RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 13th column, Kim uncovers a forgotten Brando/Brynner war film.
It isn’t only low-budget, no-star, outside-the-system quickies which languish in obscurity. Sometimes, substantial pictures — through no fault of their own — fall through the cracks. This maritime war movie boasts two of the biggest international stars of its era (Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner) along with obviously healthy production values and a strong suspense/action plot with potent emotional/political content. But it wasn’t a box office success in 1965, is rarely cited in 100 Great War Movies lists dominated by much lesser films, Brando fans (taking a lead from the star’s typically dismissive comments) underrate his performance, and television revivals are rare.
I suspect the major problem was the unresonant, clever-clever title (Morituri is Latin for, “we who are about to die,” the gladiators’ salute) – releasing it in some territories as The Saboteur – Code Name: Morituri didn’t help win more audiences – though it’s also true that war movies with mostly “enemy nation” characters haven’t tended to be hits since the days of All Quiet on the Western Front. However, the fact that you aren’t likely to have seen it as many times as, say, The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare (other examples of the Mission: Impossible style of WWII film) means it’s likely to be a fresh, surprising, and indeed shocking viewing experience.
A huge shipment of rubber, destined for the tires of Nazi military vehicles, is to be sent from Japan to occupied France on the German merchant vessel Ingo, which is commanded by honourable Captain Mueller (Brynner), who has a black mark on his record because he was drinking rum while an earlier ship was sunk under him. The rubber is so vital that the Ingo will have a submarine escort and is required to make itself over as a British or Swedish vessel to get through various allied blockades.
And Mueller’s life is complicated by eager, Nazi second officer Kruse (Martin Benrath), who wants his job, and a small group of dissident crewmen who are being shipped back to Europe to face political charges. Robert Crain (Brando), a German marine engineer who has skipped the fatherland and is spending the war luxuriously in India pretending to be Swiss, is blackmailed by a British officer (reliable one-scene man Trevor Howard) into boarding the Ingo, posing as a high-ranking SS officer named Kyle. The first of many twists is that the job of the saboteur is not to sink the ship, but to disable the handily-numbered “scuttling charges” so that it (and the rubber) can be seized intact by the Allies at a pre-arranged point along its course.
To pile on the agony, Crain is so good at posing as an arrogant Nazi swine (a role in which Brando has a great deal of sly fun) that a dissident stoker (Hans-Christian Blech) resolves to murder him at sea and the brown-nosing Kruse keeps trying to get into his good graces. On top of all this, the U-boat (commanded by jolly Nazi Oscar Beregi) sinks an Allied ship and the Ingo has to put up with a group of sullen, grimy American prisoners and Esther Levy (Janet Margolin), a Jewish German refugee who has suffered appallingly in a concentration camp. When Mueller tries to treat the girl respectfully, Kruse acts more and more like a Nazi — the obscure Benrath surprisingly holds his own with bigger-name stars as Kruse segues from comical foil to terrifying menace, a small man puffing up to become a murderous monster (some of his traits prefigure Ralph Fiennes‘ performance in Schindler’s List). With the original plan ruined by a change of course, Crain sets about enlisting any help he can get (the dissidents, the Americans, the girl) only to find that it’s not as easy to stage a heroic mutiny as it is for Kruse to usurp the Captain’s position when he has an alcoholic relapse.
As befits this type of performance-driven drama, everyone gets standout moments: Brynner shines especially in a classic good news/bad news scene as Mueller is proud to learn that his son has won a medal then disgusted to find out the award is for sinking an unarmed hospital ship; Brando and Margolin (who ought to have been a much bigger star) share a quietly devastating scene as he tries to enlist her help by warning her about the Nazis only to be told of her appalling sexual abuse in a concentration camp; and, finally, with the ship stricken, Brando and Brynner get one of those resigned, understated chats which put the whole absurd horror of war in context. Margolin makes something extra-special of the frequently ridiculous role of the lone woman among men in war (in an upsetting turn, which probably did little for the American box office, it turns out that the GI prisoners in the hold are only willing to join Crain’s attempt to take over the ship if Esther sleeps with them all), and a large cast finds room for familiar faces like Wally Cox (usually typecast as funny little men, he gets a straight role as the morphine-addicted ship’s doctor who plays a key role in the mutiny), Martin Kosleck and Ivan Triesault (typecast as Nazis, but here in subtly different ‘kraut’ roles), Eric Braeden (later the German on The Rat Patrol) and even George Takei in a Japanese bit-part.
Though it’s a Hollywood film, the director and source material are German. Bernhard Wicki, who also worked as an actor (he’s in Fassbinder‘s Despair and Wenders‘ Paris, Texas), was a solid professional with a long list of film and TV credits. He came to international notice by directing the “German” segments of The Longest Day, then made two English-language films (the other is The Visit, with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn).
The script is by American Daniel Taradash, who also worked on Sydney Pollack‘s surreal and rewarding war film Castle Keep, from a novel by Werner Jörg Lüddecke, who seems to have been West Germany’s answer to Alistair MacLean. Among the last big-scale action pictures shot in black and white (war-themed movies held out against colour longer than, say, Westerns), it has luminously terrific widescreen cinematography from Conrad L. Hall, whose career had just taken off after outstanding work on television’s The Outer Limits; Hall got his first Oscar nomination (he would win three times) for this credit. He manages equally well by the noirish, sweaty lower decks and fogbound seascapes, and lights faces in especially masterly fashion — whenever anyone has a great line or look, it fairly springs out of the frame. You also get an impressive Jerry Goldsmith score.
It has plenty of thought-provoking content, with a hero who goes through the old Casablanca arc by transforming from selfish but resourceful cynic to committed anti-Nazi. But contemporary fans will also take delight in seeing a sleek, pre-flab Marlon Brando exhibiting catlike grace in a tight sweater as he does a Bruce Willis-in-Die Hard act, dodging enemies while running multiple confidence tricks on everyone aboard, cramming himself into literal tight spots to disable all those bombs (it’d make a great computer game) and running, thumping and dangling through all manner of perils.