Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The dumb tagline for Morituri is "Brando and Brynner Teach the Nazis an Explosive Lesson!," which is
about as far away from the appeal of this intelligent and daring thriller that puts a novel set
of characters into risky spy games on the high seas.
If anything it was too intelligent for its year. Instead of escapism, we get moody B&W intrigues
between two great actors on a ship moving in perilous waters. For once, a WW2 war-zone drama
doesn't really have any explosions in it.
Apolitical German Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) is tapped by the English in India to
change his identity to Hans Kyle, SS officer, and infiltrate a Tokyo to Berlin freighter carrying a
precious load of rubber. His chances of being
caught by disillusioned captain Rolf Mueller (Yul Brynner) are increased when it is revealed that a
Japanese submarine with German officers is shadowing them protectively. Since he is posing as
a haughty SS operative, Kyle gains the loyalty of sniveling first officer Kruse (Martin Benrath).
He also has potential help from some crewmembers being taken back to Germany as potential prisoners,
and eventually, from some Allied prisoners they pick up - including concentration camp escapee
Esther Levy (Janet Margolin).
What initially sounds like a far-fetched spy tale quickly becomes a taut suspense tale with many
angles. Besides three kinds of Germans we get American prisoners who in no way act heroically, and
a tortured concentration camp survivor presented without the slightest sentiment. While
mainstream war thrillers moved toward popular escapism in bright color, like the same studio's
Von Ryan's Express, Morituri turns to the dark side.
The hero Kyle is a German of questionable loyalties, starting as a selfish fugitive from war and
ending as an unaligned humanist. He has to wear and personify the insignia of a feared and despised
elite organization. Standing in his way is Captain Mueller, a loyal German conflicted by his own
command's lack of faith in his record. Kyle has to evade the suspicion of two high-ranking German
naval officers, while trying to forge a bond with the "disloyal" members of the crew - and with
the American prisoners locked away in the hold.
For once the mission is too hopeless and the complications too numerous for a simple solution, and
Morituri is successful because we honestly can't predict what will happen next. Captain Mueller's
skill is such that he can sneak through a foggy Pacific by passing his freighter off as an Allied steamer,
but detection is always an imminent possibility. He has orders to scuttle the ship immediately if
it might fall into enemy hands, but Kyle's mission is to disarm all the scuttling
charges and save the vital cargo for the Allies.
The original story is by the same writer responsible for Fritz Lang's complicated Indian movies
The Tiger of Eschnapur &
The Indian Tomb, and he and Daniel Taradash weave a dozen unstable variables - alcoholic
captain, suspicious officers, unreliable dissidents - into a satisfying suspense thriller.
Fox's German director Bernhard Wicki was simply okay with The Visit, The Bridge and
the German scenes in The Longest Day, but none of those are as accomplished as his work here.
Aided immeasurably by Conrad Hall's stark B&W images and Jerry Goldsmith's nervous music, he gives
both Brando and Brynner one of their best vehicles. Brynner is intense and convincing even when
he has to throw himself into a drunken rage over a moral issue (his beloved son, a German officer,
has sunk an Allied Hospital ship).
After deep-dish political movies with half-baked ideas
(The Ugly American) and a hopeless
effort with Charlie Chaplin, Brando is excellent in a clearly-defined genre role. His German
accent is much improved since
The Young Lions and we spend many
anxious moments watching his face as his character talks and balks his way out of one verbal trap
The most disturbing part of the story is the Jewish torpedo survivor Esther Levy, played by the
excellent Janet Margolin
(David and Lisa, Take the Money and
Run). Already the victim of a gang rape and deranged by the death of her brother, she
helps Brando in his hopeless mutiny with a mad gleam in her eye. When the American sailors refuse
to join in, she perversely offers herself to them - as a group - for the promise of their
participation. It's eerie not only because the movie even allows such a bargain, but because
she seemingly offers herself willingly. Nothing in the script or direction "places" her
action as a glorious sacrifice, as in the WW2 melodrama Cry Havoc! where a U.S. nurse
goes on a suicide date with a perverted Japanese officer. It's just one more grotesque wrinkle
in an awful situation. This unexpected harshness probably repulsed audiences in
1965 - Morituri isn't a feel-good show. It comes off now as serious and inspired - despite
the grim title, taken from the gladiator's oath to the Emperor Morturi te Salutant: We Who
Are About to Die, Salute You.
Trevor Howard gets high billing but exits the film almost immediately in the first unconvincing
scene set in Brando's home in India. Martin Benrath is good as a weasely first officer, and Wally
Cox tries once again for a dramatic
hit as a ship's doctor addicted to morphine. Familiar face Hans Christian Blech (Battle of
the Bulge, The Longest Day, The Bridge at Remagen) has his best role as the leader
of the dissident German sailors. Spotted in smaller bits are favorite 40's Nazi Martin Kosleck as
a sailor and Hans Gudegast (Eric Braeden of The Rat Patrol and Colossus, the Forbin
Project) as a radio man. Hidden among the faces of crewmen are Gary Crosby, Paul Baxley, Roy
Jensen and George Takei.
Fox's welcome DVD of Morituri is a superb transfer of this dark and moody B&W film. Conrad
Hall's lighting in the labyrinthine interior of the freighter Ingo (is this a joke on Otto
Preminger's producer brother?) is a last gasp of excellent monochrome artistry. The track is
clear, allowing us to appreciate Jerry Goldsmith's interesting score that successfully substitutes
acoustic and electric guitar work for martial clichés
The only extras are a teaser and a trailer that try to push the film as a powerhouse action
spectacle between two actor-titans, but the moody photography doesn't support that sell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 25, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson