Every Friday, our resident film fanatic Alex Aciman will dig deep into the pile of cinematic masterpieces and fish out one forgotten classic you should watch soonest.
Years before The Godfather and more than a decade after On the Waterfront was a not-so-short lull in Brando’s career. It wasn’t so much that Brando was any less prolific, but rather that the roles themselves were less spectacular, almost as if he’d briefly lost the twinkle of star power in his eyes. One of the few exceptions is a film that appears on almost no lists: Morituri.
Brando plays a German engineer living abroad during the Second World War. He refuses to join the German war effort—less out of pacifism or moral objection, and more out of self-interest. But British intelligence agents apply a little pressure to Brando and manage to strongarm him into accepting a dangerous mission as a spy aboard a German cargo ship. His task is to help the allies recover the ship’s precious cargo. Brando, the reluctant saboteur, accepts the mission and navigates the deep political division aboard the ship: the captain, played by Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven, The King and I) is a staunch anti-Nazi on a ship full of Nazi zealots.
One of the most powerful scenes in this film is one when Brynner receives word that his son, also the captain of a German ship, has successfully downed an allied vessel. Amid the flurry of handshakes and congratulations, Brynner goes from proud father to devastated and disappointed after learning that his son had attacked a hospital ship, not a battleship. Brando and Brynner also share a final elegiac moment at the end of the film: After realizing they are both anti-Nazi agents, the two men unburden themselves of the very secrets that could ruin them.
And yet this naval wartime thriller also has some camp. The ship’s crew are a boisterous, rough-and-tumble cast of scraggly seamen straight out of a pirate movie. Moreover, 20 years removed from the war, stiff-backed Nazis come off a little silly. And Brando’s German accent is totally ridiculous.
But none of this derails this film, imperfect thought it may be at times. Even this rattly little accent—ever so slightly effete and full of high-pitched gravel—begins to sound so familiar that you can almost mistake it for an early iteration of the voice that would eventually belong to Don Corleone.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.