Tragedy and farce: “Mister Roberts” and our misunderstanding of the WWII generation. One of the most beloved pieces of pop culture to come out of World War II has a tragic back-story connected to how we failed to understand the war’s veterans.
Not long ago I re-watched the classic 1955 film Mister Roberts, a perennially beloved movie, based on a hit play which was itself based on a novel, that has been a fixture on home video and the cable and streaming circuit for decades. Though I can’t tell you why—I was an odd kid—I used to love this film when I was about 11 or 12 years old and watched it constantly at home where we had it on CED videodisc, an obscure and obsolete video format that competed (badly) with VCRs in the early 1980s. My parents also took me to see a performance of the play which was a huge deal for me at the time because I was such a fan of the movie. Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda as the title character and featuring Jack Lemmon in his Academy Award-winning debut performance, is still familiar and comforting to my now-adult eyes.
It has some obvious problems, as I’ll discuss, but the heart of the story remains as charming and as relatively wholesome as it was in the 1950s. But the good things about Mister Roberts obscure a somewhat dark and disturbing subtext associated both with the author of the source material, Thomas Heggen, and American society’s refusal, then and certainly now, to understand the generation of men and women who served in and lived through World War II. This struck me deeply on this last re-watch.
First, the movie itself. Directed by John Ford—who had a gall bladder attack during production and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy—Mister Roberts takes place in the spring and summer of 1945 aboard a U.S. Navy cargo ship, the USS Reluctant, which drifts around the Pacific theater delivering mundane supplies like toothpaste and toilet paper to other Navy ships. Executive officer Douglas Roberts (Fonda) is the guy who runs the ship, and who shields the long-suffering crew from the petty tyrannies and mindless bullying of the narcissistic Captain Morton (James Cagney), a needling and abusive man who revels in punishing others because he can. Along with a wisecracking doctor (William Powell) and the colorful rogue Ensign Pulver (Lemmon), Roberts takes us through various episodes aboard the Reluctant, most of which focus on how much the enlisted men of the crew adore and worship Roberts. The plot’s major arc is that Roberts desperately wants a transfer to combat duty, but he has no hope of getting it so long as Captain Morton refuses to approve his transfer requests.
Roberts makes a deal with the captain to allow the crew to have a liberty (R&R, vacation) in an exotic South Pacific port if Roberts stops talking back to the captain and also ceases making transfer requests. The deal is secret, but at the end the crew discovers its existence, and they repay Roberts by forging the captain’s signature on a transfer request, which is granted. Roberts goes to a combat ship but is killed in the Battle of Okinawa in a Japanese kamikaze attack.
It’s not surprising that Mister Roberts is mostly autobiographical. The novel on which it’s based was cobbled together by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Thomas Heggen, from incidents he wrote down while serving aboard the cargo ship USS Virgo. There was a real Mister Roberts, a composite of officers Charles Roberts and Donald House. There was also a real Captain Morton, in actuality Lt. Commander Herbert Randall, who did have a palm tree that his executive officer threw overboard (a major plot point in the book and film). The unmistakable theme of the novel Mister Roberts, originally published in 1946, is the crushing boredom that was the lot of most American servicemen who took part in the Pacific War. An oft-quoted line of the movie, taken in essence from the book, is that the Reluctant sails “from tedium to apathy, with an occasional side trip to monotony.” This—not the pulse-pounding combat engaged in by a tiny sliver of people in the U.S. armed forces in World War II—was the most overwhelmingly common experience of Americans who served in that war.
To me, this resonates. Those of us who have grown up in America in the decades since World War II have a seriously warped view of what it, and the people who fought and served in it, was like. Our view was warped principally by pop culture and media, particularly movies. While the war was going on Hollywood, at the insistence of the federal government, pumped out propaganda films stressing how the war was a Manichean struggle between good and evil, and how important it was that democracy prevail over dark fascism. John Ford, who co-directed Mister Roberts, excelled at stuff like this; his 1945 picture They Were Expendable is a good example.
World War II films of the 1950s and ‘60s stressed the heroic dimensions of the conflict: pictures like Hellcats of the Navy, which starred Ronald Reagan, and The Longest Day recreated battles and built stars like Reagan and John Wayne into the embodiments of valor. For both viewers of the World War II generation and younger people, there were more or less light-hearted adventure movies about World War II, like The Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen. These were fun, but they not only obscured the reality of the conflict, but spun an alternate version of it which was more comforting and easier to buy into than to engage in any sustained reflection on what really happened.
In reality, Mister Roberts is a far more realistic depiction of World War II than virtually all other movies made about it in the 1950s and ‘60s. My grandfather served in the Navy in the Pacific War, on an LST. He was not involved in combat. He never saw a Japanese soldier. His experience was very much like the downtrodden crewmen in Mister Roberts: endless days of crushing routine and boredom, chafing under misbegotten authority (which my grandfather deeply resented—he went AWOL twice), punctuated by the occasional cynical rumination on what the whole thing was about and why this war had been inflicted on those required to participate in it. Had he ever met Thomas Heggen, my grandfather might have gotten along with him—if he could have countenanced being friends with an officer.
Mister Roberts and its history also demonstrates how American society misperceived and largely failed World War II veterans. People often did not appreciate that their participation in a war branded as heroic, or “The Good War” as author Studs Terkel put it, was a life-destroyer for many of its veterans. The 1946 Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives, which focuses on the difficulties of World War II veterans readjusting to civilian society, is perhaps the best look at part of the phenomenon, but for every Homer Parrish—the wounded vet who gets his girl at the end of the film and seems to be headed for a decent life—there were legions of young men who sort of drifted and felt unfulfilled or misunderstood by the society around them. My grandfather, whose eccentric and sometimes antisocial behavior is still the stuff of legend in our family, is a perfect example. He was one of the milder cases.
