Kim Newman on... Morituri

RT Obscura 13: A forgotten Brando/Brynner.

by | March 6, 2008 | Comments

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 13th column, Kim uncovers a forgotten Brando/Brynner war film.

It isn’t only low-budget, no-star, outside-the-system quickies which languish in obscurity. Sometimes, substantial pictures — through no fault of their own — fall through the cracks. This maritime war movie boasts two of the biggest international stars of its era (Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner) along with obviously healthy production values and a strong suspense/action plot with potent emotional/political content. But it wasn’t a box office success in 1965, is rarely cited in 100 Great War Movies lists dominated by much lesser films, Brando fans (taking a lead from the star’s typically dismissive comments) underrate his performance, and television revivals are rare.


I suspect the major problem was the unresonant, clever-clever title (Morituri is Latin for, “we who are about to die,” the gladiators’ salute) – releasing it in some territories as The Saboteur – Code Name: Morituri didn’t help win more audiences – though it’s also true that war movies with mostly “enemy nation” characters haven’t tended to be hits since the days of All Quiet on the Western Front. However, the fact that you aren’t likely to have seen it as many times as, say, The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare (other examples of the Mission: Impossible style of WWII film) means it’s likely to be a fresh, surprising, and indeed shocking viewing experience.

A huge shipment of rubber, destined for the tires of Nazi military vehicles, is to be sent from Japan to occupied France on the German merchant vessel Ingo, which is commanded by honourable Captain Mueller (Brynner), who has a black mark on his record because he was drinking rum while an earlier ship was sunk under him. The rubber is so vital that the Ingo will have a submarine escort and is required to make itself over as a British or Swedish vessel to get through various allied blockades.


And Mueller’s life is complicated by eager, Nazi second officer Kruse (Martin Benrath), who wants his job, and a small group of dissident crewmen who are being shipped back to Europe to face political charges. Robert Crain (Brando), a German marine engineer who has skipped the fatherland and is spending the war luxuriously in India pretending to be Swiss, is blackmailed by a British officer (reliable one-scene man Trevor Howard) into boarding the Ingo, posing as a high-ranking SS officer named Kyle. The first of many twists is that the job of the saboteur is not to sink the ship, but to disable the handily-numbered “scuttling charges” so that it (and the rubber) can be seized intact by the Allies at a pre-arranged point along its course.

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

To pile on the agony, Crain is so good at posing as an arrogant Nazi swine (a role in which Brando has a great deal of sly fun) that a dissident stoker (Hans-Christian Blech) resolves to murder him at sea and the brown-nosing Kruse keeps trying to get into his good graces. On top of all this, the U-boat (commanded by jolly Nazi Oscar Beregi) sinks an Allied ship and the Ingo has to put up with a group of sullen, grimy American prisoners and Esther Levy (Janet Margolin), a Jewish German refugee who has suffered appallingly in a concentration camp. When Mueller tries to treat the girl respectfully, Kruse acts more and more like a Nazi — the obscure Benrath surprisingly holds his own with bigger-name stars as Kruse segues from comical foil to terrifying menace, a small man puffing up to become a murderous monster (some of his traits prefigure Ralph Fiennes‘ performance in Schindler’s List). With the original plan ruined by a change of course, Crain sets about enlisting any help he can get (the dissidents, the Americans, the girl) only to find that it’s not as easy to stage a heroic mutiny as it is for Kruse to usurp the Captain’s position when he has an alcoholic relapse.


As befits this type of performance-driven drama, everyone gets standout moments: Brynner shines especially in a classic good news/bad news scene as Mueller is proud to learn that his son has won a medal then disgusted to find out the award is for sinking an unarmed hospital ship; Brando and Margolin (who ought to have been a much bigger star) share a quietly devastating scene as he tries to enlist her help by warning her about the Nazis only to be told of her appalling sexual abuse in a concentration camp; and, finally, with the ship stricken, Brando and Brynner get one of those resigned, understated chats which put the whole absurd horror of war in context. Margolin makes something extra-special of the frequently ridiculous role of the lone woman among men in war (in an upsetting turn, which probably did little for the American box office, it turns out that the GI prisoners in the hold are only willing to join Crain’s attempt to take over the ship if Esther sleeps with them all), and a large cast finds room for familiar faces like Wally Cox (usually typecast as funny little men, he gets a straight role as the morphine-addicted ship’s doctor who plays a key role in the mutiny), Martin Kosleck and Ivan Triesault (typecast as Nazis, but here in subtly different ‘kraut’ roles), Eric Braeden (later the German on The Rat Patrol) and even George Takei in a Japanese bit-part.

