Herman Wouk’s celebrated play and novel The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial couldn’t even be called “peak boomer”; it’s pre-boomer. And having been brought up in the UK, it’s an aesthetic and realm of interest worlds away from what I know: of prideful American military history and prideful hawkishness, all the myths of the “greatest generation.” One pictures hardback airport novels of which Tom Clancy, after Wouk, would corner the market––this film’s title reveal is even in an embossed sans-serif “impact” font, taking up all empty space in the frame otherwise showing the military minesweeper of its title.
Yet it’s never so simple. Wouk, a navy hero of key Pacific theatre campaigns like Okinawa, and then a man of letters, grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, and his orthodox religious beliefs solidified further in post-war adult life. The military-enlistment / man-of-letters / Judaism crossover isn’t dissimilar to Sam Fuller’s identity, whilst also making him an apposite figure for the late, great William Friedkin––born a hardscrabble Chicago Jew, recently died a worldly industry grandee––to adapt.
The bottom line is that you, Film Stage reader, should see this movie––on Showtime as it may––and thus a summary of its brilliantly intricate plot shouldn’t even be necessary. For one, I sat down to it with some mild reservations, having never been an enormous Friedkin fan, and these continued as I gawked slightly at its over-lit, network TV-ready cinematography and brassy (not-unwatchable) leading turns. But then it develops into a gripping legal “thought experiment,” and you have no doubt why it a) triumphed on Broadway, was then b) filmed by Edward Dmytryk with Humphrey Bogart in 1954, and then c) adapted again by Robert Altman for TV in 1988. As we’ll always need to restage Glengarry Glenn Ross, to forever re-examine the excesses of entrepreneurial free-market capitalism, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial eternally speaks to America’s shifting conscience on its foreign-policy military endeavors.
On sole script duties, Friedkin made the canny decision to update its timeframe to the present day, commenting on the US military’s continued presence in Gulf states. Setting up the events of the trial, Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Jake Lacy) has ordered a mutiny on the USS Caine, having lost faith in the ship’s captain Philip Francis Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) to safely commandeer the vessel as a storm rages. A military trial is set up to assess Maryk’s dereliction of duty, with defense counsel Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke, as effective in a similar role as he was in Oppenheimer) aiming to prove his decision was justified.
Friedkin excelled with action (which I use as a term of endearment), often sublimating everything in his films to spectacle (which I note with more skepticism). The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is an action film with words, its cutting and command of space as sharp and rhythmic as the continuity edits splicing wides and close-ups in his car chases. What’s crucial is that there is no flashback to the tumultuous circumstances onboard; we receive alternating glosses on what happened, and who was responsible––especially regarding Maryk’s growing skepticism of Queeg and his possible mental instability across the ship’s whole campaign. It forces the unseen past events––a tense naval drama, in actuality––to vividly play in our head.
An opening epigraph, credited to Friedkin himself, muses on the fine line between good and evil. A pertinent, ongoing concern troubling someone who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, yes, yet The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial succeeds as many adroit legal thrillers have, probing the limits of the law (and its inability) for all its protocol and safeguards, to provide a full accounting of “justice”: it is always so much more complicated. Friedkin’s last artistic gesture––or howl (from a man dubbed “Hurricane Billy”), once again adapting another’s ideas so well after Tracy Letts’ Bug and Killer Joe––is another essential reminder of this, reverberating loudly from its intimate stage.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will come to Paramount+ with Showtime on October 6, then air on Showtime on October 9.