Mister Roberts

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Mister Roberts (1955)

Directed by John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, and Joshua Logan

Based on the 1946 novel, Mister Roberts, by Thomas Heggen

Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, Joshua Logan

Starring: Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, Ward Bond

While the war in the Pacific rages on, Lieutenant Roberts (Fonda) serves aboard the Reluctant, a supply ship. He spends most of his time shielding the crew from the demands and discipline of the unpopular Lieutenant Commander Morton (Cagney).

Mister Roberts is based on the novel of the same name, written by Thomas Heggen (Ensign Pulver). Prior to the film, the story had also been performed on the stage in 1948. This is where Henry Fonda first portrayed Lieutenant J.G. Douglas A. Roberts. Frank S. Nugent and Joshua Logan adapted the novel for both the stage and the screen. The movie was directed by the legendary filmmaker, John Ford (My Darling Clementine), but he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy (Gypsy) after conflicts arose between him and the cast. Joshua Logan also worked as director, but was not credited. The cast of the film features Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Jack Lemmon (The Odd Couple), William Powell (Life With Father), and Ward Bond (It’s a Wonderful Life). The film would eventually earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Sound, Recording, and Best Supporting Actor.

Thomas Heggen’s novel was based on his own experiences at sea during World War II. That novel would eventually inspire a Broadway play, a film, a television series, and a live television movie. The script for the film is wonderfully written, creating a core group of characters with distinct personalities. These personalities give the film both it’s conflict and it’s heart. The dialogue helps to establish the different relationships between the characters. The relationships are at the core of the story. Like most war movies this one looks at duty, honor, and friendship. Unlike most war movies, the war seems to be some far off idea most of the time. Instead we get to see the men in comedic and dramatic moments between one another. It’s a war movie that has almost nothing to say about the war until it matters most. What is does say is powerful.

The actors did an excellent job with this story. Henry Fonda was anxious to reprise his role as Mr Roberts but the studio wasn’t so sure. He had been away from film for eight years, and they weren’t sure he’d bring in the audiences. John Ford spoke up on the matter and Fonda got the part. Fonda’s performance is full of heart and he connects wonderfully with the material. He’s fortunate to work opposite William Powell in his last film. Powell also does great work, playing the sage doctor who dispenses advice more than medicine. James Cagney delivers an energetic performance as they heavy-handed Lieutenant Commander Morton. He brings out all of the petty egotism the character needs. Ward Bond also handles his role nicely, playing a character that seems built for him. Jack Lemmon helps to give the film a comedic edge with his role. His performance earned Lemmon the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

The film looks great, with vibrant color and great cinematography by frequent Ford collaborator Winton C. Hoch (The Searchers). This movie was shot in CinemaScope using Warnercolor (aka Eastmancolor) processing, the first successful single-strip color process. The sets and locations are nicely decorated, and the work aboard actual ships is great. Overall, there isn’t much to dislike about the production of this one. It succeeds in becoming a filmed version of a play, which isn’t always the case when plays are brought to the big screen. The score by Franz Waxman (Suspicion) is a great addition to the film.

This is a heartwarming film that tells the story of a man who finds himself at a crossroads between his duty to his men and his duty to himself. Overlapping all of that is the action of World War II, which seems to loom in the distance. The performances do wonderful work bringing the script to life, and it’s all put together with excellent production work. If you’re a fan of drama and comedy, this is one that mixes the two very well. Despite the age, this one still has a lot to say about people and their priorities.

Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 123 Minutes


  1. I LOVE this movie! It’s a recent discovery of mine, and I now count it among my all-time favorites. I call it my “work therapy” movie – and I hope I’ll always remember to watch it whenever I need to reset my perspective / attitude toward my own job.

    I agree with everything you said about the performers, particularly Henry Fonda and Ward Bond.

    As iconic as it is, I guess Fonda’s work in 12 Angry Men (which was my introduction to him) helped cement my narrow impression of him up to this point – as every character I’d seen him portray since seemed to share an unapproachable quality, like he only existed to teach lessons. But I saw an extra spark in Mister Roberts that made him especially engaging and relatable almost immediately. I consider Roberts to be one of my personal movie heroes now, as I found him to be a character I not only learned from (and want to emulate), but learned with. I share a version of his frustrations, and I was struck by what he learned along the way. (Doc pointing out that he talked about the crew as if they owed him something especially hit home.) And I doubt I would’ve connected as strongly with Doug if Fonda himself wasn’t so connected and didn’t project such heart and that extra-special spark.

    And it struck me that Ward Bond was sort of a real-life Mister Roberts in this movie. As experienced as he was, it seems all his roles (that I’ve seen, anyway) were only supporting, and some were quite small. But I’ve never seen this guy give less than his best, and this film was no exception. He took an unglamorous role that was probably nothing really special on the page, and added his characteristic realism plus so many little touches. Almost anyone could’ve played Dowdy, but not like him. He shined. (I’m glad he finally got his “star turn” in the Wagon Train series. It was long past due.)

    I would like to read the novel or see the live television version sometime.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts! I recently started a blog of my own, The Classic Film Connection: classicfilmconnection.wordpress.com. I’d love for you to visit!

    Liked by 1 person

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