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Mister Roberts

Ford sets the ground note by abstracting the frivolity (which is left to LeRoy as a sort of second unit, with a classical technique and a technical unconcern that pays off in a gag later used in The Gumball Rally). His reason is twofold: first, these are serious matters close to his personal experience, and second, he is concerned to objectively register the problem of filming a play.

The method he employs is the driest possible rendering of the material. This is one of the extremest experiments Ford ever engaged upon (in another direction, compare the centerpiece of his contribution to How The West Was Won). Here, as in Young Mr. Lincoln, he sets his camera up and looks away, letting the material record itself, only he confines his shots to the merest severities.

The experiment works—all of the comedy and drama is conveyed, and Ford reaps a bonus in a representation of Henry Fonda’s stage style (this occurs simultaneously with Jack Lemmon’s cinematic technique and William Powell’s harmony-playing).

If the opening after the credits is considered as an overture by Joshua Logan, the two halves meet in the jointure of Ensign Pulver’s fulminate of mercury, on which the film pivots.

In its structure, this raid on “the forces of ambition, cruelty, arrogance, and stupidity” became the model of Cool Hand Luke, and in its surface elements, M*A*S*H (the TV version built an episode around one of its gags).

From another viewpoint, it’s impossible to say who did what, and the thing proceeds on an even keel throughout. The sun is low, Mister Roberts is scanning the horizon, great ships are about, the camera isolates his own lowly scow the Reluctant dead in the water, one of the dark places of the earth, and slowly moves in for a closer look.

The ennui is made palpable by the direction. Over the flat gray expanse of a hatch cover, the sailors peep at WACs on shore. Locals offer a friendly greeting, the crew goes a little native, Ensign Pulver explodes a soapy firework, it’s going nowhere.

Mister Roberts receives the call to duty and a decoration. The captain has a Herodian seizure and is all but silenced. Mister Roberts ships out, and the spirit of emulation comes upon Ensign Pulver, who demands not fresh meat but a movie, perhaps this equilibrated Mutiny on the Bounty with palm trees for breadfruit.