Adapted from the play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan based on Heggen’s novel, late in the Pacific war a kind officer with integrity clashes with an arrogant captain of a cargo ship on behalf of the crew, supported by the doctor and the ensign.
On the US Navy ship Reluctant Captain Morton (James Cagney) announces reveille and cancels the movie again because a cigarette butt was found in his palm tree. Doc (William Powell) tells Lt. Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) he will have many patients today. Doc asks Roberts what is wrong, and he says he noticed a task force of their ships. Roberts thought he was on them, but then he looked at the captain’s palm tree. He shows Doc his application for transfer on April 16, 1945 to combat duty. Doc says he has submitted such a letter every week, but the captain always disapproves them. Doc says he is going down to his hypochondriacs. Chief Petty Officer Dowdy (Ward Bond) tells Roberts it is going to be hot, and he asks when the men are going to get liberty.
The Captain waters his palm tree. Sick call begins, and several men come into Doc’s office. He listens to their stories and prescribes aspirin, marking them for duty. Dowdy tells Insigna (Robert Roark) to clean the binoculars. He sees a hospital on the island with nurses taking showers. Five sailors watch and hope to see more. When the Captain approaches, they get to working scraping the deck, but Mannion (Phil Carey) is still watching. When the Captain leaves, they start fighting; but Roberts makes them stop. The Captain asks what a man is doing without a shirt and orders him on report. Roberts tells them all to keep their shirts on. Dowdy says they have to have liberty. Roberts says he is going ashore.
In his quarters Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) asks Roberts if he can go with him. Roberts says okay. They walk on the dock and then split up. Pulver goes in the hospital and is saluted by five nurses. Pulver tells Lt. Ann Girard (Betsy Palmer) he has a requisition for aspirin, and she asks if they have seen a lot of action. She gives him a bottle of aspirin, and they make a date to drink Scotch at ten minutes to six.
Roberts tells Doc that he talked to the port director, who assigns where ships go, and Pulver learns he gave him the bottle of Scotch. Roberts and Doc observe decorated pillows, and Pulver tells them nurses are there now. He says they flew in last night, and he met a beautiful blonde who said she would come on the ship for a drink of Scotch. Pulver was going to bring her there. Roberts tells Doc they must make some Scotch. Doc suggests they put some coke in the pure alcohol. Doc pours some in to get the right color. Pulver says it won’t taste like Scotch, and Roberts suggests iodine. Doc adds a drop and tastes it. He adds a drop of hair tonic for age, and Roberts tastes it. They all agree it tastes like Scotch. Pulver says she won’t know the difference. Roberts says he likes Pulver, but he is lazy, disorganized, and lecherous. Roberts says he never finished a book. Pulver says he has been reading God’s Little Acre. Roberts says Pulver is afraid of the Captain and asks why he has not put the marbles in the Captain’s overhead to annoy him. Pulver shows him his marbles. Roberts says he will respect him if he puts the marbles in the overhead and tells the Captain he did it. Pulver advises Roberts not to put his letter in. Pulver asks Doc to tell Roberts how stupid he is. Doc asks Roberts why he quit medical school when he could be saving lives. Roberts says maybe they are on this ship because they are not good enough to fight. Roberts says he wants to be in the war. Doc says being a hero is a reflex. He says even Pulver could do it. Doc says it is like the knee jerk. He hits Pulver’s knee but gets no reflex reaction. A voice orders Roberts to report topside. Pulver asks Doc what he is going to give Roberts for his birthday. Pulver shows Doc his shell for a firecracker that he is going to throw under the old man’s bunk. Pulver plays out how he will tell the Captain.
On board Roberts is told to save fruit for the captain. Sailors say Crawford passed out, and they bring him up and ask if they can take off their shirts. Roberts gives them permission. Roberts is told that the Captain wants to see him on the bridge. Roberts reads a list, and he approves giving away two crates of oranges courteous of the Captain, who tells Roberts to jump when he wants to see him. The Captain complains that Roberts wrote about the disharmony on his ship, and he will not forward a letter with that in it. Robert says he has a right to send the letter, and no one can change it. The Captain says he will send it in disapproved. The Captain says if he brings him one more letter, he will regret it. The Captain asks where their shirts are, and Roberts say they have to put their shirts on. The Captain accuses them of insubordination, and he puts them all on report. Roberts says he gave them permission. A sailor thanks Roberts for the fresh fruit, and the Captain gives Roberts ten days in his room. Then the Captain tells him to get back to his job. The Captain sees Pulver and asks if he is one of his officers. Pulver says yes and salutes. The Captain asks why he never sees Pulver. He asks his job and how long he has been on board. Pulver says he is in charge of laundry and has been on board fourteen months. The captain says he does not like starch in his pajamas, and he may invite him to have dinner with him.
