Jump to content

The Caine Mutiny

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Captain Queeg)
The Caine Mutiny
First edition cover
AuthorHerman Wouk
Cover artistJohn Hull[1]
Publication date
March 19, 1951[2]
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)

The Caine Mutiny is a 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk. The novel grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard two destroyer-minesweepers in the Pacific Theater in World War II. Among its themes, it deals with the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by ship captains and other officers. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place during Typhoon Cobra, in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.

The novel was later adapted into a 1954 movie of the same name, as well as a similarly named play in 1953, an American TV film in 1955 and an Australian TV film in 1959 both based on the play, and a similarly named 2023 film reboot.

Plot summary[edit]

The story is told through the eyes of Willis Seward "Willie" Keith, a callow young graduate of Princeton University. Following a mediocre living as a nightclub piano player, he signs up for midshipman school at Columbia University with the United States Navy to avoid being drafted into the United States Army during World War II. He endures inner conflicts over his relationships with his domineering mother and with May Wynn, a beautiful red-haired nightclub singer, the daughter of Italian immigrants, whom he accompanies on piano in their nightclub performances. After barely surviving a series of misadventures that earn him the highest number of demerits in his class, Keith is commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserve and assigned to the destroyer minesweeper U.S.S. Caine, an obsolete warship converted from a post-World War I-era destroyer.

Arriving late, Keith misses his ship when it leaves on a combat assignment. While waiting for transportation to catch up with it, he plays piano in the evenings for an admiral who takes a shine to him. Finally galvanized after reading a last letter from his father, who has died of melanoma, Keith reports aboard the Caine. The ensign immediately disapproves of the ship's decaying condition and slovenly crew. He attributes these conditions to a slackness of discipline by the ship's longtime captain, Lieutenant Commander William De Vriess.

Wouk's ship Destroyer/Minesweeper USS Zane after repair at Mare Island, San Francisco, September 1943, Note forward anti-aircraft gun, and three smokestacks

Keith and another ensign are consigned to a miserably small and overheated shack on deck, and stumble through their early days on board. Keith's lackadaisical attitude toward what he considers menial duties brings about a humiliating clash with De Vriess when Keith forgets to decode a time-sensitive communiqué. Shortly thereafter, De Vriess is relieved, after over five years at the helm of the Caine, by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, a strong, by-the-book figure, whom Keith at first believes to be just what the rusty Caine and its rough-necked crew needs. But Queeg has never handled a ship like this before, and he soon makes errors of judgement that he is unwilling to admit, finding ways to lay blame on others. The Caine is sent to San Francisco for an overhaul, which is interrupted by orders to return to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for further assignment. Before the ship departs, Queeg browbeats his officers into selling their liquor rations to him and, in a breach of regulations, smuggles the liquor off the ship. When the crate is inadvertently lost overboard during the transition, Queeg blackmails Keith into paying for it. While on leave, Keith sees May Wynn — who is now working on achieving her degree at Hunter College, in addition to continuing to perform as a singer — and they spend a romantic weekend together in Yosemite. But Keith is still divided between his love for her and her lower social class. He resolves to let the relationship die when his leave is over by not replying to her letters.

As the Caine begins its missions in the Pacific under his command, Queeg begins to lose the respect of the crew and the loyalty of the wardroom through a series of increasingly unusual incidents — including running over and severing the cable to a valuable towed target, which he blames on John Stilwell, the helmsman — that reveal his cowardice, paranoia, and inability to accept responsibility. Queeg becomes increasingly isolated from the other officers, who come to dread his rages and unreasonable demands, which often entail loss of leave privileges and, at one low point, a 48-hour moratorium on drinking water while the ship is sweltering near the equator. Keith realizes that De Vriess was a far more competent, effective, and fair-minded leader, and inwardly regrets his original, naive judgements of both captains. During the following invasion of Kwajalein, Queeg is ordered to escort low-lying landing craft to their line of departure. Instead, Queeg orders the crew to throw over a yellow dye marker to mark the spot, and hastily directs the Caine away from the battle area. The officers nickname him "Old Yellowstain."