Though it’s a Hollywood film, the director and source material are German. Bernhard Wicki, who also worked as an actor (he’s in Fassbinder‘s Despair and WendersParis, Texas), was a solid professional with a long list of film and TV credits. He came to international notice by directing the “German” segments of The Longest Day, then made two English-language films (the other is The Visit, with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn).


The script is by American Daniel Taradash, who also worked on Sydney Pollack‘s surreal and rewarding war film Castle Keep, from a novel by Werner Jörg Lüddecke, who seems to have been West Germany’s answer to Alistair MacLean. Among the last big-scale action pictures shot in black and white (war-themed movies held out against colour longer than, say, Westerns), it has luminously terrific widescreen cinematography from Conrad L. Hall, whose career had just taken off after outstanding work on television’s The Outer Limits; Hall got his first Oscar nomination (he would win three times) for this credit. He manages equally well by the noirish, sweaty lower decks and fogbound seascapes, and lights faces in especially masterly fashion — whenever anyone has a great line or look, it fairly springs out of the frame. You also get an impressive Jerry Goldsmith score.

It has plenty of thought-provoking content, with a hero who goes through the old Casablanca arc by transforming from selfish but resourceful cynic to committed anti-Nazi. But contemporary fans will also take delight in seeing a sleek, pre-flab Marlon Brando exhibiting catlike grace in a tight sweater as he does a Bruce Willis-in-Die Hard act, dodging enemies while running multiple confidence tricks on everyone aboard, cramming himself into literal tight spots to disable all those bombs (it’d make a great computer game) and running, thumping and dangling through all manner of perils.

