On a small cargo ship – the USS Reluctant (known as ‘the Bucket’ by its crew) – floating somewhere in the south Pacific during World War II, Lieutenant Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda), the gentle cargo officer who fears he will miss seeing action before the war is over, mollifies a long-suffering crew.
Notable amongst the crew are the resourceful, lazy and boastful Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) and the world-weary doctor (William Powell), who endure a tyrannical Captain (James Cagney).
After the crew wreaks havoc ashore the Captain inflicts a demanding work schedule on them as punishment. Driven beyond his breaking point, Mr Roberts avenges himself upon the hated symbol of the Captain’s authority – a jealously guarded and much-watered palm tree.
Ensign Pulver also finds the strength to make his own stand against the Captain’s tyranny.
There was a great deal of off-screen drama during the making of Mister Roberts when John Ford and Henry Fonda clashed, resulting in Fonda walking off the picture.
Ironically, Jack Warner had wanted Marlon Brando or William Holden, but Ford had held out for Fonda.
Having played the title character on Broadway some 1,100 times, Fonda felt he knew his character better than Ford, who sought solace in booze after having his authority and artistic integrity challenged. Ford was eventually replaced by Mervyn LeRoy after suffering a gallbladder attack.
Nevertheless, the film turned out to be a big box office and critical hit, mainly because of the trenchant script and the performances of Fonda (returning to the screen after seven years), Cagney (in one of his most unsympathetic roles), Powell (in his last screen appearance) and Lemmon, whose Oscar-winning portrayal as Ensign Pulver set the seal on the type of role he would soon make his trademark.
Although not a shot is fired in the movie, it makes a very strong statement about men at war.
Lt. JG Douglas A Roberts
Ens. Frank Thurlowe Pulver
Lt. Ann Girard
Chief Petty Officer Dowdy
Yeoman 3rd Class Dolan
Harry Carey Jr