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Henry Fonda
James Cagney
William Powell
Jack Lemmon
Betsy Palmer
Philip Carey
Nick Adams
Perry Lopez
Ken Curtis

John Ford &
Mervyn LeRoy



Time: 123 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Comedy/Drama/WWII

Won Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Lemmon). Nominations for Best Sound and Best Picture.

MISTER ROBERTS is one of those classic pictures that I've always heard good things about, but had just never got around to seeing. In the wake of Jack Lemmon's recent passing, I figured it was about time I saw what all the fuss was about. I, like most Americans, love Mr. Lemmon and though he's good in this movie, it really isn't his show. Henry Fonda plays Mister Roberts, a part he performed onstage for three years before the film was made. He is amazing as a naval officer who dreams of actually fighting in the war, instead of being forced to watch from the sidelines. It is his powerful, funny and poignant role that gives the film its soul and it's a wonderful thing to see. They couldn't have cast someone more drastically different from this honorable actor than James Cagney. At the end of his long career, Cagney attacks the role of the obnoxiously arrogant captain with gusto. It is the battle of wills between these two men that makes this film crackle with wit, anger and passion. Their hatred for each other burns off the screen. If they weren't of equal talent, this story would just fall apart. Thankfully, they are, creating a joy to behold.

I'm not generally fond of war movies, but since there isn't a battle in sight, it's one I was more than willing to sit through. The story takes place at the end of WWII, following the escapades of the USS Reluctant, a sea weary cargo ship patrolling the Pacific. Mister Roberts (Fonda) is the Executive Officer, beloved by the crew and despised by the Captain (Cagney). Of course, he's not about to let Roberts go. It's because of Roberts' hard work that the Captain received high praise – in the form of a palm tree which sits on deck – for the most cargo moved. The men hate this "prize," which the Captain dotes on and treats better than them. Roberts becomes the buffer between the crew and the Captain's tyranny, taking all the crap because he believes he won't be there long. Every week he writes a letter to naval command requesting a transfer – his right as a soldier – and every week the Captain mails it, but with a stamp of disapproval, ensuring Roberts place on the ship. Doc (Powell) and Ensign Pulver (Lemmon) try to dissuade him from this endeavor as it only angers the Captain and makes life on the ship more tense. Roberts doesn't care. There's a war on out there and he's going to join the fight come hell or high water.

Though no one likes the Captain, Roberts is the only one fighting. Pulver has all sorts of grand schemes to join in the fray, but that would mean he would have to leave his bunk. It becomes clear after a visit by some local nurses that the men really need a shore leave. They haven't been able to let lose for over a year and things are getting tense. To that end, Roberts finagles an order by the port master that sends "The Bucket" to Elysium, a tropical island that has a liberty port. Unfortunately for Pulver, Roberts uses the bottle of whiskey he was planning to seduce a local nurse with. In one of the funniest scenes of the movie, Doc and Roberts concoct a home brew from various ingredients they have on hand in the cabin. Not something I would rush to drink. It goes without saying that once they reach paradise, the Captain refuses to let the men off the ship. It seems he's discovered Roberts handywork and cancels liberty to punish him for going behind his back. In this film's most powerful confrontation, the Captain offers Roberts a deal. One that will get the men onshore, but will secure Roberts place onboard indefinitely. Needless to say, after a year of nothing but men, the crew gets themselves into all sorts of trouble and the ship kicked out of port.

"I looked down from our bridge and saw our captain's palm tree! Our trophy for superior achievement! The Admiral John J. Finchley award for delivering more toothpaste and toilet paper than any other Navy cargo ship in the safe area of the Pacific. "

The Captain is angrier than ever, which he takes out on Roberts. Only now, Roberts can do nothing but obey. He gave his word. The men don't understand this new compliant attitude by the one man who stood by them. The mood between Roberts and the men gets colder and quieter as the weeks go by. The end of the war in Europe initially elates Roberts, but it's also the end of his dream to see combat. When Pulver's attempt to cap their celebration goes awry, it's up to Roberts to end the tyranny onboard. By tossing the Captain's precious palm overboard, he re-earns the men's respect and love, which eventually enables him to finally realize his greatest desire. The ending is bittersweet as Roberts leaves his crew to join a navy destroyer and to help end the war in the Pacific. He gets to experience the war firsthand, which in his case is not a good thing. The men try to go on without him, but Ensign Pulver is too weak-willed to go head to head with the Captain. That is until news of Roberts fate is delivered. Then, in honor of Roberts, he picks up the torch, or in this case the palm tree, and continues the good fight. Much to the utter dismay of the captain.

Though the talent involved is impressive, I wasn't sure I would like this movie as much as I did. How Fonda wasn't nominated for his role here is beyond me. Maybe they figured it was overkill since he'd already won a Tony for playing it on Broadway. It's a sad thing that William Powell retired after this film, but I'm glad he stayed in the game for one last hurrah. He's as charming as always as Roberts one true friend and sounding board on ship. They have an easy way between them that makes their friendship completely believable. I thought Cagney deserved the supporting actor nod over Lemmon, but I guess that's just me. I could buy that Pulver was a lazy screw-up, but not a womanizer. Lemmon is very funny, but his part just didn't grab me as much as I thought it would. Cagney on the other hand was stupendously evil as the Captain, a man who's been dismissed and downtrodden his whole life. The ship is his domain and he's going to make Roberts pay for every slight he's received by the upper class. Though he's cruel, he never loses his humanity, wearing his pain on his sleeve.

The production design is kind of a mixed bag, some on location, some on the soundstage. It feels like a play in some parts, which takes away from the cinema experience, but not enough to make you care all that much. The outside shots are wonderful, especially the arrival of the Reluctant into Elysium with the green mountains in the background and the hundreds of native boats rowing to meet the ship. It's one of the films most beautiful and exciting moments. The fact that they were able to shoot on location on a real boat helps the authenticity of the story and gives it a grander feeling than it's story allows. Despite its ending and some darker moments along the way, this is a lighthearted film that showcases the boredom and cameraderie of life in the military. I'm sure it's just as poignant and funny as it was 45+ years ago. The one thing I could never understand was Roberts burning desire to be on the front line. People die in combat and I know it's a harsh reality of wars, however, if I had to serve I'd want to be as far away from the bullets as possible. Maybe it's a guy thing. In any case, this film was a pure delight and one everyone can enjoy. With four brilliant actors and a great story, it's hard to go wrong.

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