It’s a rare occasion when I’m wholly surprised by a movie. Rarer still is when I come across a star-powered film of which I’ve heard absolutely nothing. Rarest of all is a movie that combines both of these.
Morituri (1965) is such a film.
Before I stumbled across it while channel-surfing, I’d never heard of this WWII story starring Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner. It was released in ’65 to middling reviews and box-office crickets. The title of the film was deemed the main culprit for this poor performance–audiences didn’t understand the title’s reference to the phrase Nos morituri te salutamus, or “We who are about to die salute you.”–but I think it also it was a matter of the public’s waning appetite for tense movies about the war. In the early ’60s, we saw a definite down-tick in the number of WWII films produced by Hollywood, alongside a shift to movies with more romance and humor (The Americanization of Emily, Ensign Pulver, Father Goose, and The Sound of Music– I mean come on…singing Nazis? ). We were still making great WWII dramas, to be sure; some of the greatest, in fact, came out of the mid-’60s, such as Judgment at Nuremburg and The Longest Day, but on the whole the WWII thriller was becoming less common.
Into this changing landscape steamed Morituri.
The setup begins with a German defector in India (Marlon Brando), who is blackmailed by British Intelligence into taking on a mission: sabotage a German cargo vessel carrying critical war supplies from Japan to Occupied France. The captain of this cargo vessel, played by Yul Brynner, is about as fond of the Third Reich as Brando’s character is, but both men have their jobs to do, and therein lies our conflict.
The plot throws in twists, near-misses, and complications at a good clip, ramping up the tension as the story progresses. With the addition of a dope-addicted doctor (Wally Cox) and a Jewish nurse/prisoner (Janet Margolin), the story pulls in some interesting social context, as well. But while the ticktock thriller components work well in this movie, they were not the most surprising aspect for me.
What really thrilled me about this movie was the camera work. Cinematographer Conrad Hall earned several award nominations in his career, with movies such as In Cold Blood and The Day of the Locust, and in this movie his work is no less astounding and creative. The black-and-white film is exceptionally effective during the scenes set in the ship’s interior where massive machinery, shadowy engines, and starkly lit railings form a menacing environment for the characters to navigate. Shots that show the four-story deep bowels of the ship add a feeling of physical precariousness, and emphasize the fragility of the men clambering about.
The exterior camera work is just as remarkable. Hall and director Bernhard Wicki combined tracking shots, crane shots, and helicopter shots with clever foley work to tremendous effect. One exceptional shot starts underwater with the surfacing of a U-boat, then switches to a helicopter shot that tracks from the sub to the cargo ship, zooms in on Captain Mueller (Brynner) for a few bits of dialogue, follows an officer as he delivers the captains orders, then follows our conspirator as he runs to the stern, and we hear his conversation as the camera swings away, all of this without a hint of rotor wash on the water and with perfectly timed sound engineering (which also was worthy of an award, in my opinion).
It is not a perfect film, but its flaws are small and easily overlooked. Some critics complained that Brando’s halting delivery and his German accent were more distracting than effective, but I do not agree. Brando’s character is negotiating a dangerous landscape, and the pauses that pepper his dialogue are moments of evaluation. As for his accent, while it is assumed that all the non-prisoners aboard ship are German, few use a German accent, and I found Brando’s rather good accent helped ground us in this understanding.
The movie is also unusual in that it is an American production of a story without Americans in it. It’s about Germans during WWII, and is one of the few war-related films in which both main characters are unsympathetic to the actions of their Fatherland. Especially moving was the scene where Captain Mueller (Brynner) receives news of his son’s exploits against the British navy. His son has sunk the H.M.S. Carapace, which everyone thinks is a ship of the line but, upon inspecting the roster of British ships, Mueller discovers that the Carapace was a hospital ship, and this bit of good news turns bitter for him.
There aren’t many films where I go back to re-watch a shot or a scene, but Morituri provided me no fewer than three instances where I just had to back up and see it again.
An excellent cast, some terrific cinematography, and a story that is effective and unusual on several levels…what’s not to like?