Mister Roberts is a 1955 World War II film set almost entirely on a naval vessel starring James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and William Powell. The film is directed by the legendary John Ford, (although I understand he left during production to be replaced by Mervyn Leroy).
This is one of those Sunday afternoon movies - light, easy going and pleasurable. There are few emotional or mental demands made on the viewer. If you like your movies weighty you might struggle with Mister Roberts. I had to concentrate hard not to lose interest, but that's only because I like a challenge, and this film is not a challenge.
What it is is good-natured and fun, and, as it is set during World War II, the film does take a slightly darker turn toward the end. Primarily considered a comedy, the humour does come across now as being a little hackneyed and cliched, but, this was the kind of humour they went for back in the 1950's, and who am I to knock it?
Mister Roberts was adapted for the cinema from a popular 1948 Broadway stage play. Fonda adds weight to the production as he appeared in the original play and reprises his role here.
Henry Fonda has the most screen time, playing cargo officer Doug Roberts on board the 'Reluctant', a supply ship in the southern Pacific. Roberts is a diligent, hard-working everyman who commands much more respect from the crew than the ships curmudgeonly captain, played by the always brilliant James Cagney.
William Powell plays Doc - a stalwart who is the elderly, dependable type. It was Powell's last screen role.
Roberts wants out - the Reluctant is out of the sphere of combat, and Roberts is desperate to see some proper action before the war ends. VE day is announced and he begins to worry that he will never be able to say he fought hard when the war is finally over. He spends his time sending requests for a transfer to a boat much closer to the battle against the Japanese to the north west.
One other standout performance here is the young Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver. His performance is very much in the style that he came to be reknowned for - quirky, eccentric, comedic and fast-paced. The only modern actor that apes this style is Jim Carrey. (Lemmon won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in this role).
So, the dynamic of the film is the tense relationship between the captain, crew and Roberts. If Roberts wasn't on board, one gets the sense that the Reluctant would be a ship full to the brim with tension and simmering resentment. Roberts acts as peacemaker, friend, support and go-between. He ensures the crew get their precious privileges and is the only one with enough influence and gravitas to make the captain capitulate. For this, he commands much respect from his contemporaries.
There is something quite sweet about the way these young men look up to Roberts. They invest all their trust, their hopes and fears in him, and yet, he is only human, and at times, the strain of the responsibility inevitibly shows.
So, you come away with an overall satisfaction from having watched Mister Roberts. But, somehow, despite its limitations, the film stays with you. Its nearly a week since I watched it and yet it still has me thinking.
Mister Roberts is about humanity and the desire and altruism of individuals to do the right thing for their fellow man. When we hear the bad news toward the end, it sheds a whole new light on what has gone before, and adds a depth and weightiness to the drama that was not initially apparent at first.
For this, the acting, directing and much else besides, I give Mister Roberts a very solid