With other matters keeping me away from blogging much lately, it’s a perfect time to welcome a guest, Craig of VIKING SAMURAI (who also guest-posted here writing on BODY SNATCHER during the Val Lewton event). This time Craig looks at the 1965 war movie Morituri…
After Samurai films, War films are my favorite genre, particularly those about World War II. Whenever I think that I’ve seen all the WWII films that I think are worth seeing, I discover another good one. This may be because the war was so vast that there are always real events left to dramatize, as well as different perspectives of said events. Also, that vastness provides filmmakers with many opportunities to create fictional events. Such is the case with Morituri, the title of which comes from “Morituri te salutamus”, “We who are about to die salute you” (thanks IMDB). I was upset that I’d never heard of this one before. Released in 1965, it was directed by Trevor Howard, and stars Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner. Just one of them starring in a film is a wonder to behold, but the two together have the potential for awesomeness of the most pure form. This film totally lives up to that potential.
Yul Brynner plays the disgraced captain Mueller (he was drunk when his last ship was torpedoed), set to command a blockade runner from Tokyo to Bordeaux, carrying 7,000 tons of rubber, as well as a large amount of lard (which oddly ends up being important to the story). A large part of his crew is made up of criminals and political prisoners, against which he protests. He also does not really want the mission, but is coerced into it because of his disgrace, and the fact that the career of his son, also a naval officer, might be in danger if he refuses.
Brando plays Mr. Schroeder, a German pacifist (he gives a short speech about the futility of war), who was a demolitions officer who deserted when called up to serve, living in India, posing as a Swiss citizen, under an assumed name (Crain). He is recruited (coerced with threat of being sent back to Germany) by the British. His mission is to help capture Mueller’s runner by disabling the scuttling charges.
Brando boards the runner posing as Hans Kyle (to confuse matters even further, but henceforth he’ll be referred to by that name), an SS officer (standard leader). Side Note: During his pre-mission briefing, at one point he says “how nice”– my fellow Southerners will be amused by that, even if it was unintentional. No one on the ship is told of a purpose, nor given a cover story, for his presence. Considering Mueller’s record and the makeup of the crew, a cover story isn’t needed.
Mueller is loyal to his country but a fairly vocal anti-Nazi, with great disdain for Kyle’s presence. He naturally assumes that Kyle is there to keep an eye on him. He also doesn’t want him there because his presence frightens the crew (one of his officers had been imprisoned for anti-Nazi remarks), and asks him to confine himself to certain areas, like a normal passenger, a request which of course is ignored, even flouted.
Once underway, Kyle begins to search for the charges. There are lengthy scenes where he conducts these searches, scenes that do not drag, but provide an opportunity to get a fascinating view of the workings of the ship, as he explores its bowels; the appropriate atmosphere is set by the excellent camerawork. There is also tension, as he is nearly discovered by one of the crew, the Donkeyman (Hans Christian Blech), a political prisoner, who proudly admits to being guilty of the charges. Note: “Donkeyman” is his job title. There are also other times where he is almost exposed, but quickly covers himself, usually by throwing around the weight of his false identity.
At one point, Kyle’s plan is almost totally derailed when a course change is forced, forcing him to set a new one by staging a mutiny. Along with that, the ship takes on prisoners from a Japanese submarine, fourteen American men, and a nurse, Esther (Janet Margolin) who is hiding her Jewish identity. Also taken on board are a German Admiral and Commander who are suspicious of Kyle, and almost expose him. Even though Kyle handles himself quite well, Mueller still bails him out.
After he is found out by the crew, Kyle manages to recruit many of them for his mutiny. He also persuades Esther to recruit the American prisoners after revealing his identity to her, and also that he knows her secret, but promises to destroy any evidence of it.
Anyway, events transpire that speed along Kyle’s plan, and almost derail it. No big spoiler here, but in the end he succeeds.
The entire cast is great, especially Brando and Brynner (more about them later). Even though Esther is only in the film for a brief time, she has a major effect, and her backstory is heartbreaking. The cinematography is excellent, and the story is well-paced. It is very suspenseful, as Kyle makes his way about the ship, is almost caught, and forced to change his plans. Thankfully, even though all the German and Japanese characters speak English, they at least do so with the proper accents (German characters sounding like they are from the Bronx is a major pet peeve).
Brando does a great job transforming from the pacifist Schroeder to the cold, domineering Kyle. He and Brynner have a couple epic verbal sparring matches. During one such conversation, Kyle threatens to report Mueller’s rudeness. To which Mueller responds that the only report that he cares about is that he has delivered his cargo.
As an American, when I watch the many War movies made since the ‘50s that have an antiwar subtext, I usually, intentionally, or not, am sensitive for anti-American messages. The only problem that I have with this film is that it is strongly implied that in order to get the Americans to participate in the mutiny, Esther has to have sex with them. It gave me the sense that the there was an implication that Americans are only motivated by how they can personally benefit from something.
I can’t recommend Morituri enough. It is a great film, which works as both a Suspense-Thriller, and a War film. It is a shame that it is not more well-known.
A little bit of trivia: George Takei and Eric Braeden (The Young & the Restless) have bit parts (Thanks again, IMDB).
Morituri is currently available on Netflix, and is in English.
I give it 4 1/2 of 5 tons of lard.
See a nice YUL moment from Morituri on youtube