I Salute The Caine Mutiny Court Martial

David B Morris
12 min readJun 9, 2024


A Fitting Final Work for Two of the Greatest Talents of Our Time

Note: Those of you who have read my column over the years might be aware that, in all my years of reviewing television I have almost never reviewed a TV movie. This is not because I haven’t been impressed by the work that cable or streaming have done with TV movies; on the contrary, I have long appreciated the storied history of HBO when it comes to elevating the form. But for whatever reason, no doubt some quirk on my part, I’ve never tried to review a film made expressly for television.

I am breaking this rule for this film for a combination of factors. First it is likely to be a contender for Emmy nominations, perhaps more than the mere token nomination for TV movie. Second, two of the talents behind — one of the cast and one of the directors — have left us in the last year so it seems fitting to pay tribute to both of them. Finally, I have a personal connection with the source material that is different then the average viewer would.

So with that in mind, here is my review of Showtime’s production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

William Friedkin.

During a career in film making that spanned more than six decades, William Friedkin was one of the greatest and most undervalued directors of our time. This might seem hard to fathom to consider that two of the films he directed: The French Connection and The Exorcist are considered two of the greatest movie ever made and Sorcerer was considered by no less an authority than Quentin Tarantino as one of the three films made that truly showcased what a great director was willing to do to create art. (The other two were Werner Herzog’s Aguire, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now, considered two of the greatest movies ever made.)

But while Friedkin was admired by his peers and so many critics he is often compared more with his contemporary Peter Bogdanovich then the legends who came out of the 1970s such as Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg. Because while all of those men more than lived up to their potential after those three groundbreaking movies, Friedkin never quite came close to echoing them. With the exception of the still-controversial Cruising and the action classic To Live and Die in L.A. much of Friedkin’s subsequent career was made of increasingly disappointing and often disastrous critically received movies, bottoming out with the horrible Jade in 1995.

For a man known most famous for his action films, looking back on it some of the best work Friedkin did in his career were actually adaptations of plays. This makes sense considering he got his start in TV. He adapted the groundbreaking The Boys in the Band in 1970, a remake of 12 Angry Men for cable starring Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn and George C. Scott (the latter won an Emmy) and one of the most terrifying plays I’ve ever seen, an adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Bug. I remember renting the latter when I was twenty-seven, not knowing until afterwards it was a play and being absolutely astonished by every aspect of the incredible work of Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as we spent nearly two hours into a descent into madness. Both performers were so genuine in their convictions it was until the final act that I realized how genuinely crazy Shannon’s character was and how he had dragged Judd’s into it.

So perhaps it is fitting that for what was his final work, Friedkin would return to a filmed adaptation of a play. The play he chose has its origin in one of the most famous works in the twentieth century but there is a good chance that the average viewer might not have known that — but I did.

The average literary fan is aware of The Caine Mutiny, the brilliant novel that launched Herman Wouk into literary superstardom. The average cinema fan is very familiar with the film adaptation of it that came three years later. It was considered a classic from the start, was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Humphrey Bogart’s work as Captain Queeg is so deeply etched into the lore of cinema that I actually remember the children’s show Square One TV directly satirizing it , right down to the steel balls the character was shaking in his palm. But both are so firmly etched into the lure that you might not be aware that even before the film came out, Wouk adapted a play that debuted onstage months before the film came out.

This is the part that’s the personal connection. When I was in seventh grade I remember finding a book of plays from the 1950s. I knew of many of them even at age eleven: Death of a Salesman and Streetcar Named Desire and I was familiar with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch. But I’m not sure I knew about the book or film version of The Caine Mutiny before then.

The court-martial is actually in Wouk’s book and it covers roughly a hundred and fifty pages of it. It must have been a daring stroke of his to decide to tell only this part of his best-selling novel and leave the viewer in the position of jurors ourselves. I have a feeling this might have drawn Friedkin to adapting the play. In the 21st century, the average viewer has forgotten both the novel and the film, so this would be a completely new experience. And rather than adapt the film into a new setting, Friedkin chooses to move the action of the Caine Mutiny into the modern era.

