Whether it’s an excerpt from a good book or the lines of a renowned play, I am a sucker for great dialogue that teaches a lesson. Sometimes it sneaks up on me. Sometimes I find it in the oddest places. From time to time, I find that I might have heard it once before, but it had no impact and then suddenly in a new moment it rings true with great power.
This was the case recently while suffering from a bout of bronchitis that had me nestled on the recovery couch at home for a few days. I half-consciously found myself surfing through channels of game shows, talk shows, great old movies, and headline news. At one point, the haze of medicine, naps, spiked tea, and sheer boredom found me rather dazed and confused, and I stumbled onto a broadcast of The Caine Mutiny. I had seen the film before and done imitations of Humphrey Bogart as the troubled Captain Queeg, as he shuffles marbles in his hand while giving a rambling testimony that clearly proved he had cracked up on the ship and needed to be relieved. His court-martial appearance made it clear the crew was right to declare mutiny and take over.
It was that very part of the movie I had landed in where clearly the case had been won, and the crew, justified in their mutiny, was celebrating their victory in court. But there was another scene following. I thought to myself, “I don’t recall there being more to this movie. He’s guilty, they’re clean, case closed, movie over.” But clearly there was more, and over the years I had forgotten there was another side to the story. A different interpretation might make people think twice about what looked so “open and shut.” Although there was no denying the captain had “cracked up,” the prosecuting attorney (Lt. Barney Greenwald) had a conscience about the verdict and had wandered into the room full of celebrating sailors looking to clear his mind. He was filled with personal regret, and he realized that none of the sailors had stopped to consider what really had happened.
Here’s the exact dialogue:
“[Greenwald staggers into the Caine crew's party, inebriated.]
Lt. Barney Greenwald: Well, well, well! The officers of the Caine in happy celebration!
Lt. Steve Maryk: What are you, Barney, kind of tight?
Greenwald: Sure. I got a guilty conscience. I defended you, Steve, because I found the wrong man was on trial. [pours himself a glass of wine]
Greenwald: So, I torpedoed Queeg for you. I had to torpedo him. And I feel sick about it. [drinks wine]
Maryk: Okay, Barney, take it easy.
Greenwald: You know something ... When I was studying law and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn't make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn't crack up like Queeg.
Ens. Willie Keith: But no matter what, Captain Queeg endangered the ship and the lives of the men.
Greenwald: He didn't endanger anybody's life, you did, all of you! You're a fine bunch of officers.
Lt. JG H. Paynter Jr.: You said yourself he cracked.
Greenwald: I'm glad you brought that up, Mr. Paynter, because that's a very pretty point. You know, I left out one detail in the court martial. It wouldn't have helped our case any.
Greenwald: Tell me, Steve, after the Yellowstain business, Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn't you?
Maryk: [hesitant] Yes, we did.
Greenwald: [to Paynter] You didn't approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn't worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you'd given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon?
Greenwald: You're an honest man, Steve, I'm asking you. You think it would've been necessary for you to take over?
Maryk: [hesitant] It probably wouldn't have been necessary.
Greenwald: [muttering slightly] Yeah.
Keith: If that's true, then we were guilty.
Greenwald: Ah, you're learning, Willie! You're learning that you don't work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he's got the job or you're no good! Well, the case is over. You're all safe. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. [long pause; strides toward Keefer] And now we come to the man who “should've” stood trial. The Caine's favorite author. The Shakespeare whose testimony nearly sunk us all. Tell 'em, Keefer!
Lt. Tom Keefer: [stiff and overcome with guilt] No, you go ahead. You're telling it better.
Greenwald: You ought to read his testimony. He never even heard of Captain Queeg!
Maryk: Let's forget it, Barney!
Greenwald: Queeg was sick, he couldn't help himself. But you, you're real healthy. Only you didn't have one tenth the guts that he had.
Keefer: Except I never fooled myself, Mr. Greenwald.
Greenwald: I'm gonna drink a toast to you, Mr. Keefer. [pours wine in a glass]
Greenwald: From the beginning you hated the Navy. And then you thought up this whole idea. And you managed to keep your skirts nice, and starched, and clean, even in the court martial. Steve Maryk will always be remembered as a mutineer. But you, you'll publish your novel, you'll make a million bucks, you'll marry a big movie star, and for the rest of your life you'll live with your conscience, if you have any. Now here's to the “real” author of "The Caine Mutiny." Here's to you, Mr. Keefer. [splashes wine in Keefer's face]
Greenwald: If you wanna do anything about it, I'll be outside. I'm a lot drunker than you are, so it'll be a fair fight."
Wow! I had totally blocked this part of the film from my memory. What was Greenwald saying? In short, he was saying that people who have earned their stripes and fought for the liberties that others now enjoy should not be made to explain their motives and or actions. Maybe what is said or done is not immediately understandable or clear to the support staff, but there are reasons outside of the vision of underlings. It was the men’s duty to cooperate and make things work as they were commanded to do. Not to resist and push back. It’s like a parent telling one’s kids it’s time for school and they say, “Why do we have to go?” You know why and it isn’t really important right now if they know why. What’s important is that the parent, who has the authority, says so. The film suddenly made so much sense. Betrayal like that cannot be combated. All that the captain needed was simple respect and the conflict could have turned 180 degrees. The sailors’ group resistance left Queeg without a friend—he had nothing left but to crack up. They drove him to it.
Support Without Judgment
I thought about how many times over the years I participated in negative “group think” and instead of defending someone, I joined in and blamed, mocked, or disrespected that person. I could have been an agent of change but chose to be part of the problem. While I was really becoming drawn into this new revelation, my sinuses felt as if they weighed 100 pounds so I put my head down to rest and changed the channel. An angry mob of conservatives was saying things about the president that might have landed them in jail when I was a kid. I rubbed my eyes and changed the channel again. Excerpts from a presidential speech were being analyzed, in which he made it clear that if people resisted his preference, he would use his veto power to override their position. It looked like zero respect either way! Another flick of the clicker and a game show host was embroiled in a discussion with the judges debating that every rose may be a flower but every flower is not a rose.
I turned the TV off and listened to the hiss of the humidifier at the end of the couch. Was I having a truly clairvoyant moment, or did I need to dial down the meds? I tried to put into a few simple words what I had discerned. We humans know how clearly we need support, friendship, love, and help at various times, so why is it so difficult to give those when we see others reaching out for them? Simple lack of consideration, I concluded. So join me, if you will, in taking a step back now and then and see the bigger picture, putting yourself in the shoes of the other guy, the easy target, the one you could help bury. Better yet, step behind the person in need and be the support you know he or she would appreciate.
Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.