as crass later, after finding out that May is Italian. “They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.” And he is equally racist, in his own condescending way, after he meets May’s manager, Marty Rubin. “He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.”

Another element of the story that is far more extreme than in the film is the genuine filthiness and disrepair of the ship he is stationed on. The Caine in the film looks almost sanitized in comparison. And Willie’s relationship with the first captain, DeVriess, is equally intensified. In the film it is more disappointment than anything else. In the novel, however, “Willie’s accumulated resentment, weariness, and disgust coagulated at that moment into hatred of Captain de Vriess . . . He had fallen into the hands of a bullying stupid sloven.” And this is an important character trait of Willie’s as it will come into play during the mutiny. Another character who benefits from increased development is Tom Keefer, because Wouk is able to make his motivation much clearer early on in the novel. While he was a young writer, he isn’t actually an author yet, as Keefer himself admits to Keith upon their first meeting, “I was trying to be one before the war.” And while in one way he sees the war as an interruption of his attempt at a career, viewed another way it also presents him with the possibility of dramatic things to write about--if he were to be given the opportunity. Unfortunately Keefer is stuck on the Caine, and there seems to be no way out.

          Hell, I just want to see some war, as long as my sands are running out uselessly . . . The nub
          of this Pacific war is the duel of flying machines. Everything else is as routine as the work of
          milkmen and filing clerks. All uncertainty and all decision rides with the carriers . . . War is
          ninety nine per cent routine--routine that trained monkeys could perform. But the one per
          cent of chance and creative action on which the history of the world is hanging right now
          you’ll find on carriers. That’s what I want to be part of.

This dissatisfaction, then, is the seed that grows into the conspiracy, and is reflected in a line tossed off by Keefer over desert one night, that “sin is relative to character.” Because of who he is, Keefer doesn’t think of his acts as wrong. At the same time, Willie becomes overly impressed by Keefer’s academic inclinations and the fact that he’s writing a novel about his wartime experiences which, along with Willie’s inexperience, explains how he is able to be pull the young ensign into his conspiracy so easily. But before the new captain takes command, Willie meets the officious captain of another minesweeper and has what should have been a revelation.

          He had considered De Vriess a tyrant; but compared to Iron Duke Sammis his captain was
          lazily benevolent. Then, the Moulton was model of naval order and efficiency, the Caine a
          wretched Chinese junk by comparison. Yet the smart ship had dropped a paravane; the rusty
          tramp had led all the ships in minesweeping performance. How did these facts fit together?

Unfortunately Willie isn’t there to hear De Vriess explain those facts to the new captain, Queeg. When talking about the dedication of the men aboard the Caine, De Vriess says, “The strange thing is, most of the crazy bastards like it. Damn few of them put in for transfers. But they have to do things their own way. It’s the hooligan navy, to look at them. But give them a chance, and they deliver.” This on its own, however, is not the real key to the conspiracy. That is the first officer, Steve Maryk. Unlike the film, here he is only introduced gradually into the story. And where Keefer’s dislike of Queeg mirrored the rest of the crew’s, in the book Keefer is far more insidious, going so far as to argue with Maryk about how necessary a strict captain like Queeg is for the Caine, this after being dressed down by the captain earlier that same evening. But eventually even this gets under Keefer’s tough exterior and after the Yellowstain incident he practically dares Maryk to tell the captain to court-martial him. In actual combat Queeg’s deficiencies are clear: he is deathly afraid of being killed, and he punishes the men for small infractions in order to compensate for his lack of bravery.

It’s easy to see why the novel was so popular. The Korean War had just begun and Wouk’s descriptions of his experiences aboard the minesweeper are a unique window into armed conflict. At the same time he has a certain skill as a writer that is both engaging and creative. When Willie goes aboard a large supply ship to have some communications decoded, he instantly notices a distinct difference between the men on the large, well-equipped vessel and his own: “They looked different from his own crew; generally older, fatter, and more peaceful; a species of herbivorous sailor, one might say, as contrasted to the coyotes of the Caine.” And with the expanded length of the book, there are more incidents of cowardice for Queeg and much more of a feeling of concentrated tyranny over the officers and men that make the eventual mutiny seem even more justified than in the film. One of the other interesting aspects of the story is the wartime view of the enemy from Willie. In describing the Japanese he seems oddly detached, especially given the extremes of the propaganda about them.

          There was nothing at Kwajalein but a few thousand Japanese soldiers to face the monstrous
          fleet rising out of the sea . . . Since the Japs appeared illogically unwilling to surrender, the
          naval bombarders set about annihilating them with an oddly good-humored, ribald ferocity
          . . . Willie enjoyed and applauded the spectacle with no thought of its fatality . . . Like most
          of the naval executioners at Kwajalein, he seemed to regard the enemy as a species of animal

This, however, is juxtaposed with a view of the Germans in which he seems almost personally bitter toward them. It happens when Queeg decides that there is a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox and he strips all hands in order to find it. “The process of stripping the sailors rasped his nerves; it seemed to him an almost German rape of their personal rights.”

