Monday, September 5, 2022

Art v. History: Raising Caine

Herman Wouk
Friend o' blog and drama maven Dwight ("Usual Disclaimer") Sullivan has lobbed the following over the Culture Desk transom in the glass-enclosed newsroom high above Global Military Justice Reform Plaza:

    Remaking a classic work of art can be a fraught exercise.  But if done well, the results can be exceptional, as Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant reinterpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird recently demonstrated.  Another remake of a classic legal tale is underway:  The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

The Caine Mutiny was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk before he adapted it for the stage under the title The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.  After debuting in Santa Barbara in 1953, it opened on Broadway in 1954, with Henry Fonda playing the defense counsel.  A later revival featured Joe Namath as USS Caine’s executive officer and accused mutineer LT Stephen Maryk—a role later played by Jeff Daniels in a 1988 made-for-TV adaptation of the play.  The most familiar version of the story is the 1954 film featuring Humphrey Bogart in the role of LCDR Philip Francis QueegCaine’s erratic captain.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial will now be revived as a film directed by Oscar-winner William Friedkin of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and To Live and Die in L.A. fame.  Kiefer Sutherland will play Queeg.  Filming is set to start in January 2023.  Friedkin reworked Wouk’s script, shifting the story from its original World War II context to an incident in the Straits of Hormuz.

Let’s hope Friedkin hires a good technical advisor.  His discussion of the project included this ahistorical exegesis:  

“There never was a mutiny in the United States Navy,” Friedkin said. “Herman Wouk virtually created the first and only mutiny in the United States military.  His dialogue is terrific, right to the point.  It’s set at a trial, but it’s all really by the book, in terms of accuracy.  But there never was a mutiny in the United States military.  He invented it and all that would take place around it, based on the laws that cover it.”

Friedkin’s historical perspective may have been influenced by a text box that appeared at the opening of the 1954 film.  It stated:  

“There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy.  The truths of this film lie not in its incidents but in the way a few men met the crisis of their lives.”

Let’s unpack those claims.  To be precise, the 1954 text should have read, “There has never been a successful mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy”—with the word “ship” doing some heavy lifting.  A mutiny likely occurred aboard one of USS Warren’s boats in 1846.  While transporting money and supplies from the ship to Sutter’s Fort on Sacramento Bay, nine sailors allegedly killed three officers—two of whom were sons of Warren’s captain—and threw their bodies overboard.  8 NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER, DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN FIGHTING SHIPS 107 (1981); GENE A. SMITH, THOMAS AP CATESBY JONES:  COMMANDER OF MANIFEST DESTINY 133 (2000); LEONARD F. GUTTRIDGE, MUTINY: A HISTORY OF NAVAL INSURRECTION 116 (1992).  In 1849, a mutiny occurred aboard USS Ewing’s gig in San Francisco Bay.  After taking visitors ashore, five sailors in the gig threw Passed Midshipman William Gibson overboard and rowed toward California’s goldfields.  Erwin G. Gudde, Mutiny on the Ewing, 30 CAL. HISTOR. SOC’Y Q. 39-47 (1951).  Even though he was a strong swimmer, Gibson almost drowned as his saturated clothes weighed him down.  Id. at 41.  As he was boarding his own ship, the master of an English merchantman lying at anchor nearby happened to see Gibson in the water and dragged him to safety.  Id. at 42.  The five mutinous sailors were captured, convicted by court-martial, and sentenced to be hanged.  Id. at 43.  The Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Naval Forces Pacific commuted three of the death sentences, ordering instead that the sailors “receive one hundred lashes on the bare back, serve out the remainder of their term of enlistment without pay, and with a ball and chain on the leg, in solitary confinement, or at hard labor, or alternately both, at such navy yard or other place or places as the Secretary of the Navy may direct.”  Id. at 44.  The remaining two mutineers were hanged on October 23, 1849.  Id. at 45.  The Department of the Navy has not executed one of its members since.  

Seven years before the Ewing gig mutiny, an alleged mutiny occurred aboard USS Somers, leading to the execution of two sailors and a midshipman who happened to be the son of the Secretary of War.  See generally Guttridge, supra, at 93-116.  The resulting brouhaha led to the United States Naval Academy’s establishment in 1845.  Id. at 116. 

So Friedkin was clearly wrong when he declared that “[t]here never was a mutiny in the United States Navy.”  He was even more incorrect when her proclaimed that “there never was a mutiny in the United States military.”  As Col. Winthrop makes clear, there have been quite a few mutinies in the U.S. Army.  Among many other examples, Winthrop cited “the case, published in G. O. 15, Dept. of the Mo., 1864, of certain officers dismissed for mutiny in unlawfully arresting and dispossessing of his command the commander of the post”—an action somewhat similar to that of LT Maryk in The Caine Mutiny.  WILLIAM WINTHROP, MILITARY LAW AND PRECEDENTS 580 n.51 (2d ed. 1920).  Winthrop also offered examples of Army mutinies in which officers or NCOs were either killed or wounded.  Id. at 580 n.55, 584 n.80.

During the 70+ years of the UCMJ era, there have been mutiny convictions, some resulting from a 2010 inmate revolt in the United States Disciplinary Barracks’ Special Housing Unit.  E.g., United States v. Lewis, No. ARMY 20111166, 2014 CCA LEXIS 26, 2014 WL 278398 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Jan. 24, 2014); United States v. Savage, 72 M.J. 560 (A. Ct. Crim. App. 2013).  In the memorable case of the striking Louisiana National Guard soldiers, Chief Judge Walter T. Cox III observed, “Appellant and his confederates clearly, deliberately, and collectively set about to disobey the orders of their superiors and to organize a mutiny against the command and its mission,” while noting that the government “chose a less sensational and onerous charge upon which to prosecute appellant for his misconduct.”  United States v. Brown, 45 M.J. 389, 399 (Cox, C.J., concurring).

Brown brings us full circle.  In his dissent, Judge Eugene R. Sullivan quoted Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.  Id. at 401 (Sullivan, J., dissenting).  Whether Friedkin’s reworked screenplay will ever merit such an honor remains to be seen. Meanwhile make ready the popcorn, but keep Winthrop handy.

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