Queeg's next act of paranoia begins when over half of a prized container of strawberries is discovered to be empty. He concocts elaborate and time-consuming procedures in which to catch the thief. These occupy all of the officers and crew for long hours and further erode confidence in and respect for the captain. When Queeg's pet theory is finally decisively flouted, he disappears into his cabin, leaving the ship in executive officer Lieutenant Stephen Maryk's hands for days.

The intellectual communications officer, Lieutenant Tom Keefer, who coined the "Yellowstain" nickname, suggests to Maryk that Queeg might be mentally ill. Keefer directs Maryk to "Section 184" of the Navy Regulations, under which a subordinate can relieve a commanding officer in extraordinary circumstances. Maryk, a dutiful and dependable exec who brooks no public criticisms of Queeg, nevertheless begins to keep a secret log of Queeg's actions, and ultimately decides to bring them to the attention of Admiral Halsey, commanding the Third Fleet, when Halsey's flagship and the Caine are anchored at the Ulithi atoll. Keefer agrees to accompany Maryk, but then gets cold feet and backs out, and both men return to their ship without ever meeting the admiral.


Soon afterward, the Caine is caught in Typhoon Cobra, an ordeal that sinks three destroyers and threatens to overwhelm the Caine. At the height of the storm, Queeg's paralysis convinces Maryk that he must relieve the captain of command in order to prevent the loss of the ship. Keith, as officer of the deck, supports the decision. Maryk turns Caine into the wind and rides out the storm. This sequence of events and its resolution marks the climax and most thrilling portion of the novel, and it parallels Wouk's experiences as executive officer aboard the destroyer minesweeper USS Southard in Okinawa, during Typhoon Ida in September 1945.[3]

The court-martial[edit]

Maryk is tried by court-martial for "conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline" instead of "making a mutiny". Keith and Stilwell, helmsman during the typhoon, are also to be tried, depending on the outcome of Maryk's trial. In the courtroom, Keefer distances himself from any responsibility for the relief of command from Queeg. Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a naval aviator who is an attorney in civilian life, represents Maryk. Greenwald's opinion, after Queeg is found to be sane by three Navy psychiatrists, is that Maryk was legally unjustified in relieving Queeg. However, he decides to take the case after deducing Keefer's background role in the crisis.

During the trial, Greenwald unrelentingly cross-examines Queeg until the increasingly defensive Queeg starts to display the erratic and unreasonable behavior that the officers had previously reported. Queeg's performance results in Maryk's acquittal and the dropping of charges against Keith and Stillwell. Maryk, who had aspired to a career in the regular Navy, is sent to command a Landing Craft Infantry, a humiliation that ruins his naval career ambitions. Queeg is transferred to a naval supply depot in Iowa.

At a party celebrating both the acquittal and Keefer's success at selling his novel to a publisher, an intoxicated Greenwald arrives late, and calls Keefer out as a coward. He tells the gathering that he feels ashamed of having destroyed Queeg on the stand because Queeg and all other regular armed-forces officers have performed the necessary duty of guarding America in peacetime, which Keefer and others view as work that is beneath them. Greenwald states that the officers' disdain and disrespect for Queeg is what led to his inability to take action during the typhoon. Greenwald concludes by saying that officers like Queeg kept Greenwald's Jewish mother from being "melted down into a bar of soap" by the Nazis. He calls Keefer, not Maryk, "the true author of 'The Caine Mutiny,'" and throws a glass of champagne, "the yellow wine", into Keefer's face — bringing the term "Old Yellowstain" full circle.

Keith returns to the Caine during the last days of the Okinawa campaign as its executive officer. Keefer is now the captain, and his behavior as captain is similar to Queeg's. The Caine is struck by a kamikaze, an event in which Keith discovers that he has matured into a naval officer. Keefer panics and orders the ship abandoned, but Keith remains aboard and rescues the situation by heroically dousing the fires.

