John Ford, Mevryn LeRoy
Frank Nugent, Joshua Logan (Play: Thomas Heggen, Joshua Logan; based on Novel: Thomas Heggen)
Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond, Phil Carey
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Ten years after World War II had ended, films about the boys in uniform continued to make waves at the box office. Unlike most war-based dramas, Mister Roberts deals less with the vagaries of war and more with the camaraderie on naval vessels sailing without action in the South Pacific.
Henry Fonda stars as Lt. JG Doug Roberts, a personable seaman whose assignment aboard the aptly-named U.S.S. Reluctant stationed far out of the battlefront in the South Pacific. They’ve seen no shore leave for weeks and the crew has begun shirking the captains overly strict orders. Mr. Roberts permits many of these infractiosn for being so far out at sea who’s going to know but them? Yet, the irascible Captain Morton (James Cagney) runs a tight, strict ship and regular orders the crew to put their shirts on when on deck simply because those are the rules. Yet, with the extreme heat in that region, even on deck, it’s too hot to work fully clothed. Mr. Roberts gives them leniency and Capt. Morton takes it back, never fully reprimanding Roberts, but always getting angry with him.
Roberts doesn’t want to be in the South Pacific. He wants to be on the front lines where the action means he’s doing something for his country. Stuck at sea doing little but patrolling, frustrates him. He has even made several transfer requests to the naval command but each time he files his request through the Captain, the Captain gives his least sterling recommendation and so he sits. No one dares stand up to the captain, not even Roberts, which creates tension among the crew and its officers.
Fonda’s measured performances have earned him much respect, but yielded many a typecast role. The same is true for his performance in Mister Roberts where his even-keeled personality fits superbly with his character. His character is full of recriminations, but is the consummate officer. His only chance to be open about his problems is when with his bunkmate Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) or the ship’s doctor (William Powell). Powell plays the doctor much like Fonda plays Roberts. He’s never aggressive, mean-spirited or beligerant. The same cannot be said for Lemmon. Pulver is one of those rare characters whose bombastic diatries are just as endearing as Roberts’ stoicism. Lemmon’s performance defines that character with seemingly little effort. He’s almost interesting enough to be the film’s protagonist, but it’s through Pulver’s eyes that Roberts realizes he can’t be a pushover forever. Cagney makes his character fairly unlikable, but that may be one of the film’s flaws, not giving the audience a way to respect him enough to understand his motives. The viewer assumes that he doesn’t want to approve Roberts’ transfer because he respects his work and wants to keep him around, but this concept seems immaterial to the plot at hand.
Pulver is free with his criticism when the captain isn’t around, but when Morton appears, Pulver retreats into subserviance, keeping his issues to himself and never daring to contravene his commands. Roberts has no problem doing so, but relents just as frequently to the captain as he does to the crew. Both men, despite being diametric opposites in personality, share a respect for position, but a trepidation for conflict. Roberts does so out of a hope that one day with his next request for reassignment, the captain will heartily agree. Pulver fears rocking the boat despite his extroverted temperament. Both characters learn valuable lessons from the results of the others’ actions and grow as the film wraps.
Apart from the strictness of Captain Morton’s command and the implications of Roberts disobeying orders, there’s little really driving the film. When we finally get to the confrontational aspects of the film’s final act, there’s no dramatic necessity to follow along anymore. Frank Nugent and Joshua Logan can write better films, so I’m not sure if they are entirely at fault. John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy are solid directors, so it’s not them. The performances are fine, so it isn’t that either. But the film does feel lacking in importance. Is there enough proof of growth by the film’s end to justify its existence? Pulver does a great deal of growing and Roberts eventually gets what he needs, but he doesn’t learn any valuable lessons or unearth any important insights. The film exists merely as a showcase for its parts and not much else.
The only part of the film that really feels integral is the closing scene as Ensign Pulver reads the poignant letter he’s received from one Mr. Roberts’ fellow officers. The emotional impact of these characters hits there and you understand a bit of why the film is so docile. The characters are why we watch the film. Whether they learn or grow or change by the end is only part of what we want for them. We just want them to be happy and to succeed and like life, every decision and event isn’t a chance to take to a soapbox. Sometimes, it’s nice to be with and live with interesting and relatable characters, and share with them the simplicity of life and human nature without needing to be elucidated to some grand idea.
August 18, 2011