The play, its worth noting, was a success and ran on Broadway for more than a year. It was directed by Charles Laughton and Henry Fonda played Barney Greenwald, Steve Maryk’s defense attorney. The play has been revived several times since with Michael Moriarty in the 1983 production and a London production that Charlton Heston directed and starred in as Queeg. (That I would have loved to see.) It was last revived on Broadway in 2006 with the brilliant character actor Zeljko Ivanek as Queeg. It has also been adapted for television twice, the first time in 1955 live as part of the Ford Star Jubilee, the second in 1988 with Robert Altman at the helm and Eric Bogosian as Greenwald.

All of these versions kept it as a period piece. Friedkin moves his to the present by having the Caine sweeping the Persian Gulf. We are in peacetime, unlike the original, but the War on Terror hangs over everything. The original play has an all-white male cast and Friedkin updated it for the 21st century to. The most critical changes were turning the prosecutor Challee into a woman, played by Monica Raymund and making the head of the tribunal Blakely African-American.

Friedkin couldn’t have know that this would be one of the last roles that the incredible Lance Reddick would ever play (any more than he could know this would be his last film) but for Reddick there could be a more fitting role. Reddick has been at the center of Peak TV from the start, playing John Basil an undercover cop who gets into deep in OZ, going from there almost immediately to Cedric Daniels, the no-nonsense lieutenant in The Wire, playing the mysterious Matthew Abaddon in Lost, taking the role of Philip Broyles in the incredible Fringe and finally being one of the major recurring characters in the brilliant procedural Bosch. Reddick’s entire career in television (and that includes his numerous guest spots well before and after this) is that of authority figures who will take no crap from anybody. This is particularly important for the role of Blakely.

Aside from those cosmetic changes and a few lines updated the story involving the Internet, Friedkin changes basically nothing of the source material. Stephen Maryk (played here by Jake Lacy, looking more out of his depth than we usually see him) has been the first person in two centuries charged with mutiny. During a storm he relieved his commanding office Captain Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) of command because he believed Queeg was mentally unfit for command in a time of crisis. His defense attorney is Barney Greenwald (played by Jason Clarke in this version) and its clear that Greenwald has a very different defense in mind when after Queeg is called by the prosecution, he reserves cross examination saying he intends to call Queeg as a defense witness, something that stuns both Challee and Blakely.

The play is divided into a two-act structure. In the first act, the prosecution puts on its case. If you nothing about either the film or the book, it will seem to look very bad for Maryk almost from the start. The man Maryk thinks will be his most loyal supporter Lt. Keefer (Lewis Pullman) puts on an argument where it becomes clear he didn’t support the decision. Most of the other prosecution witnesses argue, with the exception of Keith (the central character in the novel) argue that while Queeg was not a great captain, nobody thought he was crazy. Expert witnesses come on to talk about Queeg’s sanity and that the captain has full authority. At one point Blakely asks Maryk flat-out if he is satisfied with Greenwald as his defense counsel and its very hard to argue otherwise.

In the second act Greenwald puts on his defense. He calls just two witnesses. The first is the accused, the second is Queeg. This is where the great drama of the play and the film lie and I have no intention of spoiling it for the viewer so for now, I’ll move to my own experience with the project.

Most of the members in the cast either were well known to me at the time or would be later on (I wouldn’t know anything about Pullman until I saw in Lessons in Chemistry later that same year.) The acting is uniformly good though one does question the presence of some of them (I couldn’t understand why Jay Duplass was here) and while most of the attention going forward was on Reddick, I will focus mine on the three leads.

Jake Lacy has over the last few years justifiably gotten a reputation for playing comic blowhards, both on The White Lotus and this years Apples Never Fall. If there’s a common thread that we see in his work as Maryk, it’s that his character is clearly in over his hand and has made a rash choice based on flawed intelligence. When he testifies in his defense, he does everything in his power to make the argument all about Queeg and why he thought he was a dangerous man. The listing of incidents he gives sounds deranged (and if you never read the novel, it will sound even more so) and as he states them he sounds sure of himself. When Challee crosses him, however, she starts to grind down everything he’s held dear. She makes it clear how poorly undereducated he is, how horrible his judgment was and just how many blunders he made along on the way. Maryk sticks firm to his position throughout with the dogged persistence of what seems to be right, but you can tell by the time he leaves the witness stands, he’s beginning to wonder if he’ll come out okay.

