Ensign Pulver is an unnecessary sequel to an immensely popular movie, Mister Roberts. Mister Roberts was based on the play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, which, in turn, was based on the World War II novel by Thomas Heggen, inspired on his own experiences as an officer on a Navy cargo ship in the Pacific Theatre. Never having seen action, Heggen’s contention is that the chief enemy for the unhappy and overworked crew of the USS Reluctant (AK-601), known derisively as the “Bucket,” was the boredom of inactivity--that and a despicably despotic captain played by James Cagney in one of his most memorable roles. Henry Fonda was Lt. (j.g.) Douglas Roberts, the cargo officer who did the most on board the ship to challenge the Captain’s authority. And his sidekick, Ensign Pulver, was played by Jack Lemmon, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this career-making role. With little interest in performing his duty as Laundry and Morale officer and spending most of his time daydreaming in his bunk, Lemmon, as Pulver, was the original slacker.
In the sequel, made nine years after the original, Ensign Pulver is now played by Robert Walker, Jr., who really has his work cut out for him acting against the memory of Lemmon’s indelible characterization. Walker tries extremely hard to make the role his own, but comes off as Lemmon Lite. This is true of all the actors, who are featherweight replacements for the originals. This time out, the Captain is played by Burl Ives, a folk singer and actor who mainly uses his considerable bulk to embody the captain’s bullying manner. Doc, played so lovingly by the dapper William Powell, in the original, has been reincarnated as Walter Matthau. Matthau, two years before his Academy Award-winning portrayal as the ambulance chasing Whiplash Willie Gingrich in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, is, of course, a wonderful actor. But he is light years away from Powell in demonstrating the quality of quiet decency that reminds us the reason wars are fought—the return of civility to the world. The screenwriters, Joshua Logan and Peter S. Feibleman, try to make up for this loss by giving Matthau’s Doc the burden of explaining the movie’s theme ad nauseum. Rounding out the crew are Peter Marshall (who would later find success as the host of the TV game show, Hollywood Squares), a very young Larry Hagman, singer (and Frank Sinatra son-in-law) Tommy Sands, as a sailor whose young daughter’s death sets the plot in motion, and, in the very minor role of Yeoman Dolan, a young actor named Jack Nicholson (immediately recognizable by his voice), and, most shockingly, Al Freeman, Jr. as an island native. There is also a love interest for Ensign Pulver, a nurse played by Millie Perkins (who became famous as the eponymous heroine in the movie version of The Diary of Anne Frank).
As a service comedy, Ensign Pulver is filled with limp gags and recycled jokes from Mister Roberts. The story doesn’t get close to good until the scene, very late in the story, where Doc, on the ship’s radio transmitter, instructs Pulver, stranded on a tropical island, how to remove the Captain’s ruptured appendix. Unlike the first movie, the sequel provides an explanation for the Captain’s bad behavior, making him less of a monster.
Despite its minor status in the history of movies, Ensign Pulver is a movie that is interestingly haunted by three deaths. The first is that of the fictional character, Doug Roberts, whose off-screen death is announced at the end of Mister Roberts, and inspires a paralyzed Ensign Pulver to perform his first act of rebellion against the captain, taking his beloved palm tree and throwing it into the ocean. Who can forget Jack Lemmon bursting into Jimmy Cagney’s quarters and announcing, “Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver. And I just threw your damned palm tree over the side. So what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?” Cagney’s reaction to this declaration of war is priceless. We are told that Ensign Pulver begins several weeks after Roberts’ death, when the war in the Pacific is winding down, but that Pulver has once again returned to his slacker ways, making elaborate plans to get back at the captain (marbles in the overhead, etc.), but never getting up the energy to put his plans into effect. When a hurricane at sea tosses both the captain and Pulver into the ocean, they wind up on a tropical island together. There, Pulver is forced to save the captain’s life and finally achieves a more mature outlook on life after realizing the captain has become his “Chinese obligation.”
The second death that haunts this movie is that of Walker’s father, Robert Walker, Sr. He is probably most famous for playing one of the most indelible villains in movie history—Bruno Antony in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (9951). It is Bruno who meets tennis pro Guy Haines on a train and proposes to him that they swap murders in order to get rid of unwanted baggage (Guy’s wife, Bruno’s father). Hitchcock famously cast gay Farley Granger as the straight Guy, and heterosexual Walker as the homosexual Bruno in order to lend their relationship a rich subtext. Walker is unforgettable as Bruno. In real life, though, after playing this role of a lifetime, he got divorced from his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, who went on to marry movie mogul David O. Selznick. Walker’s life and career went into a tailspin and he died in 1951 after having a reaction to medication his psychiatrist prescribed for him. His son was eleven at the time and did not attend his father’s funeral. As an adult actor, Walker, Jr. got into the family business at around the same time as another famous actor’s son, Peter Fonda. In fact, Walker has a small role in Fonda’s Easy Rider (1969), along with his Ensign Pulver co-star, Jack Nicholson. Walker plays the leader of a commune, having jettisoned his straight look for that of a drugged-out hippie drop-out from society.
The third death that haunts Ensign Pulver is that of the character’s creator, Thomas Heggen. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Journalism School, Heggen’s sad story can be found in John Leggett's exemplary dual biography of Heggen and Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of the Civil War epic, Raintree County. Leggett caught the tragic parallels in both men’s lives and even today, 36 years after it was first published, Ross and Tom should be read by all would-be novelists as a cautionary example of what happens when an author tries to wrestle with the Bitch Goddess of Success. Heggen had one book in him, but that’s all. He became increasingly estranged from his book during the creation of the play, watching as it was taken away from him by co-writer and director Josh Logan. He tried to write a follow up to Mister Roberts, but could never light on the right subject matter. He led a Fitzgeraldian existence of wild excess in New York, but was unlucky in love. He was found dead in his bathtub in 1949, at the age of 30, a victim of an accidental overdose of pills.
Today, the J-School Library at the University of Minnesota bears Heggen’s name and is filled with Mister Roberts’ memorabilia. As a grad student in journalism at the same school, I used to study under his portrait. And wonder whether the Bitch Goddess of Success would treat me in a like manner. Douglas Roberts, Robert Walker, Sr., Thomas Heggen—good men all. But the world in which they lived was not yet civil enough to accommodate their inner-demons. If we resurrect their memory long enough, their legacy will become, as the Captain did for Ensign Pulver, our Chinese obligation.