American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MISTER ROBERTS (1946, 1948). Mister Roberts served as the title for a novel, a play, and a film based on the stories of Thomas Heggen (19191949), which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Life, and Reader’s Digest, where Heggen was on staff. Heggen’s novel (1946) became a bestseller, selling over 850,000 copies. The play (first perf. 1948; pub. 1948) adapted by Heggen and Joshua Logan, was a popular and critical hit, running for three years, a total of 1,157 performances, and winning Tony awards in the first season they existed for Best Play, Outstanding Director, and “Distinguished Performance” or Best Actor for Henry Fonda in his favorite role. The 1955 film won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver and nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound.

A college graduate, Heggen served in the navy at Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, drawing on such experiences for his stories. Mister Roberts details the life of the bored, unmotivated crew of the cargo freighter AK 601, the U.S.S. Reluctant, serving in the Pacific from just before V-E Day until a few weeks before V-J Day. Oppressed by a rigid, humorless captain and by repetitive tasks, the crew bicker and play practical jokes. Mister Roberts is the ship’s cargo officer, who inspires loyalty in the crew and longs for active duty. He knows the ship’s men need liberty to distract them from spying on the nurses in an island hospital and from picking fights with one another, but the captain refuses to give it to them.

Aiming for an admiralship, the captain withholds liberty to pressure Mister Roberts into giving up his attempts to get a transfer. The captain’s animosity toward Mister Roberts is also fueled by his dislike of “college men.” Mister Roberts yields to this pressure and, in a fit of anger, throws overboard the captain’s prize palm tree. Unknown to him, the crew forge a transfer letter with the captain’s signature and pass it on and award him the “order of the palm.” When the crew hear that Roberts has been killed in an attack on his ship by a Japanese suicide plane, Ensign Pulver, formerly a rather immature joker, prepares to step into Roberts’ shoes as mediator between the men and the captain, fighting their real enemy, “boredom.”

The Pacific in Mister Roberts exists as a place far away from action, where men are thrown into contact with one another with little hope of diversion or meaningful experience. All of the action in the play is on the Reluctant; warships are offstage. Getting off the ship, either by shore leave or combat duty, is the only route to maturity.

Mister Roberts is of a piece with other coming-of-age stories written after World War II and later filmed, including South Pacific* (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953), and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). A sequel, Ensign Pulver, was made in 1964. A brief television series called Mister Roberts followed, along with a live television special. Ironically, Heggen died of drowning in his bathtub in 1949. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

Gwen Orel