Watching President Donald Trump’s first press conference, some viewers might have flashed back to the climatic scene in the 1954 movie, The Caine Mutiny.
Based on Herman Wouk’s bestselling novel, it centers on the minesweeper USS Caine. Stationed in the Pacific during World War II, its captain is by-the-book Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart).
Queeg is determined to bring a sense of discipline to the ship’s lax seamen. But he can’t admit mistakes, and his bullying approach to command alienates both officers and crew.
Soon after, a typhoon overtakes the Caine. Queeg becomes paralyzed with fear. His executive officer, Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), relieves the captain of command to prevent the loss of the ship. Maryk turns the Caine into the wind and rides out the storm.
Maryk is tried by court-martial for mutiny. His case looks hopeless: Queeg has been found sane by three Navy psychiatrists.
Naval Prosecutor Lt. Commander John Challee depicts Maryk as a reckless mutineer. And Queeg portrays himself as the persecuted victim of a malignant conspiracy by his own officers.
Knowing that Queeg reacts badly to stress, Maryk’s attorney, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) relentlessly cross-examines him:
GREENWALD: Did you steam over your tow line?
QUEEG: I’m happy to dispose of this particular slander. When we were towing the target, I saw some anti-aircraft bursts. I turned to avoid them. My unreliable helmsman failed to warn me about that. But I saw it and reversed course. We didn’t steam over the tow line.
GREENWALD: Did nothing else distract you?
QUEEG: Not that I recall.
GREENWALD: Weren’t you reprimanding a seaman for having his shirt-tail out while the ship turned?
QUEEG: That only took two seconds.
GREENWALD: Were all your officers disloyal?
QUEEG: I didn’t say that. Only some were disloyal.
GREENWALD: Mr Keith and Mr Maryk?
GREENWALD: Did you turn your ship upside down searching for a phantom key?
QUEEG: I don’t know what lies have been sworn to here, but a key definitely did exist.
PROSECUTOR LT. COMMANDER JOHN CHALLEE: The witness is understandably agitated. I request a recess.
QUEEG: I don’t want a recess. I’ll answer all questions right here and now.
GREENWALD: Did you conduct such a search?
QUEEG: Yes, I did. My disloyal officers failed me, and the key couldn’t be found.
GREENWALD: Wasn’t this whole fuss over a quart of strawberries?
QUEEG: The pilfering of food in large amounts or small is a very serious occurrence on board a ship.
GREENWALD: You were told that the mess boys ate the berries. There was no key.
QUEEG: The key was not imaginary. I don’t know anything about mess boys eating strawberries.
GREENWALD: Have you no recollection of a conversation with Ensign Harding? Didn’t he tell you that the mess boys ate the strawberries?
QUEEG: I remember he was grateful for his transfer. His wife was ill in the States.
GREENWALD: Do you know where Ensign Harding is now? He’s in San Diego. He can be flown up here in three hours if necessary. Would it serve any useful purpose to have him testify?
QUEEG: Now, there’s no need for that.
[He reaches into the pocket of his Navy coat and removes two little steel balls, which he rolls together whenever he feels under stress. He starts rolling them together now and continues to do so throughout the rest of the proceeding.]
Now that I recall, he might have said something about mess boys. I questioned many men, and Harding was not the most reliable officer.
GREENWALD: The defense has no other recourse than to produce Ensign Harding.
QUEEG: Now, there’s no need for that. I know exactly what he’ll tell you–lies. He was no different from any other officer in the wardroom. They were all disloyal. I tried to run the ship properly, by the book, but they fought me at every turn. If the crew wanted to walk around with their shirt-tails out, let them. Take the tow line–defective equipment.
But they began spreading wild rumors about steaming in circles. And then “Old Yellowstain.” I was to blame for Maryk’s incompetence and poor seamonship. Lt. Maryk was the perfect officer, but not Queeg.
But the strawberries, ah, that’s where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes. But I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt and with geometric logic that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. I could have produced that key if they hadn’t pulled the Caine out of action. I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer.
Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory. If I’ve left anything out, just ask me specific questions and I’ll be glad to answer them one by one.
[The courtroom falls silent–except for the tinkling of the steel balls that Queeg keeps rolling in his right hand. The judges stare at him as he does so. They say nothing, but it’s clear they know they’re looking at a man at the end of his sanity–and naval career.]
GREENWALD: No further questions, sir.
Maryk is acquitted.
* * * * *
So much for fiction. Now for the terrifying reality.