The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial CBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Drama by Herman Wouk. Directed by Robert Altman. Captain Queeg on the witness stand: cocky at first, then uneasy, finally disintegrating into paranoia.
It's hard these days to find someone who doesn't recognize that American myth figure - and the epic World War II Navy story that established it.
Now get ready for a different kind of Queeg, a strange blend of regulation Navy and lisping eccentric - a petulant nerd who emits a whiff of gay jealousy when he hints there was something between two of the men on his ship.
This shrewdly structured, often tense courtroom drama will probably work better if you don't know the story of how Queeg was relieved of command on board ship by Lt. Stephen Maryk, because in this version it runs backward, as both sides call witnesses and as Queeg's character is ripped open during defense lawyer Barney Greenwald's rapacious questioning.
Taking over from Queeg during a typhoon may have seemed justified to Maryk and his officers. To the Navy it was mutiny. Was Queeg an incompetent coward who froze during the typhoon and would have let his ship founder? Was he just a zealous disciplinarian whose resentful officers mutinied?
To viewers, it's ambiguous, and the force of the drama is the way the facts seep out. They appeared originally in Herman Wouk's 1951 novel ``The Caine Mutiny'' - best seller, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and in 1954 a popular movie still aired on TV and available on cassette. By the time the trial takes place in those versions, you've already lived through the facts, and the suspense is whether they can be proved in court.
In the TV approach to the tale - the one used in a 1954 Broadway play - you don't know the truth, and the tension comes through discovering it piecemeal. The script by Wouk makes a very different experience of the material in the book and movie. He plays with events, letting them transpire in tantalizing bits of testimony as viewers try to read witnesses' reactions.
Without the sweeping story behind them, the trial's characters are less personally compelling than in the film and novel. They are pieces in a puzzle of guilt. Here Greenwald and Maryk, for instance, speculate about fellow officer Thomas Keefer - novelist and subtle troublemaker - while in the other versions we actually see Keefer in action and know him before he takes the stand.
So things may be a little gray and clinical in this version, but there is also a feeling of hard-bitten credibility. The witnesses tend to be a parade of laconic, drawling Navy types. Keefer, for instance, is a monotonal officer whose answers sound like a ship's log. Brad Davis's skillful Queeg may not be the one you had in mind, and the production certainly lacks the depth and detail of the epic versions. But it's well crafted and retains throughout Wouk's sense of honoring the service in which he finds such human failings.