Friday 4 July 2014

Movie Review: Morituri (1965)

A World War Two marine espionage thriller, Morituri (also known as The Saboteur and Code Name Morituri) offers an initially engaging plot, but the film eventually loses focus, and despite the presence of stars Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner, drifts into muddled waters.

Robert Crain (Brando) is an anti-war German hoping to quietly wait out the conflict in India. British intelligence agent Colonel Statter (Trevor Howard) presses him into service, to infiltrate a German freighter under the command of Captain Mueller (Brynner), sailing from Japan to Europe and carrying a load of precious rubber for the Nazi war machine. Crain's mission is to disable the ship's self-destruct explosive charges, to allow the Allies to intercept Mueller at sea and seize the cargo intact.

Crain is provided with a fake identity as an SS commander. He boards the ship as a guest passenger and sets about his mission to find and disable the charges. He clashes with the ill-tempered and patriotic Mueller, who has a chequered past and is having troubles of his own maintaining control of his men. Also on-board are political prisoners being transported back to Europe. When Mueller accidentally stumbles into the middle of an Allied convoy and changes course, Crain's plans are disrupted and he has to improvise a new mission. Events are further complicated when actual SS agents board the ship to deposit another batch of detainees, including Jewish female prisoner Esther (Janet Margolin).

Filmed in crisp black and white, Morituri is mostly confined to the narrow passageways of the freighter chugging its way across the ocean. Although the thriller elements are initially present as Crain stealthily explores the ship to try and find and disable the explosives, the film is more of an intellectual chess game between a spy risking everything and a suspicious and determined captain.

Apart from its unmarketable name (which is Latin for "about to die"), Morituri starts to stumble about one third of the way through, when the plot is knocked off-course and never recovers. A straightforward story of sabotage on the high seas morphs into an ill-defined plot about mutiny and abandoning ship. Yet another change in direction finds the back end of the film unexpectedly dominated by Esther's story of tragic sexual abuse. Although an anti-war theme is maintained, Morituri loses its identity and devolves into fragmented arcs.

Austrian director Bernhard Wicki does his best with the Daniel Taradash adaptation of the Werner Jörg Lüddecke novel, and clearly there are competing ideas and sub-plots here that may have worked better on the page than on the screen. Morituri would have benefited from streamlining and better sequencing. Esther's story, in particular, sails in late to seize centre stage, throwing the tone of the film into the turmoil of the Holocaust and the politics of gang rape.

Marlon Brando excels in a relatively unfamiliar action-oriented role, his take on a pacifist forced to participate in a war that he despises filled with barbed commentary about the futility of violence. Both Brando and Brynner navigate the film with reasonable German accents, and Brynner has the longer character journey, traveling from proud warrior and father to a more circumspect man who learns to doubt.

Well-intentioned but overloaded, Morituri is a capable but clunky vessel.

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