1955

Film #190: Mister Roberts (1955)

Although the majority of the films on this list are sourced from either LoveFilm or YouTube, I occasionally get lucky when seeking a certain title out. This happened to me in the case of Mister Roberts, a film that I hadn’t been able to locate up to this point, which just out of the blue popped up on Saturday afternoon on Channel Five.


Mister Roberts is a comedy-drama set on a cargo ship during the final days of World War Two and put me in mind of The Caine Mutiny as it deals with similar themes and has a big name cast. Among those names were James Cagney and William Powell who played the ship’s tyrannical captain and its world-weary doctor respectively. It was interesting to see both Powell and Cagney as their careers were winding down with this being the former’s final film appearance and the latter’s final role for MGM. Meanwhile a young performer by the name of Jack Lemmon had a starring performance here as the jovial ensign, a part that earned him that year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But stealing the show was Henry Fonda who put in one of his best turns as the titular Mister Roberts. Fonda’s character is desperate to serve properly and writes weekly letters to be let off the ship. Unfortunately Cagney’s Captain sees him as an asset so keeps him around and he is well liked by his crew members whom he doesn’t impose strict rules on. As time goes on the Captain is frustrated by Roberts and feels he isn’t respecting him so he grants the crew their leave as long as Roberts tows the line and agrees with his orders. When the crew finally find out about this they decide to forge a letter from the Captain and get him transferred from the ship and he finally gets to serve in Japan the film tragically ends with the news that Roberts died when a suicide bomber killed all the crew of his new ship. While the death of your main character would usually be a downer in the case of Mister Roberts it was slightly more poignant and uplifting as he died getting what he always wanted to do and that was serve properly during the war.

I have to say I really enjoyed Mister Roberts mainly how easily it was able to demonstrate how not all men had heroic jobs during the war some of them just were there to ship cargo from one port to another and weren’t happy about it. There are a lot of comic segments throughout the film demonstrating this including one where the men try and spy nurses on a nearby island while they are in the shower while one long scenes sees Fonda, Powell and Lemmon try and knock up some home-made scotch. These segments are transposed with some truly heart-wrenching moments such as Cagney opening up to Fonda about his life before he became a captain which was fairly reminiscent of Bogart’s speech to his crew in The Caine Mutiny and also the scene in which Fonda goes crazy after he realises that he might not serve when peace in Europe is announced. Lemmon’s performance is indeed great combining his comic timing with more dramatic moments of clarity personally his ways of getting revenge over a captain he’s scared of are particularly memorable. All in all a great quartet of performances coupled with John Ford’s skilled direction and a great script means that Mister Roberts is one of the better Oscar nominees never to take home the prize.

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