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They Call Me...... MISTER Roberts
by Jon Schuller

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Ten years after the end of World War II a film appeared that portrayed a small but necessary part of the war in the Pacific. Away from the great air and sea battles, like Midway or Iwo Jima or Okinawa, where thousands of ships, airplanes and men fought and died as America slowly inched its way to Japan. No, this was the story of a navy supply ship, the USS Reluctant, in May, 1945, traveling the sea lanes from island to island, base to base, bringing much needed supplies to war-weary sailors and airmen. No excitement surrounded this vessel as it made the rounds from boredom to dullness to tedium. Once in a great while the crew would be allowed to go ashore on an overnight pass, twenty-four hour liberty, to relieve the anguish of doing virtually nothing as the war winds down.

We are allowed to see in detail how the sailors and their officers cope with the boring routine, passing the days and weeks on the vast ocean, hearing the war news that soon the War in Europe will be finally coming to an end while the Pacific Theatre will be closing soon. Lieutenant Commander Morton, the Captain, played to the hilt by James Cagney, is a stickler for discipline and by-the-book rules, more concerned with his record than his men. His record is personified by a palm tree growing in a small tub on deck. The men obey while naturally grumbling and swearing behind his back. There's only one person on-board who makes it obvious he doesn't like or respect the captain. He's Lt. (J.G.) Douglas "Doug" Roberts, the cargo/executive officer, immortally portrayed by Henry Fonda.

Before becoming a film, Mr. Roberts was first a novel in 1946 by Thomas Heggen, then, a hit Broadway play in 1948 starring Henry Fonda. The play was quite successful and ran for 1157 performances spawning a London
company and a national touring company starring John Forsythe. It launched the career of many famous movie and stage stars, like Ralph Meeker, Lee Van Cleef and Murray Hamilton. John Ford became the film's director and insisted that Fonda, then 49 years old, play the lead even though his real age would have been too old for the story's naval rank. Ford was a feisty curmudgeon, especially fighting with Fonda and Cagney on and off the set. Ford was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy and Josh Logan (uncredited) as co-directors. The supporting cast included young Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver, Roberts' bunkmate. Lemmon won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. It featured William Powell as Doc, Ward Bond as Chief Boatswain's Mate Dowdy, Phil Carrey as Mannion, Betsy Palmer as Lt. Ann Girard, Nick Adams as Seaman Reber, Ken Curtis as Yeoman 3rd Class Dolan and a young Martin Milner as a Shore Patrol Ensign.

As the days and weeks pass Mister Roberts keeps sending letters requesting a transfer to active duty ships in the Pacific. His life is slipping away, his chances to be "in the war" are quickly fading away. Roberts circumvents the chain of command by going around the Captain, going to a senior officer and requesting a liberty for the crew he dearly loves and respects. Captain Morton discovers the plan and he and Roberts have a heated debate about who commands the ship and who the supply officer is. Morton dangles a Commander's Cap in front of Roberts if Roberts agrees to stop sending in letters of transfer. He agrees and the crew is granted their shore leave. The crew of course knows nothing about the Captain's blackmailing of Mr. Roberts. From then on, after the crew makes a mess of the port and the ship is ordered to leave, Roberts acts differently towards the crew,
appearing uncaring and stricter than he's ever been. He tolerates public dressings-down by Captain Morton, mystifying the crew even more. Finally, Mr. Roberts, in a moment that breaks his depression about the war ending soon without him, jumps up and throws the Captain's prize palm tree overboard. Morton identifies the culprit (that wonderful scene where Cagney opens the ship's PA system "Alright, who did it. Who did it?" in that inimitable Cagney voice and style) and orders Roberts to his cabin. The mike has been left open and the entire crew hears about the "deal" between Roberts and Captain Morton. As Roberts descends the ladder to the deck all men, one by one, address him respectfully and wish him goodnight. In a matter of minutes the entire crew shows Mr. Roberts how much they really care about him as he cares for them.

After many long months and dozens of letters Mr. Roberts gets the transfer he's been waiting for. He doesn't remember sending in the request. Later he finds out that Doc submitted for him and the entire crew took turns trying to copy Roberts' signature. He'll be picked up by seaplane and sent to Okinawa where he'll become part of the crew of a destroyer, the USS Livingston. The crew presents him with a medal (they've made), The Order of the Palm, for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. Roberts is obviously touched by the gesture and almost wishes he wasn't leaving the ship. Doc and Ensign Pulver wish him well and next thing we see is the PBY taking off right past the ship.

Ensign Pulver reluctantly becomes the new cargo officer knowing full well he'll have to earn the crew's respect now that Mr. Roberts is gone. It's mail call and Pulver and Doc relax on deck as they look at letters from home Doc gets a new wallpaper
pattern from his wife, reminding him of the "normal" life he used to have and Pulver gets a love-letter. Then Pulver opens a letter from a buddy serving on the same destroyer as Mr. Roberts. It's the usual chit-chat between old friends in the middle of a war. A second letter from the same friend is opened and we see Pulver visibly shrink after reading it. Mr. Roberts was killed during an air-raid on the destroyer as he sat in the wardroom drinking coffee. The irony and the tragedy are obvious and heartfelt. A good man, a fine officer, a friend - has been killed.
Ensign Pulver storms into the Captain's cabin as he asks Morton, "Now what's all this crud about no movie tonight?" The baton has been passed dramatically.

The movie conveys many things about men in war. In this case it's about men serving in a relatively safe zone away from the fighting but serving the cause nonetheless. How ordinary men have to become soldiers and sailors is a story as old as our country when farmers or bankers or noblemen, rich and poor alike, had to take up a cause, choose a side and fight for that cause. In World War II men were drafted to serve, as they were during the Vietnam War; today, it's an all-volunteer force. But that doesn't lessen the physical and mental effects of participating and seeing the horrors of war firsthand, surviving and having to live with the memories and the consequences. Mr. Roberts, his fellow officers and the crew who served with them were all ordinary men, from every part of the United States, thrown together to serve a cause and live under less-than-pleasant conditions. I salute our men and women serving today overseas and elsewhere, leaving their lives and families behind, risking everything, for a cause. I hope they'll all be home soon, sooner than ever.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.


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