Keefer, discharged after the war ends, is ashamed of his cowardly behavior during the kamikaze attack, especially because his half-brother Roland has died saving his own ship, also from kamikaze fire. Keith is promoted as captain of the Caine. He receives a Bronze Star Medal for his actions following the kamikaze explosion, and a letter of reprimand for his part in supporting the unlawful relief of Queeg. The findings of the court-martial are overturned after a review by higher naval authorities, but Keith, in retrospect, agrees that their actions were legally unjustified and probably unnecessary.

Captain Keith keeps the Caine afloat during another typhoon and brings it to Bayonne, New Jersey for decommissioning after the end of the war. His first desire and primary aim upon departing the Caine and the conclusion of his duties is to find May Wynn and ask her to marry him. His wartime experiences have finally crystallized his desire and decision. However, it has been over a year and a half since they last saw each other. He discovers she is in musical and romantic partnership with a popular bandleader, has dyed her hair, and is now performing under her real name, Marie Minotti. Keith surprises her when he appears unexpectedly at the club where she performs and makes his case with ardent conviction. The book ends with their romantic situation unresolved; Minotti must put her past heartbreak over Keith as well as her current relationship behind her, and assess whether she can trust what her heart tells her, but the reader is left with the sense that the two will finally unite, and the book closes as confetti from the victory parade in the streets settles on the shoulders of the last captain of the Caine.

Historical background[edit]

Actual Clemson-class destroyer/Minesweeper with 3 stacks in 1945. Shown circled l to r, squared stern with cranes, guns aft, midship and forward.

Wouk served during World War II aboard two destroyer-minesweepers (DMS) converted from World War I-era Clemson-class destroyers, USS Zane being the first and USS Southard being the second. (Wouk uses the latter name for one of his characters in the novel, Captain Randolph Patterson Southard. Also, in an allusion to history professor Jacques Barzun of his alma mater, Columbia University, Wouk also has Queeg refer to a previous assignment he had on a ship named Barzun.) USS Caine is a fictional Clemson-class DMS conversion.

The Clemson class was named for Midshipman Henry A. Clemson, lost at sea on December 8, 1846, during the Mexican war, when the brig USS Somers capsized off Veracruz in a sudden squall while chasing a blockade runner. In November 1842, the Somers was the scene of the only recorded conspiracy to mutiny in U.S. Naval history when three members of the crew — a midshipman, a boatswain's mate, and a seaman — were clapped in irons and subsequently hanged for planning a takeover of the vessel.

Many of the incidents and plot details are autobiographical. Like both Keith and Keefer, Wouk rose through the ship's wardroom of Zane from assistant communications officer to first lieutenant. As executive officer of the Southard, Wouk was recommended to captain the ship home to the United States at the end of the war before it was beached at Okinawa in September 1945, during Typhoon Louise.

Wouk was serving aboard the USS Zane in December 1944, and though his ship did not experience much or any of the effects of Typhoon Cobra, as did the fictional Caine during this time, the American Third Fleet had many ships lost or damaged in the Philippine Sea during the storm. The Zane, however, was grounded during a heavy rain squall while disembarking her troops in the Russell Islands around June 1943 and, while serving as executive officer, Wouk offered to captain the Clemson-class DMS USS Southard home in September 1945, before she was grounded off Okinawa by Typhoon Louise, a serious storm that damaged over 20 American ships.[4][5][6]

The novel also describes the fictional Caine as having been struck by a kamikaze, which caused relatively minor damage, while Keefer was in command during the Battle of Lingayen Gulf. This did in fact happen to the Southard on January 6, 1945, although Wouk was not aboard at the time, as he was still serving on the Zane.[7]