Below the men laugh about the interchange, and they praise Roberts for telling the Captain off. Reber (Nick Adams) says Roberts will fix the old man’s clock. Pulver puts a “Do not disturb” sign on the door. A launch is arriving, and Pulver goes on deck. Sailors go swimming. Lt. Girard and five nurses request permission to come aboard. Pulver introduces them to Roberts, who says he is laundry officer. Pulver suggests the nurses go with Doc. Pulver gives Dowdy an order and shows the nurses the deck. A nurse asks to use the binoculars, and she notices something. They pass the glasses, and Lt. Girard realizes they can see a nurse in the bathroom. She says they have to go back and hang the window curtain, and they leave the ship. The men are disappointed their good fortune ended. Roberts reads the order they are going to a liberty port. He reads about the island that has rum and natives noted for their hospitality.
Natives take canoes to the ship, and they go on board and present flower necklaces. The Captain complains, and they all jump into the ocean. The Captain announces that men are expecting liberty. He says there will be no liberty in that port. Roberts goes directly to the Captain, who says it took him 28 seconds. The Captain says an officer arranged their going to that port by giving Scotch to the port director. Roberts asks him to take it out on him, not on the men. The Captain shows Roberts a cap of full command he hopes to win someday. The Captain says he got another “disharmony letter” that is not going in. Roberts asks how he can stop it. The Captain says Roberts will stop it, or the crew will never get liberty. Roberts asks him how he got in the Navy and calls him ignorant and arrogant. The Captain threatens him with court martial. Roberts says he needs a witness and tells him to call his messenger. The Captain closes the door and says Roberts is smart. He hates smart college guys and says he took it from them for years. He will not take it anymore. He is going to keep Roberts there and tells him to get out. Roberts asks what he wants for liberty. The Captain says he must not write any more letters, and he must not talk back to him before the men. He must never talk about this to anyone. Roberts gives his word. The Captain announces liberty, and Roberts tells him it has to be for the entire crew. He agrees, and the crew celebrates.
That night drunk sailors are hauled on board. Doc says they are peaceful. Others come on board and salute Mr. Roberts, who learns they crashed a dinner dance. A man tells him that 38 Army soldiers were hospitalized; two women were mauled, and six others had their clothes torn from them. He asks what Roberts will do, and he offers to lead a search party; but the man says the Army will do that. The men ask if they can go ashore again. Roberts asks Doc, who gives permission. Roberts tells them to get dressed. A drunk sailor has a goat that eats palm trees. Roberts says he will take care of her. Shore Patrol takes the goat away. Roberts tells Doc that now they are a crew rather than 62 individuals. Doc says they are going to have liberty too. A Shore Patrol officer tells Roberts that he has stationed men on the ship because six men broke into the French colonial governor’s house and threw things on the lawn including books by Balzac. A sailor rides a motorcycle off the pier.
The next day the Captain returns to the ship and says he was kicked out for the first time and that Roberts will pay for it. Dowdy tells Roberts that Bookser (Pat Wayne) did not make it back. He is on the pier with a girl, and he runs back on board. Roberts asks how he met her and tells him to get below.
All the men are lined up for the Captain. He tells them they are going to erase this blot from his record by moving more cargo than ever and that Mister Roberts is going to see to it that they toe the line. Roberts agrees. The Captain says they must work up a sweat. Roberts gives work orders, and the men wonder why he is taking that guff. Men think maybe he wants a promotion. Dolan shows Roberts a letter calling for volunteers and says he qualifies; but Roberts says he has to look it over.
