"Vestments of Civil Life"1 in Caine Mutiny and Attack

By Brown, Kathleen A. | Film & History, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

"Vestments of Civil Life"1 in Caine Mutiny and Attack


Brown, Kathleen A., Film & History


Differing in theaters of operation and branches of the military, Caine Mutiny (1954) and Attack (1956) both focus on unquestioning obedience to authority and on the competency of commanding officers within the United States military in the Second World War.2 While the two narratives each explore the complex and uneasy interaction between military service and American ideals, they evoke and reflect very different understandings of World War II and Cold War America. This essay explores the contrasting "political and philosophic reflection(s)" within the two films. Caine Mutiny embodies the Cold War's emphasis on obedience to authority, subordination of the individual to the corporate body, and class harmony.3 Attack, in contrast, illustrates the continuity of the Popular Front articulation of "the rhetoric of class" and the need for a "new moral economy" with which Americans could resist class privilege, organizational corruption, and authoritarian control. Historian Michael Denning argues, for example, that the social, cultural, and political alliances of the Popular Front produced a "cultural front" which "reshaped American culture." Such a "Popular Front public culture took three political forms: a social democratic electoral politics; a politics of anti-fascist and anti-imperialist solidarity; and a civil liberties campaign against lynching and labor repression."4 Together, these two films demonstrate the lack of a "Cold War consensus" on the very definition of American ideals or on the implications of American militarization.

In praising journalist Marion Hargrove's See Here, Private Hargrove, on the experience of induction and boot camp, a New York Times article described Hargrove as a "true American" understandably "impatient in the presence of hierarchy and red tape."5 Hargrove's initial resistance to the military is a manifestation of what military historian John Keegan has termed the "culture shock" experienced by men who entered the military's "system of subordination and autocracy" which is "alien to American values."6 In fact, one of the dominant literary themes of the Second World War was that "true Americans" found the authoritarian, hierarchical, and inefficient American military structure hard to take. Even the military acknowledged that its ranks were full of such "incorrigible civilians."7 Thus, as Jeanine Basinger points out, Hollywood-produced combat films of World War II championed, for the duration, subordination of individualism to the greater goals of unity and cooperation within the military.8 The Cold War, however, demanded a standing peacetime military and celebrated corporate organizational structure. This shift resulted in the rewriting of both the nature of the military and the definition of the "true American." Caine Mutiny reflects both of these trends with its suggestion that the obedience and subordination demanded in military service conforms to, rather than directly contradicts, American values and ideals. The film justifies its call for unquestioning obedience on the grounds that the military is actually a meritocracy and not the moribund bureaucracy portrayed in the literature and personal accounts of the war. In this reconstituted military, those who are most capable, loyal, and skilled rise to high rank. It is an anyone-can-succeed salute to the Cold War's myth of a classless America. Attacking those who criticized military red-tape, hierarchy, and authority, Caine Mutiny celebrates the Cold War era militarization of American life.

As Hanson W. Baldwin, military editor at the New York Times, pointed out, the "great question" of the Caine Mutiny is "the issue of unreasoning, unquestioning acceptance of orders."9 Having successfully defended Lt. Maryk on a mutiny charge, the conscience of the film, Greenwald, castigates Maryk and his fellow junior officers for their happiness, which comes at the expense of Lieutenant Commander Queeg. Greenwald first argues that there were in fact no objective lapses of courage or command on Queeg's part that could have possibly justified a junior officer removing him from command. …

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