Jason Clarke is one of the most undervalued character actors of the 21st century. I have marveled at his talent since I first became award of him in the brilliant crime drama Brotherhood and the cancelled far-too soon The Chicago Code. His most recent role on television was the perennially angry Jerry West in the sadly cancelled Winning Time (Clarke can’t catch a break with television). You’ve seen him with his real Australian accent in Rabbit-Proof Fence and in such brilliant dramas as Zero Dark Thirty, Mudbound and just recently as the man who destroys Oppenheimer’s credibility. He’s also played Ted Kennedy, Reinhard Heydrich and Potemkin.

Clarke has a gift for playing military men and authority figures and you could see his work as Greenwald as the polar opposite of what he did in Oppenheimer. As Greenwald, he has to get his client off and the methods he does shock the jury. The climax of the book is when he cross-examines Queeg with the same deliberate pace that he dismantled Cillian Murphy. It is a slow and deliberate way of getting his client off by, as Maryk will say when its over, “murdering Queeg.” But this time when it happens Challee is so horrified by what she has witnessed that rather than cross examine Queeg she demands that Greenwald be sanctioned and disbarred. Blakely’s last statement before the board begins to make its judgment is to tell Greenwald that while there will be no legal penalty that he has crossed a line far beyond the scope of military proceedings. In the denouement of the play, Greenwald is fully aware of what he’s done and is deeply ashamed by his actions — though he hides them under the cover of drinking.

Kiefer Sutherland has enormous shoes to fill when he steps into the role of Queeg and it is to his credit that he doesn’t even once try to do a Bogart imitation. As in the play, Queeg only appears at the start of the proceedings and the end, but his presence overshadows so much of what happens that it seems like he’s always in the room. Greenwald has essentially decided to try Queeg rather than defend Maryk and its clear in every question he asks.

Again if you haven’t read the book, I’m not going to describe the climactic scene, even though it is one of the most famous in the history of film. What I will say is that I think that Sutherland handles it better than perhaps Bogart did. Bogart was one of the greatest screen presences of our time but so much of his career was spent playing figures with authority that it was difficult to imagine him having the nuance to the instability we see here. That probably played out better in the film, but I can’t imagine it working if they had only filmed the play and the only impression of Queeg’s madness is what we heard and Bogart’s reactions. (I could be wrong, and perhaps a cinema buff will tell me so.)

Sutherland has always been more capable of nuance than Bogart usually was allowed to show in his films and its particularly clear in the second act when Greenwald confront him with the flaws in his personality and we see his character begin to unravel. When Queeg famously takes out the steel balls, the viewer realizes Greenwald’s play and we know that the trap he’s sprung and it unfolds in one of the best bits of acting in Sutherland’s career, one that if there is any justice he will be nominated for an Emmy for.

What you think of the denouement will be in the eyes of the beholder. I remember some reviewers thinking it seemed tacked on, even though it was in the original play. I believe it is necessary. I’m not normally in favor of exposition but in the case of a filmed play, it’s the only way you can do things and considering that I suspect the source material has been forgotten by the masses, they’re going to need in order to understand why Greenwald feels the way he does about what he’s done and how it gives a greater understanding as to the true interpretation of what happened.

Its worth remembering one last thing about The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. So many of the TV movies we get these days are essentially focused more on action and putting the movie part in TV movie. I’m not complaining about that part, some of the greatest TV films I’ve ever seen have done so. But I feel a greater fondness for those TV movies that choose to turn stage adaptions into movies without losing the feel of the theater. I speaking not just of HBO’s versions of The Sunset Limited or All The Way but last year’s incredible version of Reality. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial keeps with this grand tradition, and it is a measure of Friedkin’s talent that he remember that for a version like this to work, he had to narrow the focus of his camera and not spread it outward. That’s a fitting tribute to one of the best directors of our time, to know that even in his last project he’d not forgotten the tricks of the trade.



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.