Though independently notable, and fascinating as a re-adaptation, this film will always be primarily known as William Friedkin’s final picture — a posthumous release for actor Lance Reddick (one of those ‘always the best part of this‘ actors), carrying a dedication at the end. This may be Friedkin’s last but, in important ways, this isn’t new territory. Quite bizarrely, this is the second time that William Friedkin has re-adapted — as a nontheatrical film — a play about a court case already adapted by a revered director, the first time being his TV movie version of 12 Angry Men (1996) (yes, originally a teleplay, but that’s still a play). Thankfully, this second example, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial already having been adapted as a 1988 TV movie by Robert Altman, is better and actually results in the best filmic version of the story.
The lineage is worth tracing. The Caine Mutiny (1951) begins life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (that I have not read) by Herman Wouk. The book is inspired by the writer’s own experiences on destroyer-minesweepers (Naval ships) in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. The story even includes a pivotal character who is a Naval officer and a writer, the story including him working on (and getting the advance for — at least in the adapted versions) a novel about the reality of Naval life called ‘Multitudes, Multitudes’. It is a meta-textual layer in a story that has become even more meta-textual (as it is a narrative about retelling narratives that keep being retold). This novel was adapted into a 1954 film of the same name (no Court-Martial in the title yet), the story being as follows: a not so tightly run ship is taken over by a new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). He is a strict leader to the point of poor leadership. The film charts him making decisions that seem to be irrational and that causes him to lose favour with the crew. This culminates in a mutiny on the grounds of ‘insanity’, therefore allowing a takeover. The final thirty minutes of the film are taken up by the Court Martial, in which the Officer who took over, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk is being put on trial. It must be proven that Queeg was ‘insane’, a huge blemish on his apparently spotless — and lengthy — record, or Maryk will be discharged for insubordination.
Eventually, the film sides with establishment logic. Bent into this place in a way that apparently differs from the novel. The casting of the brilliant Bogart lends star power to the Queeg role and allows this gifted actor to elicit sympathy. The message becomes more one of sacrifice. This man made mistakes but due to a kind of combat fatigue, we must remember how he gave so much for his country and the rash actions of those below him represent a generation that needs to be more cognisant of the actions taken by those that came before, actions that allowed their freedoms (or so the film ostensibly argues). This is probably due to director, Edward Dmytryk, having been previously blacklisted and wanting to revive his career. The picture is bookended by dedications to the Navy (the opening statement asserting that ‘there has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy’) and is definitively establishment-aligned, even if some of the ideas the narrative plays with are not.
Before the film came out, though, the book had already been adapted by the author (Wouk) as a stage play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (first presented in 1953). This was a two-act work that only covers the court case (and a moment after it) and was notably directed on Broadway in 1954 by Charles Laughton. This then becomes the Robert Altman film and the William Friedkin film (auteur theory indulged in for the sake of shorthand). Being just the court case makes it incredibly interesting. There are no flashbacks and no concrete truths outside of what is presented to us in the courtroom. It is best to think of this work, and its adaptations, as separate works from the book and the film. Where those give you events and then show you how those events can be represented — or misrepresented — through the military justice system, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial just shows us the military justice system. In a Rashomon (1951) esque way, it becomes a meditation on truth and the stories well told to establish truth. All we have here is procedure and what those under examination reveal, and how lawyers try to build and (perhaps) manipulate cases.
The Friedkin is a glossier affair than the Altman, which took place in a basketball court (in a gym) repurposed as a makeshift military court. This choice from Altman and co. may have been due to budgetary restrictions but becomes its own comment on the legitimacy of the court process in an interesting way (though perhaps not fully achieved). The latest version keeps us in a courtroom more similar to the one from the ’54 film. It is respectable and traditional: all decked out in luxurious wood and populated by people in immaculate uniforms. It is the picture of civility and authority. It makes Altman feel on the nose, or this version feels more relevant, as the exterior sheen is key to the actual fallible court (injustice masked). If anything, Friedkin is aligned against the institution and knows the best way to do this is to show its prestige façade. This film ultimately chronicles a defense attorney (Jason Clarke) who openly states — before the case begins — to the accused, Jake Lacy’s Maryk, that he would rather be on the prosecution. We therefore see what happens when somebody just follows orders and works within the system. This is, after all, the system policing itself and every slight ritual and tradition is shown. The effect is an oppressive, conservative process that openly wishes to excuse the senior officer.
What is always interesting is that it is not about proving whether the mutiny was the right thing to do — whether it was just — it is about proving if it fitted within military guidelines. It can therefore only reaffirm the status of the establishment no matter which way it goes; it also clearly asserts that doing the right thing is not important, doing the Naval thing is. We have frustrated witnesses giving examples of irresponsible action and we learn that all we have is their word, and even what they are asserting is not enough. Having seen nothing of what happened, we become the impartial jury that is not allowed, the viewer becoming a more complete justice system. Positioning is key here, as the film presents and engages in a very impressive moral ambiguity. We have to grapple with what is shown and this is best presented through a stunning, reframed ending. The original ending has the defense attorney give a speech at a party, giving his true feelings about the case regardless of how it went. It was pushed one way in the Altman (though Altman, of course, directs a better party scene with his characteristic overlapping dialogue), and is pushed a different way here. The tone of the piece is reframed as the attorney reveals certain perspectives that make the viewer sit in judgement in a different way. There’s some system always wins logic and, really, the deft final movement finds another way to show the problem of traditionalist, conservative, and ‘just following orders’ thinking (before a terrific harsh cut to jingoistic music).
Like with the best courtroom films, the viewer will leave this chilled about the realities of the justice system. Films that capture this do it so well, the twin gold standards being Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957) (which this, though very good, isn’t close to). These works show how the justice system is about performance and presentation, not truth. Mutiny adds the layer of it being about procedure and regulation. The core point is trying to prove the mental state of somebody also speaks to how poor our systems are for treating mental ill health and gestures towards the scapegoating of vulnerable groups. Everything is a pawn to be used by a completely flawed justice system.
This production is evidently based on a play but it doesn’t feel stagey in any negative sense. It feels well-staged. We have an enclosed location and creative, though not distracting, blocking. The film is a trading off of monologues but this is dictated by the court setting and feels earned. Performances are uniformly excellent (any could be isolated and espoused upon for a paragraph) showing the key strength to be the ensemble. All are able to take dense and potentially dry dialogue and make it feel natural. Wit and personality are injected as much through the strength of acting as they are in the script.
At points, the camera slowly, and elegantly, swoops. It makes the most of the limited space, orbiting like a circling bird of prey to match a predatory style of interrogation. These movements bring to mind the camerawork in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which so well establishes the impact of a courtroom’s geography. The result is the same here as we trade off slow movements with unflinching stillness. The camerawork is expressive but always calculated, an inherent precision in concert with the forensic nature of questioning.
It is really wonderful doing a lot with a little filmmaking, or a showing of how much you can do in a small place. The most obvious appeal is narrative, as the play adapted is shown to be excellent. The searching ambiguity where the film invites an active viewership makes the film stick. There’s also a reminder here that drama thrills, not just action. The interchange of argument, the spirited accusations and defences — the building of a past we have to piece together from fragments of conjecture — it is incredibly gripping. It may not have been intended as a directorial swan song but it is one final reminder that William Friedkin was — and always will be — one of the greats.