The teaming of two powerful screen presences, Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner, in a World War II-era thriller might at first glance promise a cataclysmic action epic, but the cryptically-titled Morituri (1965) – derived from the Latin “morituri te salvant,” translated “we who are about to die salute you”) delivered something else, even more gripping: “a superior WWII espionage drama,” Time Out Film Guide’s Trevor Johnston wrote, “with a degree of knotty character conflict moving the story along rather than the usual cardboard heroics.” Indeed, neither star would embody an uncomplicated hero: Brando is a German Army deserter blackmailed by British Intelligence for an undercover mission, in effect, to sabotage any sabotage efforts on board a Nazi freighter sailing a valuable cargo of much-needed rubber coveted by the Allies from Japan to occupied France, and Brynner is the ship’s captain, a German patriot who has no great love for the political cause he serves, and whose crew harbors simmering factions of potential mutineers as well as hard-case Third Reich fanatics. It opened just a month after Stanley Kramer’s starrier-cast, more languid Ship of Fools (1965), another portrayal of an ocean voyage overshadowed by the Nazi menace, and even evoked similar praise, as in this assessment from critic William Paper of the World-Telegram and Sun: “Taut, high-grade melodrama” that “keeps the audience in an unnerved state. A Grand Hotel on a cargo ship.”
There was melodrama during the film’s production. “Brando and producer Aaron Rosenberg had previously worked together on Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), where the two had more than a few disagreements. That they would work again on a film involving mutiny surprised many in Hollywood,” Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross documented in The Motion Picture Guide. Director Bernhard Wicki (The Longest Day, The Visit) was new to scrupulously overseen Hollywood-studio filmmaking and was tested to his limits by a compressed schedule. Yet this suspense yarn, based on a 1958 novel by Werne Jörg Lüddecke and adapted for the screen by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity and the Twilight Time titles Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and The Other Side of Midnight (1977), seemed to benefit from its behind-the-scenes tensions, producing “excellent quality of performance and direction” (Archer Winsten, New York Post).
Beyond the two leads, who in The Motion Picture Guide’s view “complement each other’s role like two sides of the same coin,” other impactful turns are provided by Janet Margolin, Martin Benrath, Hans Christian Blech, Wally Cox, William Redfield, Martin Kosleck and an early-in-the-film cameo by Brando and Rosenberg’s Mutiny on the Bounty colleague Trevor Howard. The richly detailed black-and-white cinematography by the masterful three-time Academy Award® winner Conrad Hall and the costume designs by four-time Oscar® nominee Moss Mabry were recognized with Oscar® nominations. Handling scoring duties, during a particularly bountiful period of output on Twentieth Century Fox projects at the time, was the invaluable Jerry Goldsmith who, per Film Score Monthly’s assessment of the film’s soundtrack, “seized upon these tortured undercurrents to provide a gritty, dynamic score that expanded upon his best adventure music for television (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Jonah and the Whale from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and placed it in the expanding scale of his feature film work (The Satan Bug). Taking his cue from The Third Man, Goldsmith wrote a main theme for solo zither – sad, mysterious and Eastern European – which, as always for the composer, becomes the hook on which the entire score is hung.” TT’s hi-def Blu-ray of Morituri showcases Goldsmith’s exquisite music on an Isolated Score Track as this perilously fraught ship of fools and antiheroes sails into home ports May 21. Preorders open May 8.