The name for the USS Caine came from the story in Genesis of Cain killing his brother Abel, and Cain's resulting banishment, nomadic life, and isolation. While supporting the efforts of the minesweepers and underwater demolition teams, another Clemson-class destroyer, the USS Kane, served in the Marshall Islands and at Saipan in the Marianas at the same time as Wouk's ship Zane. The destroyer Kane may also have been an initial inspiration for the name of Wouk's fictional ship.[8][9]


The Caine Mutiny reached the top of the New York Times best seller list on August 12, 1951, after 17 weeks on the list, replacing From Here to Eternity.[10] It remained atop the list for 33 weeks until March 30, 1952, when it was replaced by My Cousin Rachel.[11] It moved back to first place on May 25, 1952, and remained another 15 weeks, before being supplanted by The Silver Chalice, and last appeared on August 23, 1953, after 122 weeks on the list.[12]


In 1954, Columbia Pictures released the film The Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg in a widely acclaimed performance[13] that earned him the third and final Academy Award nomination of his career.

After the novel's success, Wouk adapted the court-martial sequence into a full-length, two-act Broadway play, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.[14] Directed by Charles Laughton, it was a success on the stage in 1954, opening five months before the release of the film and starring Lloyd Nolan as Queeg, John Hodiak as Maryk, and Henry Fonda as Greenwald.[15] It has been revived twice on Broadway, and was presented on television live in 1955, under the direction of Franklyn J. Schaffner,[16] and again on Australian television in 1959.

In 1988, Wouk's play was adapted as a made-for-television film directed by Robert Altman.[17]

Also in 1988, the stage script was translated into Chinese by Ying Ruocheng, a famous Chinese actor, director, playwright and Vice Minister of Culture. At Ying's invitation, Charlton Heston directed the translated play in a successful run at the Beijing People's Art Theatre, opening on October 18, 1988.[18] The play was revived in 2006, again under Heston, and has been revived there twice more (2009, 2012), since his death.

In 2023, a new film adaptation of the stage script, directed by William Friedkin and starring Kiefer Sutherland as Queeg, was released on Paramount+.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Modern first editions – a set on Flickr
  2. ^ "Books Published Today". The New York Times: 24. March 19, 1951.
  3. ^ Description of the ship in the typhoon in Wouk, Herman, The Caine Mutiny, (1953) Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York, London, pgs. 344–357
  4. ^ "DD-207 (USS Southard)". hazegrey.org. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  5. ^ "Zane (Destroyer No. 337)". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  6. ^ Wouk ran aground on the Southard in Okinawa in 1945 in Carpenter, Frederick I., "Herman Wouk", College English, January, 1956, vol. 17, no. 4, 1956, pp. 211–215. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/371577. Accessed 22 June 2020.
  7. ^ The fictional Caine was struck by a kamikaze in Lingayen Gulf in Wouk, Herman, "Queeg vs. Greenwald", The Caine Mutiny, (1953) Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York, London, pgs. 462-463
  8. ^ "Rickard, J (13 August 2019), USS Kane (DD-235/ APD-18)". USS Kane. History of War. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  9. ^ "Kane I (Destroyer No. 235)". USS Kane. Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  10. ^ New York Times best seller list of August 12, 1951
  11. ^ New York Times best seller list of March 30, 1952
  12. ^ New York Times best seller list of August 23, 1953
  13. ^ "Filmsite Movie Review: The Caine Mutiny". Filmsite. Tim Dirks. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  14. ^ "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (A play, Herman Wouk)".
  15. ^ Machlowitz, David S. (1983). "Captain Queeg Is Back, on Broadway". American Bar Association Journal. 69 (6): 833–833. Retrieved 22 June 2020.
  16. ^ "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, 1955, Ford Star Jubilee, Directed by Frank Schaffner)". IMDb. 19 November 1955.
  17. ^ "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, 1988, Made for TV Movie". IMDb. 8 May 1988.
  18. ^ "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (Chinese Version)".
  19. ^ Ben Kenigsberg (2023-10-05). "'The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial' Review: Righting the Ship". The New York Times. Retrieved 2023-10-09.

External links[edit]