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Mister Roberts (DVD)
Academy Award winners Henry Fonda, James Cagney and Jack Lemmon star.World War II. Across the South Pacific the war rages in acts of courage,bravery, heroism...And somewhere in becalmed tropical waters lazily steams the cargo shipU.S.S. Reliant, vital to the war effort but never seeing combat. As itscrewmembers devise wacky adventures to fight boredom, the ship'slieutenant struggles to find a way to get into combat and fight for hiscountry. But a different sacrifice will be asked of aspiring hero MisterRoberts.]]>
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"Mister Roberts" is an amazing film, a true classic and not just because it has a great cast and is directed by two Hollywood legends.
No, for my money, what makes this film great is its focus on the true unsung heroes of any conflict; the soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel who make sure that those doing the fighting have the ammunition and other supplies they need to go into battle. Theirs is thankless duty; they are not taken to the White House and honored for their service when the fighting has ended nor do they come home from the war with a chest full of ribbons. As a former infantryman, however, I can tell you that without them no battles are won and all wars are lost. That's why, when we returned from patrol in Vietnam, we always made sure to pay our respects to the supply sergeants and their men.
That said, this movie has a galaxy of stars starting, of course, with Henry Fonda in one of his best roles. Mister Roberts is the kind of officer we'd all like to serve under; good at his job, compassionate toward the men under his command, and unafraid to challenge bad decisions made by those that outrank him. Fonda plays the part as though he was born to it.
Jack Lemmon as Ensign Frank Pulver is jittery and unsure of himself, although he tries to mask that with bravado. He won an Academy Award for his performance. James Cagney as the ship's overbearing and slightly mad captain brought new meaning to the word "cantankerous." In my opinion, however, William Powell as the ship's doctor gave the most memorable performance in the movie. It was understated until near the very end when he gives an impassioned lecture to Fonda about his true value to the crew. This was Powell's last movie, bringing to a close a career that brought him international acclaim and he went out on a very high note.
John Ford directed part of the movie and then was taken ill so Mervyn LeRoy finished it. How fortunate that there was someone of LeRoy's caliber available to step in when needed. Watching the film you would never know two directors helmed it; the transition is seamless.
Excellent cinematography and outstanding writing combined with A-level acting make this movie one of the best ever produced. Highly recommended.
Though Fonda was a natural choice to play Roberts, Warner Brothers was afraid he had been out of movies too long since Mister Roberts had run for seven years on Broadway. Director John ford insisted on him because he and Fonda had worked on films together in the past. Fonda was the only Broadway carry-over but group of actors assembled for the film was flawless. James Cagney handled the difficult role of Captain Morton with all the expertise of his long career. The Captain (actually Lieutenant Commander) was a cruel, slave-driving martinet, selfish and ambitious, almost pathologically so yet he couldn't be allowed to become a cartoon villain or a too serious Captain Queeg type. Lemmon played Pulver with just the right mix of laziness, insouciance and fear of even meeting the captain. William Powell was the warm center of the film, a truly wise ship's doctor who gives good advice and is pretty good at mixing up some fake Scotch whiskey. Most of all he tells Roberts he's as valuable on a supply ship with all of its boredom and monotony as he would be if he was on a fighting ship, a lesson that really hits home in the end. This was Powell's final role on film. Frequently this means an actor died soon after but Powell, already 60, lived to be over 90 in comfortable retirement. The rest of the cast were as good in their roles as the principals.
Mister Roberts was the first film about the war that was as much a comedy as it was a drama. This would seem risky, but audiences had warmed to the book in 1946 and the play in '48, so there didn't seem to be a big taboo over this (though funny Nazi's would have to wait until mid-60's TV). What it didn't do was try to mix it with action, the usual subject of war films, which would have made it too serious for the comedy.The film stayed pretty close to the play with almost everything happening on the small set of the ship. The only attempt to open it up was a brief visit to the island hospital and a big scene of Polynesians rowing out to greet the ship when it arrives in a Tahiti-like place. From its appearance you would never suspect this was a troubled production but it vas very troubled indeed. John Ford was a difficult man to get along with and here he was at his worst, getting into fights and arguments with everyone, even Fonda. In interviews, Cagney called him "A truly nasty old man". He was fired when he punched Fonda in the jaw and almost simultaneously had a gall bladder attack requiring immediate surgery. The film was finished by Mervin Leroy, who tried to follow ford's intentions (there's still a lot of Ford's traits in the film) and an uncredited Joshua Logan.
Mister Roberts is rewarding to watch today, mostly for its fine acting. Just remember that it is a character driven comedy-drama and not your typical action-packed war film.