A Couple of Mutinies to Contrast

Two of my favorite movies involve mutinies – The Caine Mutiny and Mutiny on the Bounty. Maybe it is the rebel in me, or maybe it is my disdain for leaders whose maltreatment of others causes pain, loss and disillusionment. In my business, I have witnessed first hand how leaders can lift people up and make people work together toward a common goal and success. I have also witnessed the opposite occur, when leaders get in the way of success or, more often than not, success is achieved in spite of not, because of, their leadership.

Yet, both movies tell deeper stories, one that is of equal importance. One that is told from the vantage point of the Naval leaders who have to ascertain what would bring a crew to take such an action. One that says, we cannot have crews taking over ships as that would be chaos, but we cannot have Captains treating crews poorly either. The two stories are different, beginning with The Caine Mutiny (Caine), which was produced from Herman Wouk’s novel of the same name which won a Pulitzer Prize. Mutiny on the Bounty (Bounty) is based on a true story, but does take some creative license with the truth. Caine was set in WWII, while Bounty is set in the late 1780s, which is important.

I would encourage you to watch the 1935 Bounty version which has Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, which is about as good a name for an evil Captain as you can find. This film has Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny and Francot Tone, as the protagonist Roger Byam, who struggled with the decision and offered up testimony that changes the future for the British navy. There is a 1962 version which is good, but Laughton plays a masterful Bligh in 1935.

In short, Bligh is a tyrant and flogs men routinely, cuts rations to punish, and treats the crew as chattel. However, he is brilliant seaman. After Christian and Byam led the mutiny, they set the Captain into a small boat with some loyal crew (I think loyal to the position of Captain) off the Pacific Islands. He miraculously navigates them over 1,000 miles to safety in the small craft. The mutineers live with the Tahitians for a time and after many months, a ship is seen on the horizon. At this time Byam and a couple of others want to go back to England and face the music and tell the story, but it is Bligh who is captaining the new ship. He locks them up. Christian and the others sail off to a new island and scuttle the Bounty and burn it.

The three men are tried and convicted of mutiny and sentenced to hang. The leadership sided with the role of the Captain, no matter how awful a leader he was. Yet, when Byam speaks after the sentencing about how harsh treatment Bligh gave them, and if a captain treated his crew with respect and dignity, they would “sweep the seas for England.” Byam’s sentence is commuted and is allowed to serve on a new ship. By then, his story of sweeping the seas is known and the men on ship applaud his coming on board. Bligh, while vindicated legally, offers his hand to one of the members of the court, who refused to shake it. He admires his seamanship, but he does not appreciate Bligh as a person and leader.

Caine is different. Humphrey Bogart plays Captain Queeg who is non-nonsense, but less competent and very paranoid  leader. The Caine is a battered old ship that escorts troops and sweeps for mines. The crew was less than formal when he arrives, so Queeg tries to make them so. Yet, he is easily distracted and unsure of himself. While berating a crew member for his attire, he allows the ship to circle, run over and cut its own tow line. He also endangers a landing craft of marines, when he fleas as gunfire comes from the shore. He loses all respect from the men for this. And, he goes out of his way to make a huge investigation into missing strawberries and won’t let this theft go. It turns Lieutenant Maryk (played by Van Johnson), who was respected by the crew, gave them to the crew for their hard work.

Two other key roles are played by Fred MacMurray, who plays a cynical communications officer named Keefer and Jose Ferrer, who plays the JAG lawyer Greenwald, who defends them. When Queeg became paranoid and defensive, he would noisily turn over some ball bearings in his hand as nervous habit. Keefer is the one who pushes Maryk and an Ensign Willie Keith (played by Robert Francis) into the mutiny. He plays a heavy hand behind the scenes, but when in court, does not accept responsibility, as do the others. The other key difference between Captain Bligh and Queeg, is Queeg asks for help. This was the crisis of conscience moment that Maryk, Keith and Keefer did not jump on. The were resolved to consider mutiny instead rather than help their captain.

