Kim Newman on... Morituri

RT Obscura 13: A forgotten Brando/Brynner.

by | March 6, 2008 | Comments

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

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.

Morituri

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.

Morituri

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.

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

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.

Morituri

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 WendersParis, 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).

Morituri

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.

Tag Cloud

french ID dragons HBO Classic Film Writers Guild of America Turner doctor who Western Comics on TV Calendar Premiere Dates Schedule Drama NBA lord of the rings Adult Swim Alien New York Comic Con golden globe awards WarnerMedia science fiction olympics Masterpiece dramedy Spike Pet Sematary Trophy Talk Disney streaming service rotten Action rt labs rt labs critics edition social media wonder woman DC streaming service james bond Marvel Studios action-comedy Lionsgate BET Awards Sneak Peek dceu indie scene in color FXX jamie lee curtis Food Network El Rey Trailer CBS summer preview Valentine's Day Sony Pictures Baby Yoda new york jurassic park Broadway Red Carpet CNN 79th Golden Globes Awards scary movies Rom-Com Britbox Countdown canceled TV shows ESPN toy story target SDCC child's play stop motion 2021 Image Comics zombie thriller 2018 Logo strong female leads canceled cartoon psycho kids Funimation Universal Spectrum Originals archives tv talk MTV 4/20 batman independent ABC Signature spanish TruTV Rocky christmas movies 2020 police drama Animation game of thrones latino political drama History Amazon Netflix The Academy Anna Paquin Awards Columbia Pictures trailers Mystery VH1 Disney TCA Netflix Christmas movies Best Actress Shudder Warner Bros. TCM ratings adaptation dogs spider-man Star Trek Hollywood Foreign Press Association TCA 2017 Film Festival war halloween tv Polls and Games king kong Lucasfilm game show comiccon Prime Video godzilla 2015 scary Sundance TV suspense Television Critics Association popular hollywood telelvision rom-coms reboot IFC Oscars films Ovation OneApp Best Actor series Disney+ Disney Plus streaming rt archives Opinion Family japanese Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt new star wars movies Superheroes facebook obituary Nominations adenture emmy awards heist movie spy thriller Video Games psychological thriller Bravo MSNBC TV movies Television Academy BBC One natural history Box Office biopic Song of Ice and Fire Cannes women Discovery Channel Pacific Islander Mary poppins American Society of Cinematographers genre critics cars WGN IFC Films black mob RT21 Apple TV+ The CW discovery scorecard marvel comics A&E superman Freeform foreign versus Walt Disney Pictures Certified Fresh basketball romance breaking bad Tomatazos Fox Searchlight cancelled TV shows 99% Super Bowl Showtime monster movies Brie Larson debate travel justice league CMT Chernobyl Stephen King DC Universe Comic Book Comic-Con@Home 2021 45 TCA Awards Infographic festivals Awards Tour LGBTQ award winner YouTube Red comedies medical drama Podcast biography royal family CW Seed Lifetime Christmas movies HBO Max richard e. Grant pirates of the caribbean HBO Go BBC superhero Grammys critic resources classics NYCC 2016 spinoff marvel cinematic universe news 72 Emmy Awards The Walking Dead Acorn TV mutant DC Comics die hard screenings worst movies green book First Look Martial Arts Fox News sag awards Crackle comic book movie talk show Universal Pictures Apple twilight E3 HFPA OWN universal monsters DirecTV SXSW Pop TV 007 Turner Classic Movies politics casting GLAAD Captain marvel cooking Star Wars President YouTube Travel Channel CBS All Access Mudbound Winners adventure australia comics historical drama Horror Interview 2019 anime Mindy Kaling aapi nbcuniversal Syfy YA miniseries stand-up comedy Best Director Academy Awards theme song Ghostbusters cancelled TV series worst A24 21st Century Fox Reality docudrama new zealand MGM 2017 AMC Plus serial killer Paramount Plus Comedy LGBT remakes Arrowverse Instagram Live Oscar Fargo BAFTA Disney Channel vs. National Geographic cancelled TV anthology Election singing competition crossover a nightmare on elm street First Reviews saw zombies leaderboard PlayStation MCU Emmys Tokyo Olympics Creative Arts Emmys elevated horror Tarantino TV renewals Avengers Hallmark Christmas movies Fall TV Esquire satire hist name the review streamig hispanic heritage month Amazon Prime Video TCA Winter 2020 parents posters cops venice Black History Month Sci-Fi RT History video X-Men GIFs Pop italian ViacomCBS boxing finale Marvel Television Cosplay Emmy Nominations movies dreamworks VICE Pixar hidden camera quibi FX summer TV preview kong TNT IMDb TV 73rd Emmy Awards Pride Month movie TV One Heroines boxoffice Year in Review 20th Century Fox razzies robots BET TV Land king arthur mission: impossible DGA cinemax Paramount witnail Set visit Marathons romantic comedy AMC Pirates Winter TV 71st Emmy Awards Comedy Central BBC America Rock Shondaland Tags: Comedy concert GoT unscripted renewed TV shows sopranos aliens Epix The Arrangement prank Women's History Month Country fast and furious Paramount Network Mary Tyler Moore YouTube Premium Nickelodeon Marvel spain Ellie Kemper Black Mirror Superheroe cults live event See It Skip It vampires Exclusive Video teaser Christmas know your critic Lifetime cancelled television APB feel good best nature trophy South by Southwest Film Festival screen actors guild Teen Best Picture E! 90s San Diego Comic-Con Summer Holiday south america werewolf international The Walt Disney Company summer TV Vudu gangster Trivia diversity criterion Starz PaleyFest streaming movies SundanceTV Hulu transformers sequels free movies NBC hispanic Musicals Crunchyroll docuseries blockbusters japan comic books Holidays sitcom true crime blockbuster 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards supernatural sequel Rocketman mcc laika black comedy Reality Competition ITV Disney Plus golden globes chucky Fantasy comic book movies asian-american technology 93rd Oscars Neflix Apple TV Plus USA PBS deadpool Legendary reviews Elton John rotten movies we love nfl Watching Series spider-verse Sundance Now high school Best and Worst obi wan television TLC dark crime thriller live action Photos Kids & Family Dark Horse Comics crime The Witch The Purge sports Cartoon Network 24 frames composers 1990s period drama space Peacock Binge Guide Musical book adaptation ABC documentaries ghosts Endgame based on movie FOX cats Spring TV Quiz FX on Hulu Chilling Adventures of Sabrina franchise 94th Oscars legend Toys fresh Hallmark Hear Us Out Tubi Biopics art house Film blaxploitation Character Guide Thanksgiving TIFF disaster halloween Nat Geo revenge crime drama mockumentary directors Amazon Prime Extras stoner slashers all-time dexter book comic football what to watch zero dark thirty spanish language Amazon Studios joker dc Music children's TV SXSW 2022 Wes Anderson young adult binge VOD video on demand documentary Tumblr kaiju festival ABC Family USA Network TBS slasher animated Sundance Mary Poppins Returns harry potter indiana jones toronto