Pulver tells Doc that men are saying that Roberts is trying to get promoted. Pulver says Roberts won’t talk to him about it. A sailor says that Roberts is turning out to be like an officer. Roberts comes in and sends Pulver for coffee so that he can talk to Doc. Roberts asks Doc to transfer him to the hospital so he can get off that ship. Doc asks what is the matter. Roberts says he put Dolan on report. He says he hates them because they think he wants a promotion. Doc asks if he has made an agreement with the Captain. Pulver comes in, and they hear the news that the war is over in Europe. Robert says they have to celebrate. Pulver says they are going to heave a firecracker under the Captain’s bunk, and he shows them the firecracker. Roberts asks if it will work. Pulver says he used fulminated mercury, and he goes to test it in the laundry. Doc doubts he would use that. Roberts toasts Doc, and they hear an explosion. Soap suds are coming out of the laundry, filling the hall. Pulver comes back covered with suds. Doc asks if he is all right. Pulver says it was beautiful. The Captain asks what it was. Doc and Roberts laugh. Roberts says they are going to make another firecracker, but Pulver says all his stuff was blown up. Roberts goes out on deck. Pulver asks Doc if he found out what is wrong with him. Doc says he is in a panic because he is missing the war.
On deck men listen to news of the celebration in Europe. Roberts joins them, and he tells Dolan he is taking him off report. The men all go down below deck. Roberts listens to a speech on the radio. During military music he sees the palm tree and marches to it, picks it up, and throws it overboard. The Captain comes out with his watering can and looks for his palm tree. He orders a general alarm sounded. The men get dressed and go to their battle stations. The Captain asks who did it. He says they will stay at their battle stations until he finds out who did it. Stefanowski bows where the palm tree was, and the men pass the word and begin bowing. The Captain says Pulver would not have the guts, but he orders Roberts to report to him. Roberts comes in, and the Captain says he did it. The men can hear their conversation broadcast, and the Captain says how he broke their agreement to obey in order to give the men liberty. The Captain becomes apoplectic, and Roberts calls for the Doc. He gives the Captain something to drink and puts a compress over his face. Roberts orders Dowdy to secure men from general quarters. Some of the men say goodnight to Mr. Roberts.
The Captain has another palm tree with a chain on its bucket. Roberts is packed and says he is going to Okinawa on a destroyer. Dolan tells him he is officially detached from that bucket. Dolan says the Captain ordered him off the ship in one hour. Dolan says he has a 24-hour watch on his palm tree. Doc asks Roberts if he is happy now. Doc asks Roberts how the crew feels about him. Doc asks how he got his orders. Doc says the crew got him his orders by forging the Captain’s name. He says they had a name-forging contest. Doc says he is the only officer involved, but he had the medical department contribute grain alcohol to the contest. He said they all did it for him. Roberts admits he loves those guys, and he feels there is something wrong about leaving them. Doc says he was not to tell him until later in a letter. Pulver comes back in and says he is the new cargo officer and that he has to have dinner with the Captain. Sailors come in with jungle juice in a fire extinguisher, and Reber pours drinks. They give Roberts a medal with a metal palm tree. Doc reads it is “the order of the palm for action against the enemy above and beyond the call of duty.” Roberts is told that his boat is there. He offers them a toast, and they drink. He says goodbye to Doc and Pulver. He puts on the medal and salutes the men.
Doc gives out the mail. Pulver gets letters, and the men ask him to talk to the Captain about getting them a movie. Pulver sees a letter from Mr. Roberts and reads it. He writes they were in four air attacks, and he has been thinking about them. The unseen enemy in the war is the boredom. Those who refuse to surrender to it are the greatest heroes of all. He is proud of the medal he won and that he lived among 62 brave men. Pulver reads another letter from his friend, and he says that Mr. Roberts is dead. A Jap suicide plane hit them. Doc tells Dowdy to post the letter from Roberts for the crew. Pulver goes up, pulls out the chain, and throws the palm tree overboard. He pounds on the Captain’s door and tells him that he just threw his palm tree overboard, and he asks what is the crud about no movie tonight.
This comedy about sailors not in the action of the war satirizes the boredom of the military life away from combat and deprived of sexual opportunities as well as the nonsensical tyranny that a deranged captain can exercise on a ship that is his domain. The arrogant captain is contrasted to the office of integrity who truly cares for the men, but in this story the mutiny is played for comedy rather than tragedy.