A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
Mister Roberts (1955) is a classic wartime comedy. It was a classic on Broadway, a classic film, and a key moment in the careers of Henry Fonda (playing the titular paragon of decency) and Jack Lemmon (playing the hapless Ensign Pulver). It’s set on a navy cargo ship during World War Two, and centers on the war of wills between a tyrannical Captain (James Cagney) and his number two, Roberts, who doesn’t like how the old man treats the men under his command.
Everybody remembers how great Fonda was in it, and many will remember how great the young Lemmon was in it, but few will reflect that the story isn’t really about Mister Roberts at all. After all, he barely changes in the course of the story; he’s as good and true a man in the beginning as he is when he meets his off-screen fate, and if anything is only rendered more like himself as the events of the film unfold.
No, the story, the change in one man’s character, involves Ensign Pulver: how Mr. Roberts’s example inspires him, in the final moments, to put aside his fear and take his mentor’s place as the Captain’s next great adversary.
And so it goes.
A few minutes ago I saw a film I had always heard described as vastly inferior, but always been curious about: the belated sequel, Ensign Pulver (1964), filmed about a decade later with no members of the original cast. It is, as rumored, not even half the film the original was, and not necessarily because it has lesser players. (And, frankly, not all of them are lesser; Walter Matthau plays second lead, and he’s as good as he always is, enough to make us wish that the filmmakers had also corralled Lemmon to reprise Pulver and thus added another entry to the joint filmography of two great film personalities who made many films of varying quality from classics to duds together.) You can also find a very young Jack Nicholson, still a few years away from Easy Rider, among the supporting players.)
Burl Ives, taking over from Cagney as the son of a bitch Captain, is no replacement, but then few people would be, and you can say of him that he plays the same notes Cagney played, even if the screenplay requires him to be more of a clown. Robert Walker Jr. takes over from Lemmon, and he’s not bad either; not great, but effective enough, as one would expect from a guy who just two years later played one of the better supporting roles on the original Star Trek (he was the terrifying “Charlie X’”).
But again, none of this is the main problem.
Nor is the film’s attempt to humanize the tyrannical Captain, to show us how wounded he must have been by life, to show such petty cruelty to the men under his command. A little of this goes a long way. Thank God, he doesn’t become a better person, nor does he have any very special moments, of the sort you would find in a TV sitcom. All in all he turns out to have been one of those characters who is more satisfying when he can be hated without nuance. But that, again, is not the main problem.
We get closer to the main problem with the story, contrived as it is. It substantially departs from the original movie’s relatively realistic blend of comedy and drama, relying on a ridiculous series of events that has Pulver and the Captain accidentally set adrift in a life boat, washing up on the same tropical island where another stranded group of service people includes the very same nurse Pulver is sweet on, and then, then, requiring that nurse to assist Pulver in an emergency appendectomy on his martinet of a commanding officer.
It is, frankly, plotting akin to Gilligan’s Island, and not a wart on the ass of the firmly character-based shenanigans of the original…but, again, it’s not the main problem.
No, the main problem is that, like all too many sequels, it presses the reset button and contrives to repeat the very same character arc as that original.
Mister Roberts is, ultimately, about how a better man’s example and a shocking reminder of the realities of war lead Ensign Pulver, a fellow who talks big but has never really been serious about anything in his life, to belatedly grow up and become a substantial person. It is the very point of the story, and the reason the story resonates after the last laughs have faded, the reason audiences who see it for the first time in a theatre still erupt in tumultuous applause in the final moments, when Pulver finally stands up to the Captain who terrifies him.
Ensign Pulver all but forgets that happened at all, and begins again with Pulver a big-talking ninny under the Captain’s thumb. It puts him back at the beginning of his journey and then forces him to take the journey again, but gives him a stupider route to the very same epiphanies that his character arrived at back when he was played by Jack Lemmon.
It follows a much better story and says, “Remember all the great stuff you saw before? Well, it turns out that none of that matters at all. This stuff, this much stupider stuff, is the stuff that changed Ensign Pulver.”
And in so doing, it spectacularly fails the sequel test. Nobody who loved Mister Roberts could possibly buy this as an accurate account of what happened to Pulver next. It is a base lie, Pulver apocrypha. We shall not speak of it again.