US Release Date: 07-30-1955
Directed by: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy
- Henry Fonda, as
- Lt. Doug Roberts
- James Cagney, as
- Capt. Morton
- William Powell, as
- Lt. Doc
- Jack Lemmon, as
- Ens. Pulver
- Betsy Palmer, as
- Lt. Ann Girard
- Ward Bond, as
- Chief Petty Ofcr. Dowdy
- Philip Carey, as
- Patrick Wayne, as
- Harry Carey Jr. as
Jack Lemmon and Ward Bond in Mister Roberts.
Both a novel and a successful Broadway play before being brought to the big screen, Mister Roberts is a well-balanced blend of comedy and drama. Of all the war movies made about World War II Mister Roberts stands out as unique. There is not a single onscreen battle or even a gunshot. It takes place far from enemy lines aboard a Navy cargo ship in the Pacific during the waning months of the war. The main tension in the movie is not between the Americans and the Japanese but between the title character, played brilliantly by Henry Fonda, and the ship's captain, played by James Cagney at full throttle. In essence they represent the war in microcosm.
Henry Fonda is the heart of the movie. His frustration at being stuck delivering 'toothpaste and toilet paper' while the real war passes him by just over the horizon is palpable. It is truly an Oscar worthy performance.
Jack Lemmon and William Powell are both great in supporting roles. Lemmon (who did in fact win an Academy Award) is Ensign Pulver, a womanizing slacker who idolizes Mr. Roberts and is scared witless of the captain. William Powell, in what would be his final film role, plays the wise old ship's doctor, world-weary but with a heart of gold.
Very few movies feature four such formidable male stars each with his own distinct and interesting personality. Mister Roberts is worth watching for the cast alone. Fortunately it also has an intelligent and witty script and is beautifully shot in wide-screen and Technicolor.
Mervyn Leroy replaced director John Ford when he became ill. The two were great friends. It would be interesting to know which scenes were directed by whom. Watching the movie today it plays seamlessly.
The plot consists mostly of Mr. Roberts trying to gain liberty for his crew and getting himself off of the prison-like USS Reluctant and onto a battle-ship. The fact that it is a character study and a comedy sets it apart from your typical war themed action picture.
Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts.
Having been in the U.S. Navy I have a real affection for this movie. Scott once complained that he cannot watch this movie with me due to the fact that so many scenes inspire me to tell an old sea story. The officers and crew in Mr Roberts are very accurately portrayed. I picture real people I knew from my time in the service as the characters in this movie. Me? I am Nolan.
One of the early scenes in the movie has the crew unloading supplies. This is called a working party. I remember doing one of those with a shipmate who was best friends with the officer in charge of the detail. I followed him around, only working when he did. It drove him and the officer nuts, but to force me to work would be to admit he was showing favoritism. It was the easiest working party I ever had.
My favorite scene in the movie is when the crew comes back from liberty. One guy drives a motorcycle off the pier. Another one sneaks a goat on board. A majority are so drunk they have to be placed on the ship by having them lifted in the cargo net. I hung out with a straight-laced group of guys on my first port of call. It was Nice, France. We ordered soda and the elderly waitress rolled her eyes. 'What has happened to the American sailor?' She began in a french accent, 'When I was young working in this bar I had to dodge flying beer bottles just to wait on tables, and now sailors drink cola.'
The character of Ensign Pulver is far and wide the common officer. That is to say many are kiss asses who would rather not spend time with the captain. Mr Roberts is a man among men. He has integrity, honor and loyalty. He reminds me of a Senior Chief Petty Officer I worked with. He was a marine who fought in Vietnam. He would often tell me war stories. He did not care for the bullshit politics of rank but he understood how it all worked. His immediate supervisor was a Warrant Officer who literally did nothing all day. He sat in his office and took credit for when things were going good and pointed the finger when they weren't. He was my Captain Morton.
The fact that this movie brings so many memories to me is just proof how real these characters are portrayed. This movie bounces so gracefully from great comedy to serious drama. I laugh out loud at the scene where the Doc and Lt Roberts are trying to help Pulver get laid. Yet I also feel Roberts' frustration when he has to deal with the utterly contemptible Captain. Which reminds me of the time......
James Cagney and Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts
Mr. Roberts is one of the greatest screen heroes ever. And like you say Patrick, not a shot is fired or a battle scene shown, yet he demonstrates such bravery, honor and integrity that he is a true hero. Henry Fonda portrays him to perfection. He's someone you can look up to and want to emulate and someone who, if he did respect you, you would know you'd truly done something to deserve it. It's because of his nobility that the ending of the movie is so heartfelt.
While Fonda provides the heart and the drama, it is Lemmon who provides the laughs and nearly steals the whole movie. When he explains to Doug how he's looking for marbles all day long and shakes the can in his face, I always laugh and I don't know how Fonda got through that scene without laughing also. And the scene when he runs into the Captain and has to explain to him how he's been onboard for 14 months but he and the Captain have never met, is another classic.
There's no question this movie is utterly enjoyable, but there is one tiny little thing that always bugs me about it. Clearly some scenes were filmed on the deck of a real ship and some were filmed on a set. Very often in mid-scene there is a cut from location to set and it's painfully obvious when it happens. It's a minor thing and hardly detracts from the movie at all, but I wish they had filmed it all on board the real ship, or just been a little more circumspect about the editing.
Although this movie is set in the military during war time, you don't have to have served to relate to it. Its message of honor and of doing the right thing and standing up for yourself while doing it is timeless.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1955)