Captain Morton (James Cagney) may officially be the captain of the USS Reluctant, but as far as the crew is concerned, Lieutenant Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) is the man in charge. Captain Morton is very strict and routinely denies the crew their small rewards over very minor infractions. Doug, on the other hand, is much kinder and often ignores the Captain’s orders to make the crew’s life more bearable. However, the USS Reluctant isn’t seeing any of the action of World War II and Doug would much rather be on active duty than be stuck on that boat. His closest friend Doc (William Powell) tries to reassure him that his being on the ship means the world to the crew, but that doesn’t stop him from requesting a transfer.
In order for Doug to get a transfer, Captain Morton would have to agree to it and Morton knows that he would look bad if Doug were to leave so he refuses to sign his letters. Captain Morton hasn’t even let the crew have leave in a very long time, so behind the Captain’s back, Doug bribes an official to get the crew granted one night of leave. When the Captain finds out about it, he threatens to deny the whole crew their leave unless Doug promises to stop undermining him and to stop requesting transfers. Doug reluctantly agrees, and the crew is mystified to see Doug suddenly playing into the Captain’s hand.
The crew thinks Doug is just gunning to get a promotion and starts giving him the cold shoulder. But on the night of V-E Day, Doug listens to a speech on the radio that inspires him to stand up to the Captain. While the Captain confronts Doug in his office, the intercom is accidentally left on and the whole crew finds out the price Doug paid for them to have their leave. To show their gratitude, the crew decides to get Doug the transfer he wants so badly. Before he leaves for Okinawa, the crew presents Doug with their own special award and he finally realizes just how much he really meant to everybody.
With Doug off in Okinawa, Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon) takes over Doug’s old position on the ship. Frank is pretty intimidated by the Captain, so he can’t bring himself to go against the Captain the way Doug used to. But when the crew gets word that Doug has been killed, Frank finally finds the nerve to stand up to the Captain.
Genre-wise, Mister Roberts is really in a league of its own. It deals with World War II, but there aren’t any big battle scenes. It’s got comedy, but it’s not a farce like Dr. Strangelove. And for all its lighthearted moments, when it was serious, it was very heartfelt and touching. It’s very hard to combine all of those genres and do all of them well, but Mister Roberts managed to pull it off.
The part of Doug Roberts is such a perfect Henry Fonda role. He’s that “everyman fighting for what’s right” type of character that Fonda is best remembered for playing. As good as Fonda is, Jack Lemmon really steals the show at the end of the movie. His performance in the scene where he reads Doug’s letters aloud to the crew is so genuinely moving. He’s great in the rest of the movie, too, but boy did he ever hit it out of the park in that scene.
I love everything about Mister Roberts. I don’t know why on Earth I put off seeing it for such a long time.