"You're a smart boy, Roberts. But I know how to take care of smart boys."
Description: James Cagney as Captain Morton speaking with Lt. Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) in the motion picture Mister Roberts (1955).
Captain Morton is the commander of the USS Reluctant, a cargo ship behind the lines during the waning days of World War II. Morton who rose through the ranks from seaman, is not very popular with his crew, but he doesn't care about popularity contests only that his ship is recognized as efficient in the eyes of the admiralty who honored Morton's ship with a small potted palm tree (“The Admiral John J. Finchley Award") for delivering more toothpaste and toilet paper than any other Navy cargo ship in the safe area of the Pacific.
In reality, college-educated Lt. JG Douglas A. 'Doug' Roberts is the reason the ship runs so efficiently. The crew dislike Captain Morton, but they admire Roberts and gladly perform their mundane duties because they know that the easy-going but fair Roberts has their back, often pushing for shore leave and bending the rules to make the sailor's life a bit nicer as they carry out their day-to-day duties aboard the ship.
Although Mister Roberts is second-in-command, he longs to get in the battle. As the war winds down he fears he will miss his chance to get into the fighting. He has asked to be transferred from the USS Reluctant but Captain Morton has repeatedly refused to transfer him, knowing that Roberts is the key to the ship's success.
|Doug Roberts:||How did you get in the Navy? How did you get on our side? Oh you ignorant, arrogant, ambitious... keeping sixty-two men in prison 'cause you got a palm tree for the work they did. I don't know which I hate worse, you or that other malignant growth that stands outside the door|
|Capt. Morton:||Why, you stinking little...!|
|Doug Roberts:||How did you ever get command of a ship? I realize in wartime they have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but where did they ever scrape you up?|
|Capt. Morton:||There's just one thing left for you, Mister. A general court martial!|
|Doug Roberts:||That suits me fine, court martial me!|
|Capt. Morton:||You've got it!|
|Doug Roberts:||I'm asking for it! If I can't get transferred, I'll get court martialed off! I'm fed up! But you'll need a witness. Call your messenger - I'll say it all over again in front of him. Go on, call him. You want me to call him?|
|Capt. Morton:||No. You're a smart boy, Roberts. But I know how to take care of smart boys. I hate your guts, you smart college guys! I've been seeing your kind around since I was ten years old... working as a busboy. "Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will'ya?" And then when I went to sea as a steward... people poking at you with umbrellas. "Oh, boy!", "You, boy!", "Careful with that luggage, boy!" And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There's a war on, and I'm captain of this vessel, and now YOU can take it for a change! The worst thing I can do to you... is to keep you right here, Mister, and here is where you're going to stay. Now, GET OUT!|
When the Captain threatens to deny a long awaited shore leave to the crew, Doug objects. Morton, then promises to give the shore leave if Roberts promises to stop asking to be transferred from the ship and to be more stern and firm with the crew.
The day after shore leave, the crew is rounded up by shore patrol and returned to the ship. Their behavior on land was so deplorable, that the port admiral ordered the ship out of the harbor. Robert then upholds his promise to the Captain and reprimands the crew severely for their actions. The crew is aghast at how Roberts has changed and for a time they lose faith in him.
Then one day, Doug's frustration boils over and in a fit of anger Doug throws the Captain’s prized potted palm tree overboard. Discovering his tree missing, Morton sets off the "Battle Stations" alarm and shouts in his loudspeaker:
"All right! Who did it? Who did it? You are going to stand sweating at those battle stations until someone confesses! It's an insult to the honor of this ship! The symbol of our cargo record has been destroyed and I'm going to find out who did it if it takes all night!"
The Captain calls Roberts to his quarters and blames him for the deed, which Roberts calmly denies. The denial inflames the Captain and soon the two get into a shouting match while the microphone to the loudspeaker is on. As the crew listens, they overhear how the Captain forced Roberts to accept a deal that allowed his men to get shore leave.
Shortly after, as Roberts sat depressed in his quarters, a select group of crewmen present Doug with a medal - a piece of metal carved in the shape of a palm tree called the Order of the Palm for "action against the enemy."
Then without Doug's knowledge, the crew goes behind the Captain's back and forge transfer papers for Mister Roberts that give him what he wanted all along - to be transferred to combat.
A few months pass until Doc (William Powell), the ship's physician receives a letters in the mail from Mister Roberts relating how things are going aboard his new ship, the USS Livingston. The letter reads:
"Doc, I've been aboard this destroyer for two weeks now and we've already been through four air attacks. I'm in the war at last, Doc! I've caught up with that task force that passed me by. I'm glad to be here. I had to be here, I guess. But I'm thinking now of you, Doc,and you, Frank. And Dolan, and Dowdy, and Insigna and everyone else on that bucket. All the guys everywhere who sail from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony. This is a tough crew on here, and they have a wonderful battle record. But I've discovered, Doc, that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide. I know now that the ones who refuse to surrender to it are the strongest of all. Right now I'm looking at something that's hanging over my desk. A preposterous hunk of brass attached to the most bilious piece of ribbon I've ever seen. I'd rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor. It tells me what I'll always be proudest of: That at a time in the world when courage counted most I lived among 62 brave men."
Unfortunately, a second letter addressed to Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver (Jack Lemmon) from a friend stationed on the USS Livingston informs Pulver that Mister Roberts was killed in combat.
Upon learning of Doug's death, the usually timid Ensign Pulver throws the captain’s replacement palm tree overboard and marches up to Morton’s quarters in the spirit of Mr. Roberts, and barks, "Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinking palm tree overboard. Now, what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?"
The worm had turned: first it was Roberts, now the Captain had to contend with the newly emboldened Ensign Pulver.