The typhoon, which precipitates the mutiny, is rendered similarly in the film, with one notable exception. In the novel, after Maryk has taken command and Willie has backed him up, the crew actually sees the hull of one of the capsized ships in the water. This could only serve to reinforce the decision by Maryk in the novel, but is only mentioned in passing in the film. Another difference between the two versions is Willie’s relationship with May. In the novel Willie is the one who breaks off the romance, and his assessment of her is not a kind one. “May Wynn was bright, yes, unbearably attractive . . . She was also vulgar, brassy and overperfumed . . . She seemed a little soiled to him, a little cheap; and in every way jagged and wrong for his planned future.” In the film, however, May is the one to break it off with Willie for the very reason they joke about in the novel. When he tells her about the mutiny, confessing his worries about the punishment, she replies, “Willie dear, you couldn’t mutiny--not even against your mother, let alone a ship’s captain--” But there’s also another minor difference that seems to be a major one in retrospect. During the court-martial the prosecutor goes to great pains to elicit from all the witnesses that Queeg was never raving or acting insane. What he did, though, was freeze in the middle of the typhoon, and in the film it never comes out. It’s a point that certainly should have been in the film, as Willie states in his testimony in the novel. “He froze to the engine-room telegraph. His face showed petrified terror. It was green.” Maryk supports this when he says that Queeg’s response to his questions were “mostly a glazed look and no answer.”

The major difference in the court-martial is that in the novel the charge of mutiny isn’t even made. It turns out that Maryk’s invocation of article 184 of Navy Regulations, and his subsequent above-board disclosing of the act to proper authorities does not, legally, constitute a mutiny and therefore Maryk is not in jeopardy of receiving the death penalty. In the film, however, the charge is mutiny. The other nice thing that the novel is able to do, is demonstrate the way that the panel of judges is gradually swayed by the work of Barney Greenwald against Queeg, so that by the time he cracks under Greenwald’s cross-examination, the judges are already predisposed to rule in Maryk’s favor due to the abundance of evidence about Queeg’s questionable behavior as captain of the Caine. Greenwald’s drunken speech in which he accuses Keefer of being the real author of the Caine munity, is actually better in the truncated version in the film. In the novel there’s a disappointing sense that Keefer isn’t quite as culpable for what happens as he should be, while the film makes it unmistakably clear that it was Keefer all along who was angling for Maryk to do something he could write about in his novel. In fact, Keefer actually becomes captain of the Caine and Willie his exec afterwards, and Wouk doesn’t humiliate Keefer until a kamikaze hits the Caine and in a frightened panic Keefer jumps overboard

But the best line in the book is from Wouk’s luxurious denouement. After the captain abandons ship, Willie stays onboard and saves the Caine and afterward, in his bunk, thinks about the changes that war has wrought in him.

          Willie passed to thinking about death and life and luck and God. Philosophers are at home
          with such thoughts, perhaps, but for other people it is actual torture when these concepts--
          not the words, the realities--break through the crust of daily occurrences and grip the soul.
          A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime.

He was no longer even the Willie Keith who began thinking these thoughts, says Wouk, “That boy was gone for good.” It’s only then that Willie realizes he wants to spend the rest of his life with May, and writes a lengthy letter to her. This leads naturally to the last discrepancies between the two stories. Unlike the happy ending of the film, the end of Wouk’s novel is a literary one, unresolved but with knowledge that whatever happens in the future it is a future that is more rife with possibility than could have ever happened to for these characters in the beginning.

After reading the novel, the screenplay for the film seems even more impressive. With the success of his novel, Herman Wouk adapted the final section of the book into a play called The Caine Mutiny Court Martial which debuted several months before the film was released, and has gone on to be filmed itself. He was the natural first choice to write the screenplay, but director Edward Dmytryk didn’t like his treatment and looked around for a suitable replacement. Stanley Roberts was primarily known for writing comedies, but the skill needed here was not one of invention but adaptation, knowing exactly what to keep from the original story and what to emphasize to make the film version its own entity. For his work, Roberts was nominated for an Academy Award on the film. But he had kept too much of the original and refused to edit down his screenplay in order to keep the film under two hours. For that, Michael Blankfort was brought it. A veteran of more dramatic films, Blankfort trimmed the story down to the film version that finally came to the screen. As with all original source material for the movies, a lot was changed and in some ways Herman Wouk’s war novel The Caine Mutiny is a vastly different experience from the film, making it a worthy expenditure of time for those who were as captivated by the film as I have always been.

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