#10 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
A comedy based on a play with Jack Lemmon? Did I stumble into a long-lost Billy Wilder movie by mistake? This is the movie where John Ford punched Henry Fonda in the face, drank himself stupid, and then needed emergency surgery that took him off the film, forcing the studio to replace him with Mervyn LeRoy. Is it a Ford movie anymore after that? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. Based on the play of the same name (which was based on a novel by Thomas Heggen) Mister Roberts is a surprisingly sweet comedic drama with echoes of Ford’s earlier The Long Voyage Home and Fort Apache.
Fonda plays Lieutenant Doug Roberts, the cargo officer on a naval cargo ship, the Reluctant, in the Pacific that’s never come close to combat action. He serves under Lieutenant Commander Morton (James Cagney), a former merchant marine sailor who has great dreams of rising up in the US Navy’s command ranks, epitomized by his attention to a single, small palm tree given to him by an admiral for the good work the Reluctant had done in service.
Life aboard ship is largely boring as they wait for the next naval vessel to come along and take on supplies like toothpaste and toilet paper. Docked up near a small naval base, life gets a small jolt of excitement when the base takes on half a dozen young, female nurses the boys on deck spy through binoculars they’re assigned to clean for the bridge crew. Word gets to Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon), and he springs into action, accompanying Roberts on a mission into port where Roberts wants the port commander to send the Reluctant off to do anything. Pulver meets the girls and gets them to agree to come on the ship. When they do show up, there’s light flirting as well as the discovery that the boys on ship can see through their shower window. It’s treated lightly, of course, and the Reluctant makes for another South Pacific Island.
The central conflict of the film is between Roberts and Morton. Roberts is desperate for action, writing a transfer request every week that Morton dutifully passes along while also blowing up at his second in command at the same time. It gets worse when Roberts, desperate to find a way to get action, starts implying in the letters that there’s discord on the ship and that Morton is the center of it. This turns Morton decidedly against Roberts, and he ends up holding the entire crew hostage to beat Roberts, denying the entire ship liberty they sorely need. Roberts, being the all-around good guy he is, sacrifices his own efforts to get into the action of the war for the men, promising to never write another letter or talk back to his commanding officer in front of the men again.
The liberty is a bit of anarchy as naval men get stupidly drunk, cause chaos at an army dance, and break windows at the French colonial governor’s house. This enrages Morton since the ship is kicked out of port, but Roberts is still under his thumb. Acting like the loyal officer to a supercilious commander, the men begin to turn against him, leading to a confrontation between Roberts and Morton that the men overhear where Morton details the deal they had made. The men return to Roberts’ side, forge Morton’s signature on a new letter for transfer, and get Roberts transferred to a combat vessel, just like he wanted. The finale of the film centers on Pulver reading a pair of letters a few weeks later. This scene is where I went from appreciation to full affection.
Roberts is just an all around good guy, like Maher in The Long Gray Line, and he engenders a lot of good feeling in the audience and the men of the Reluctant. The biggest effect he has is on Pulver, and when Pulver receives the two letters at the end of the film, they have as much an effect on him as on the audience. His final moments, confronting Morton with a new attitude, filled my heart with warmth and joy.
The film is also filled with little events and scenes that provide a lot of comedic value to the film. There’s Pulver needing a replacement scotch after Roberts used it to bribe the port commander that Pulver needed to impress a head nurse. Roberts and the ship’s doctor (William Powell) concoct a combination of a clear liquor, coke, iodine, and hair polish to get close enough to the taste. Pulver also has dreams of standing up to Morton in very public fashion, never quite able to follow through, which culminates before the finale in Pulver testing an explosive device meant to go under Morton’s bed in the laundry which causes a mass of soap suds to flood through the ship. The comedy around the palm tree, and its replacement after Roberts throws the first one overboard in an act of defiance, is also a nice source of dramatic tension at the same time.
The film works as a collection of amusing events until its conclusion when it pulls it all together in a complex set of emotions that works really well, elevating the movie that came before into something rather special. Anchored by Fonda’s winning, good guy performance, and aided entertainingly by Jack Lemmon’s star making turn, Mister Roberts is an endearing and heartfelt comedic take on more dramatic source material.