Tag Cloud

Disney Channel period drama FXX Mudbound technology Netflix NBC Calendar San Diego Comic-Con Logo Exclusive Video movies mockumentary Amazon a nightmare on elm street 2017 serial killer stoner Paramount Network Schedule Animation ITV sports police drama foreign Freeform 24 frames comics Cosplay sitcom romantic comedy Arrowverse chucky MSNBC laika black Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt TV One high school Best and Worst Fox Searchlight aapi miniseries lord of the rings romance richard e. Grant Star Trek streaming crossover mutant remakes WarnerMedia The Walt Disney Company trailers GIFs PBS RT History harry potter Mindy Kaling WGN blockbuster E! social media Amazon Studios Reality king kong FOX Turner Classic Movies The Walking Dead Food Network festivals supernatural 72 Emmy Awards TV CBS Box Office rotten TBS Image Comics Women's History Month video television Sundance Now blockbusters rt archives DirecTV south america Character Guide italian E3 FX docudrama comic books emmy awards Holiday Tubi Valentine's Day comiccon fresh new star wars movies Creative Arts Emmys TruTV Pixar Extras dogs screenings OneApp aliens Classic Film Song of Ice and Fire Broadway Teen Television Academy Watching Series Action nature batman Adult Swim justice league rotten movies we love Shondaland Cartoon Network monster movies Pacific Islander based on movie cartoon cancelled TV series Marvel children's TV werewolf ABC Photos cults Emmys australia concert toronto dceu Hallmark Christmas movies anthology Election DC streaming service die hard renewed TV shows kong telelvision NYCC DC Universe new york 93rd Oscars Showtime worst singing competition Pet Sematary fast and furious adaptation 2016 Disney Plus heist movie HBO Go universal monsters cops 99% Spike MCU elevated horror Disney ESPN Rocketman Ellie Kemper Mary Poppins Returns christmas movies sequels TIFF USA Network Super Bowl medical drama Academy Awards Certified Fresh Interview docuseries international historical drama Vudu TCA 2017 critics discovery transformers A&E ABC Family Amazon Prime festival 007 Discovery Channel scene in color TV renewals video on demand twilight animated Paramount Sci-Fi 2021 doctor who asian-american CMT SXSW Television Critics Association Black Mirror Reality Competition political drama Writers Guild of America Musicals Endgame Syfy Superheroe HBO target Rocky witnail teaser The Purge Apple TV+ Film Festival Winners spanish language cancelled TV shows streaming movies VICE RT21 BBC quibi Countdown Christmas 4/20 Funimation blaxploitation Mary poppins Winter TV 2018 kaiju Trailer Sony Pictures Fox News crime drama scorecard Star Wars Year in Review Grammys prank free movies reboot halloween tv Toys Western Comedy Central IFC Hear Us Out A24 dragons obituary zombie Binge Guide politics robots BAFTA Polls and Games Comic Book documentaries Britbox dc spain BET saw what to watch CBS All Access VOD 20th Century Fox Spectrum Originals Chernobyl DC Comics golden globe awards Awards Legendary game of thrones cancelled Summer scary movies SDCC theme song YouTube Red name the review indie Turner Pop TV Pirates Premiere Dates TNT Biopics ViacomCBS Video Games Horror biography Nat Geo parents dramedy football Awards Tour Peacock satire kids travel revenge reviews New York Comic Con stop motion spider-man Kids & Family comic Opinion HBO Max Film 45 71st Emmy Awards Thanksgiving breaking bad TCM Infographic psychological thriller hispanic CNN Masterpiece CW Seed Sneak Peek nbcuniversal Ovation Cannes History vampires President Drama Apple Lucasfilm Starz composers Lifetime APB Rock Marathons Superheroes Comics on TV MTV 2019 zombies ratings versus Apple TV Plus Red Carpet ghosts Marvel Studios child's play Captain marvel GLAAD binge space spinoff boxoffice Disney+ Disney Plus movie The Academy joker Pride Month The Witch directors talk show Family comedies Set visit 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards YouTube Fall TV razzies Trophy Talk YouTube Premium Ghostbusters Emmy Nominations crime Comedy sequel Trivia Hallmark IFC Films Tarantino PaleyFest LGBT PlayStation Paramount Plus hollywood live action cinemax TV movies finale USA Pop ABC Signature hidden camera archives spy thriller Walt Disney Pictures new zealand all-time 21st Century Fox indiana jones Shudder Baby Yoda DGA Alien BET Awards Martial Arts japanese franchise cancelled television zero dark thirty cooking Chilling Adventures of Sabrina disaster spanish 2015 AMC LGBTQ Nominations cars OWN classics criterion anime TCA Winter 2020 2020 godzilla marvel cinematic universe canceled X-Men know your critic American Society of Cinematographers Elton John FX on Hulu Netflix Christmas movies The Arrangement Tomatazos TLC documentary Tumblr rom-coms Music tv talk Lifetime Christmas movies deadpool Columbia Pictures independent SundanceTV Amazon Prime Video strong female leads james bond Acorn TV superhero See It Skip It toy story psycho BBC America El Rey screen actors guild venice sag awards Marvel Television National Geographic game show best TCA Black History Month award winner Dark Horse Comics Epix Musical Hulu dark latino halloween diversity pirates of the caribbean Anna Paquin nfl First Reviews Heroines First Look women Warner Bros. TV Land unscripted thriller VH1 boxing GoT Avengers Lionsgate popular Crackle Bravo mission: impossible war Stephen King Sundance green book Disney streaming service Oscars Travel Channel superman Nickelodeon true crime TCA Awards slashers Crunchyroll book BBC One ID facebook science fiction news Rom-Com Country Esquire worst movies crime thriller Mystery adventure The CW YA natural history Holidays jamie lee curtis stand-up comedy films Podcast cats Spring TV book adaptation series golden globes jurassic park Brie Larson Fantasy hist canceled TV shows french Sundance TV Mary Tyler Moore Quiz casting Universal