Historical Circuit: ‘Mister Roberts’ Still Sails After 64 Years with Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon

James Cagney and Henry Fonda in 1955's "Mister Roberts"

TITLE OF FILM: “Mister Roberts”
DIRECTOR: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy
WRITER: Frank Nugent & Joshua Logan
STARRING: Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney


The USS Reluctant, or “The Bucket” as it is known by its discontented crew, drifts alone in the Pacific Ocean during the final days of World War II. The crew must not only deal with monotonous work in the extreme heat, but also with the ridiculous orders from the ship’s villainous captain. Lieutenant Commander Morton (James Cagney) is a mentor to no one. He seems to get his kicks from spewing erroneous mandate and tightening an already tight leash on his sailors.

The ship’s saving grace comes in the form of the executive officer, Lieutenant JG Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda). Mr. Roberts is a man of fairness and integrity, and he is beloved by the men aboard the ship. He wishes to do right by this tight-knit, but worn down crew. Although Mr. Roberts puts on a good face for the sailors under his charge, he is just as unhappy as they are. Mr. Roberts wishes for grander things than this “bucket” can offer him.

Mr. Roberts finds his own personal solace in the ship’s doctor (William Powell) and in his bunkmate, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon). The men bond over their shared hatred (or in one case fear) of the ship’s captain. As plans are hatched to stick it to the man on the top deck, each man’s true character is solidified and each of their destinies realized.


Director John Ford is considered among the greats in the history of film. His career spanned from the silent era into the 1970s, with his final film being released in 1976, three years after his death. He is known for telling truly “American” stories. The wildness of the western and the depressions of war invade his films. He often focused on stoic heroes and was able to coax brilliant performances from the likes of John Wayne, William Holden, James Stewart, and Maureen O’Hara.

Henry Fonda collaborated with John Ford before “Mister Roberts” on such films as “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Their working relationship was noted as a strong one, rooted in a true friendship. The drama surrounding “Mister Roberts” directing credit came down to a fight between Fonda and Ford on the set. Ford allegedly struck Fonda during a verbal altercation.

John Ford subsequently left the production (some reports say he was fired, others say he stepped down due to illness), and Mervyn LeRoy stepped in as director. In the documentary, “Directed by John Ford,” Fonda remembers Ford fondly, but after “Mister Roberts” the two never worked together again.

Drama aside, in saluting this film it would be heedless to not discuss the joy of watching Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, and James Cagney share the screen. These are four of the greatest actors to have ever graced motion pictures. They each possess a unique demeanor and voice, and together, they are a true quadfecta.

Henry Fonda is ever believable as our title hero. Although a little old for the role he originated almost ten years previously on Broadway, he hits the perfect tenor of exhaustion and hopefulness. It is a wonderful performance by a true talent.

Jack Lemmon gives another notable comedic performance. His Ensign Pulver is equal parts wild and pathetic. He cowers in his bunk with unrealized, epic plans. Lemmon gets his fair share of laughs, but it is his transition from an officer in name only to a readied leader that shines beyond that of a standard comedic relief part.

James Cagney is phenomenal as the captain with a raging ego. The captain is the film’s petty villain, but Cagney plays him in such an over the top manner that it is essentially a comedic role. Cagney made great contributions to film during his very successful career and his Captain Morton is a gift to us all.

With the least recognizable name of the four, William Powell worked thirty years in Hollywood. His role in “The Thin Man” series with Myrna Loy is his most famous. The film spawned five sequels before sequels were a thing. What always strikes me about Powell is his presence on screen. He is suave while never being condescending. And his voice, well you can melt into it. His delivery may be dry, but his tone is incredibly rich. In “Mister Roberts,” he is perfectly cast as Doc. He realistically portrays a man who has seen and done it all- tired, but still chugging along. It is fitting that “Mister Roberts” was his last film before he retired. A worthy end to a great career.

Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon


“Mister Roberts” was a staple in my house growing up not only because it is a jovial film that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, but also because it was a military movie. My family has a long history of military service. From my grandfathers to my father to my mother and now to me, in one way or another, the military has shaped our lives- not always, but often for the better. One of the things that set “Mister Roberts” apart from most military films is that it does not squarely focus on the horrors of war.

It is a nuanced film that uses comedy to examine a small part of Navy life. The military will attest that a cohesive unit is necessary for a successful mission. But “Mister Roberts” demonstrates that although the company is important, individuality still has a place. And that honor can be found in the bravery of speaking one’s mind.


“Mister Roberts” was a commercial and critical triumph upon its release in 1955. Part of the film’s success was due to the popularity the play had on Broadway back in 1948. The New York Times film critic A.H.Weiler had seen the stage version as well and astutely wrote that “although it is obliquely ribald now, it is still hilarious. Again, it is wonderfully sentimental and touchingly perceptive about its civilian-seamen caught in the backwash of a war they neither saw nor fully comprehended.”

The National Board of Review placed the film in its Top Ten Films list. Jack Lemmon received a BAFTA nomination for Supporting Actor. The Academy Awards nominated the film for three Oscars: Best Sound Recording, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Jack Lemmon, who would win the gold for his portrayal of Ensign Pulver).


In all honesty, “Mister Roberts” would probably be met with backlash if released today. There is an obvious lack of diversity, not only in race but in gender. Females are present in the film, but they mostly represent fodder for the males to drool over. However, the film does not degrade a woman’s value. The women who are pertinent to the story work as nurses. And they are capable military officers. Sexual harassment is just part of the job.

I ask that the audience remember that this is a comedy. And it also speaks to a particular moment in our history. In recent years the military has been working hard to stomp out the “boy’s club” mentality that is so synonymous with the armed forces.

The sailors’ ogling of the women they come across stems from their abstinence aboard the ship. Their desire for a physical connection is real to life, and that theme has been addressed in many films. If you are looking for a more recent film about a group of men (or guys may be a better descriptor) that bond over a love for the physical, Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some” is a tremendous comedy with equal parts heart and debauchery.


Abstaining from life’s pleasures, placating to the one in charge, understanding when duty should end and camaraderie should begin, keeping spirits high during troublesome times are all issues that people deal with at one point or another during their lives. The sailors in “Mister Roberts” just happen to be dealing with them all at once. The film brilliantly uses the art of comedy to give these issues true profundity and relevance. At its core, “Mister Roberts” is a story of personal strength in the face of hardship. It is a good lesson for us all.

“Mister Roberts” is available for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime, Apple, VUDU and Fandango Now.

What are your feelings on “Mister Roberts”? Let me know in the comment section below!

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