Ferrer, as is Bogart, is masterful in this movie. He eventually puts Queeg on the stand and through questioning, Queeg pulls out his ball bearings and waxes on for an eternity. The court sees first hand the paranoia and incompetence of Queeg and acquits the mutineers. Yet, the key moment is at the party celebrating the verdict. A drunken Ferrer shows up and points to Keefer and discusses the crisis of conscience moment. He is drunk because he crucified a witness (Queeg) who he felt did not totally deserve it. He makes sure the audience and others know of his utter disdain for Keefer, who pushed for the mutiny, but would not accept accountability in court. He also tells them, Queeg asked for your help and you ignored him and let him flounder.

To be honest, Ferrer as our conscience points out to the audience what they probably did not realize early on. The mutineers were culpable, as well. Unlike Bligh, Queeg with all of his imperfections asked for help. And, his seconds in command did not offer it. He was not saying Queeg was without fault. But, he was saying Keefer was more so than anyone and then when confronted in court, would not own up to his role.

Both of these movies are worth seeing. To my earlier point, leaders have a role to treat others with dignity and respect, if they want long term success. As I have said in other posts, if as a leader you do not, then you better be damn good at what you do, as people will question whether to go along with you or not. Bligh was damn good, but was a jerk to his subordinates. They needed his seamanship, but did not like the man. On a ship in the Navy, you have to follow orders or the ship will be in disarray and people and the mission could suffer. With the crew in such a confined space, they need to be working toward productive ends, or mischief can occur.

Queeg was paranoid more than anything else, so he focused on perceived slights and petty issues. He lost sight of the bigger picture. So, he did not inspire others to follow. People will follow an inspirational leader. People will follow someone who knows what they are doing. Hopefully, the leaders are both. Yet, there is an increasing body of evidence, that more introverted leaders are very successful, even more so than less competent, extroverted ones. But, in the end, they will follow someone who understands and respects the role of others in his or her success. When Queeg showed he was no longer competent and needed help, the fact he did not treat his men with respect and certainly was not inspirational, sealed his fate. Yet, at least he was smart enough to ask for help, when he knew he was lost. If they had responded, the mutiny need not have occurred.

Bligh, on the other hand, did not solicit or give the impression, he would tolerate any help. He did not treat his men with respect or dignity, so they served him out of fear. And, the court member who refused to shake his hand, summed up what we all felt about Bligh.

If you have seen these movies, what are your impressions and response to the above summaries and contrast? What are your thoughts on the subject of mutiny and the leadership vacuum it abruptly addresses?




13 thoughts on “A Couple of Mutinies to Contrast

  1. Very interesting analysis, and these are both excellent movies depicting leadership and the weakness of same.

    Another aspect of leadership is the one who is boisterous, full of bull, and is followed not for his skill and knowledge, usually in short supply, but for his bravado and personality. We saw many examples of this in the financial collapse, and the ultimate failings and weakness in the CEO corps in Merrill Lynch, Bank America, Lehman, Bear Stearns, CountryWide, et al. Huge egos and belief in themselves, their infallability, and ultimately their lack of vision and skill sunk the ship, so to speak.

    Good post

    • Good point. These are the guys that spread buzz words all over the place to make up for the deficiencies you noted. I know a former CEO who used the same boilerplate bullshit at least three times and was fired from the last two of those jobs. He left the first one before the axe fell. Thanks for writing. BTG

      • I feel exonerated when the BS experts are called out for what they are, and what they lack. The issue is the huge numbers that never are, or in the extreme damage they cause before they are called out. Bob Nardelli formerly of Home Depot and Chrysler is one. Ed McCracken, who single-handedly destroyed Silicon Graphics, an up and coming creative entity in electronics, was another.

    • Emily, I need to read it. One of the troubling parts of the movie is Fred MacMurray playing a bad guy role. This is “My Three Sons” Fred who did this. I kept looking for Uncle Charlie to straighten him out. Thanks for reading and offering comments. BTG

  2. i have never seen either movie; i’m not much of a movie person, mainly b/c i would rather have a book – or a paint brush/pencil in my hand! sometimes i listen to movies while painting, though i ‘wake up’ and realize i’ve tuned out the words and then rewind, only to tune them out again!

    one of these days i’ll get around to classics like these.

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