“We’ve got nothing to do with the war. Maybe that’s why we’re on this ship, cause we’re not good enough to fight. Cause our glands don’t secrete enough adrenaline, or our great-great-grandmothers were afraid of the dark or something.”
When director John Ford teamed up with actor Henry Fonda for Young Mr Lincoln, I got exactly what I expected form a biopic about an American president made by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda. It was very earnest, very respectful, and very reverential. So when I fired up Mister Roberts and saw John Ford’s name appear in the credits, I was expecting a similar earnest, respectful, reverential approach to American sailors during the Second World War. While I did get that to some degree, I got a lot of stuff I didn’t expect as well.
World War II is underway in the Pacific. Aboard the merchant ship the USS Reluctant, morale is low. Under the official leadership of the despotic, Napoleonic Captain Morton (James Cagney), the men actually follow their much more beloved cargo officer, Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda). As the movie opens, none of the men have the left the ship for any form of recreation leave in over a year.
Also aboard the Reluctant is the boat’s resident slacker, Ens. Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon). When not doing a little black market dealing for his own gain, Pulver is trying to get to a nearby island with a gaggle of newly discovered nurses. Mr Roberts’ other great ally is the ship’s doctor (William Powell), appropriately named Doc. He’s the Derrick Smalls ‘warm water’ between the Nigel Tuffnel ‘fire’ and David St Hubbins ‘ice’ of Roberts and Pulver. While Roberts is the selfless man of the people, and Pulver is all selfishness and libido, Doc is the well rounded one of the three who can actually step back and see the big picture.
While the war is being fought elsewhere, the crew of the Reluctant only become more and more frustrated. Not only are they under the tyrannical leadership of Morton, they also feel like they’re being left out of the action, playing no real part in the war they signed up to actively fight.
Mister Roberts is a weird movie. It’s frequently funny, but not in the broad, screwball way you might expect from the 50s. It has some serious things to say about war and the effect it has on men, but it’s not dark. And John Ford’s direction is lighter than what I’m used to from him. There are several different approaches to film making and story telling going on here, and against the odds, they combine seamlessly.
You have to wait until the halfway point to get your first altercation between Fonda and Cagney, but it’s more than worth the wait. These are two absolute power houses of classic Hollywood, and they couldn’t be more different. There’s the quiet, minimal intensity of Fonda, up against the big, vaudeville flash of Cagney, and these two acting approaches make their characters’ disdain for each other all the more believable. All that, plus the always amazing Jack Lemmon floating around the edges, ready to jump in at any moment when things seem in danger of lagging.
Mister Roberts is exactly what I wanted from this period, these actors and this director. It’s nowhere near a perfect movie, but it uses everything at its disposal just right. And while I went in for the Fonda aspect, Lemmon and Cagney are just as integral to making Mister Roberts as watchable as it is.