When not keeping scheming ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver out of trouble, Lieutenant Doug Roberts attempts to mediate between the crew of the USS Reluctant and their captain, who resolutely refuses to engage in wartime action. But only the ship's doctor appreciates the pressure he's under.
Henry Fonda spent seven years as Mister Roberts. In all, he gave over 1000 performances on Broadway and some 600 more on tour. However, he was 50 by the time Warner Bros. came to adapt Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan's play (making him 20 years too old for the role) and concerns were expressed that the camera would expose the years that could be disguised on stage. William Holden refused the part, insisting that it belonged to Fonda. But Marlon Brando had no such scruples and accepted, only for John Ford to threaten to quit unless Fonda was cast.
Unfortunately, this act of magnanimity was to backfire on both men, as Warners demanded a broadening of the humour and Ford and Fonda soon fell out over this roughhouse approach. Moreover, Fonda resented Ford's attempts to rework his interpretation of a role that had become second nature and, refusing to recognise the different demands of stage and screen, he confronted the director and was socked on the jaw for his trouble. Although Ford apologised, the rift with his favoured Man of Principle never healed and it was, perhaps, a mercy that the regretful drinking bout which poisoned the on-set atmosphere induced a gallbladder rupture that caused `Pappy' to be replaced by Mervyn Le Roy, who consented to a shared credit, but refused to acknowledge the fact that Joshua Logan was brought in to reshoot a couple of crucial sequences. Much had changed in Hollywood since Fonda had last starred in a movie. Consequently, his performance retained a stubborn theatricality, which occasionally sat uncomfortably alongside James Cagney and William Powell's old school restraint and Jack Lemmon's new kid bravura. Roberts's courage, decency and integrity remained affecting. But Fonda's familiarity with the character deprived Roberts of life and he was overlooked completely by the Academy, while Lemmon won Best Supporting Actor. It was the final frustration in a dream project that had turned into something of a nightmare.
Still an expert mix of sentiment, comedy, patriotism and anarchy