Often these people suffered trauma that they were totally unprepared to talk about, because you didn’t talk about that sort of thing in the 1940s and 1950s. My grandfather rarely discussed his war experiences but when he did he talked mainly about boredom aboard the LST. Then in 1998, in a rare moment of vulnerability, he told me about an incident where he and others aboard the ship were in the ship’s radio shack listening to radio transmissions from an American aerial attack going on nearby. They heard, in real time, a pilot who was hit by Japanese fire and went down to his death in his plane. They listened to him dying on the radio and he said it was the most horrible thing he ever heard. My grandfather never saw a Japanese soldier, but that didn’t mean the war didn’t traumatize him. Who knows what other experiences might have been lurking in his past that he never talked about. My grandfather died in 2013; some of his biography is told in an upcoming novel I wrote, Eyes of War, with Pacific War historian Lucas Erickson.
Thomas Heggen, who wrote Mister Roberts, seems also to have been traumatized. His should have been a relatively happy story. He survived the war and wrote one of the most iconic American novels to emerge from it. Heggen worked with playwright Joshua Logan to adapt Mister Roberts for the Broadway stage, where it was a massive hit. Henry Fonda played the title character in the play, six years before the movie. At one point Heggen was raking in $4,000 a week in royalties, a princely sum in 1948. But he was unable to write anything else, frozen by crippling writer’s block. On May 19, 1949, Heggen swallowed over 40 sleeping pills and slumped into the bathtub in his New York City apartment, where he drowned. He was 30. That it was a deliberate suicide was apparently disputed, but as a practical matter I can tell you that it’s unlikely a depressed writer would swallow a bottle of sleeping pills without contemplating that not waking up is a distinct possibility.
For all its funny moments, Mister Roberts itself has flashes of darkness within it, of which it—and perhaps Heggen himself—lacked self-awareness. The picture, and I suspect its source material, is quite misogynistic. The crew of the Reluctant seems to view women as an alien species, first as they spy on nurses in a shoreside hospital with binoculars, and then when a few of them are brought onboard the ship by Ensign Pulver. The whole liberty sequence is even more troubling. Taking place on a mythical island in French Polynesia called “Elysium,” the 20-minute sequence is fairly direct in communicating that the main interest of the Reluctant sailors while on liberty is raping the women of the island. The film treats the liberty hijinks in a “well, boys will be boys” manner perfectly mainstream for 1950s sensibilities but which seems disturbing today. In real life rape was a big problem in the Pacific War, on both the Japanese and American sides of the conflict and wherever either force came into contact with indigenous peoples. Mister Roberts is content to let his crew maraud through Elysium to their heart’s content, accepting their excesses as the necessary exhaust of their long confinement aboard ship. If anything, he, and the film, blame the captain for being such a tyrant. He is, but there’s remarkably little self-awareness here.
It’s hard to imagine what an incredible bummer World War II must have been for those men and women who participated in it. Imagine being 20, your whole life ahead of you, and then everything is derailed by a ghastly, civilization-shaking conflict in which the survival of your nation is at stake, and which you have to drop everything in your life to go off and fight. Then in 1945 the conflict ends in victory (at least for the Allied side), and you return home to find everything different and little left of your old life. You’re still 23, 24, and the most important thing you’ll ever do in your life, in most cases, is already over.
What do you do with the rest of your life? Not to mention, if you’re traumatized, you can’t talk about it and will get no help. Giving servicemen a reason to care about their postwar lives was the whole concept of the classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, released in 1946, the same year Thomas Heggen published Mister Roberts. As Heggen’s experience demonstrates, it wasn’t as easy as seeing a feel-good movie.
The trauma did not end. In the 1980s and 1990s, toward the end of their lives, we—the media-drunk Americans who didn’t live through World War II—brutalized the generation that did by deciding to cast them as golden heroes who saved civilization. We dubbed them “The Greatest Generation,” doffed hats and lowered flags in their presence, and made glowing TV documentaries and hero-worshiping pap like Saving Private Ryan about them. They never wanted this. I don’t know a single World War II veteran who wasn’t grossly uncomfortable with the whole “Greatest Generation” mythology. After ignoring and misunderstanding their trauma for decades, suddenly we appropriated the survivors as marble demigods whose awe-inspiring sacrifice should humble mere mortals.
Who could live up to that kind of deification? We’re now passing out of that period, thankfully, but it’s too late for most of the veterans, the vast majority of whom are now dead. We buried them with honors—I was present, for example, at my grandfather’s funeral in 2013—but we never took the time to understand them or look seriously at what they’d been through.
A couple of nights ago, after I watched Mister Roberts, I tried to put myself in the place of one of those crewmen who’d been aboard the USS Virgo during the war and who might have been the sailors Heggen described in his novel. What would it be like for them, say, in the mid-1950s, a decade after the war, still dealing with unresolved trauma, working an ordinary job, struggling to raise a family, and still feeling misunderstood and misplaced? A man in this position might pine for the days he spent aboard that terrible rusty “bucket,” where, although the work was boring, at least he knew—or thought he knew—that Mister Roberts was his patron saint who would never let him down.
There was certainty there, and belonging, and simplicity. That this nostalgia is born in a large measure out of anguish and cynicism is easy to forget when you’re guffawing at the 1950s dad jokes being emitted glibly in Mister Roberts by Dick Powell and Jack Lemmon. While we can’t know, perhaps Thomas Heggen’s last thoughts, as he slumped sleepily into the water of his bathtub in 1949, took him back to the days of the war aboard the Virgo and that warm certainty at least part of him pined for.
Mister Roberts is a comedy farce, but the more you think about it, the more it seems a little like tragedy.