The cliché is, they don’t make them like they used to. But, damn it, movies like Morituri don’t get made anymore. It’s a suspense thriller with a complex technical background with several moving parts, both in the setting and the character interaction. It was made in a time where special effects were difficult to impossible to achieve, so the amazing things you see aren’t done with computers, but with some underpaid idiot risking his life to get a shot. And there was an inkling in the filmmaker’s mind that an adult might be in the audience, so the level of thrills is pitched toward what a grown-up might find interesting, not what some kid might happen to glance at when they look up from their phone.
The set-up happens in two relatively brisk scenes. In 1942 Tokyo, a German ship needs to get to occupied Bordeaux to deliver precious rubber to the Axis powers. The Allies want it for themselves, so they’ve placed a saboteur in the shape of Marlon Brando posing as an SS officer on the ship to ensure it doesn’t follow standard protocol. Normally, when a German supply ship was in danger of capture by the enemy, her men were sent overboard in boats and the ship was scuttled by explosives. Brando, using the name Kyle, is sent to infiltrate the boat and disarm the scuttling explosives so that the Allies can capture the ship with its cargo intact.
Kyle, real name Crain, escaped Germany before the war and is living a rich, luxurious life in India as a pacifist. He doesn’t care who wins the war, since he believes war itself is futile. British intelligence does care, and they threaten to send him back to Germany for execution if he doesn’t fall in line.
The captain of the ship is Mueller, who has run afoul of German wartime brass for losing a ship under his command. As punishment, he’s weighed down with prisoners who are supposed to be sailors until they reach Europe, where they will be tried as war criminals and almost certainly sentenced to death. Mueller is a patriotic German, but he has no affection for the Nazi party, and despises politics entering into his commission, including his first officer, a brown-nosing Nazi name Kruse. And Mueller especially hates his last-minute passenger, Kyle.
Kyle’s mission is to disable the explosives on-board, so the captain cannot scuttle the ship before it could fall into enemy hands. He’s hampered by the Captain’s orders, which keep him locked in his cabin until they hit occupied France. But Kyle, despite being a rather foppish, aristocratic character, is cunning, and he manages to bypass supervision and makes his way around the steaming innards of the enormous ship to find a couple of the scuttling charges, which he disarms.
This sequence, early in the movie, is a good example of the taut cinematic suspense that director Bernhard Wicki employs. The film was largely shot on a real German freighter, and Wicki, along with superlative cinematographer Conrad Hall, make the most of the cramped, deviously convoluted confines of the ship. The camera starts on Brando, flies through the confined and confusing corridors, and ends up back on Brando in a different position, having navigated the ladders and catwalks to his destination. It is beautiful visual filmmaking.
And although one of the primary attractions of this nearly 65-year-old film is the camera-work, it boasts an engaging, evolving storyline. Kyle is a pacifist conscripted to pretend to be a Nazi. Mueller is a patriotic German, who despises the command structure whose orders he is sworn to follow. There are prisoners onboard ship who want to abandon it at the first opportunity, only their leader wants to make sure to kill the SS officer aboard (Kyle) first. Eventually new prisoners are brought aboard ship, including a Jewish woman who knows what will happen to her if she ends up in occupied Europe. Plots and machinations and human emotions roil in what could be a straightforward sea-going adventure.
And there’s plenty of suspense to be found in the simple act of sailing. The ship in Morituri is a blockade runner, trying desperately to make its way from Tokyo to Bordeaux, France. To do so it has to disguise itself from a British convoy, which doesn’t buy that the German ship is actually British, despite the paint job it puts on itself.
Tension is rife everywhere in this film. At a pleasant lunch, one man mentions the industrial capacity of America, and how it outstrips Germany. He’s rebutted by the first officer, Kruse, a member of the Nazi party, who recites to the uncareful officer anti-Hitler remarks he’d made in a private letter to his lover years ago. The totalitarians are just that – they see all and know all, and no-one is safe from their observations. Captain Mueller is afraid that, because he lost a ship, the Germans might do something to his son.
It leads to a great sequence two-thirds through the film when he hears on German radio his son has been awarded the Iron Cross for sinking a British ship. The men look up the ship from their intelligence files, and find it wasn’t a warship or destroyer. It was a hospital ship. All at once, Mueller loses his triumph, and his respect for his son. It’s a powerful, devastating scene, slapped down in the middle of a war thriller.
It’s not the only powerful scene in the film, but it illustrates the strengths of this forgotten gem. Morituri‘s plot is a spy-thriller, a potboiler. Its execution and characterization, and the great performances by both Yul Brenner at his most intense, and Marlon Brando shortly before he stopped giving a damn, are worth the price of the disc. It’s a superlative, multi-faceted spy/military thriller, shot with a verisimilitude a thousand computer graphic stations couldn’t hope to reproduce. I do not think it is a particularly well-remembered WWII thriller, but it deserves to be.
Morituri has been released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time films. The only extra on disc is an isolated score. There is also an essay in the booklet by Julie Kirgo.