If one were to choose the most memorable war picture of each of the great American stars during the studio system it would probably be Casablanca for Humphrey Bogart and Sergeant York for Gary Cooper.
In Henry Fonda’s case, it would undoubtedly be Mister Roberts, one of his most powerful roles and one with which he will always be associated. Fonda first played Mister Roberts on the Broadway stage for three years, winning acclaim and awards, then recreated it with equal success on screen.
The story has had many incarnations, starting as a book by Thomas Heggen, then a stage play by him and Joshua Logan, and finally a screenplay by Logan and Frank Nugent.
Mister Roberts was nominated for the 1955 Best Picture Oscar and won Jack Lemmon his first (supporting) Oscar as Ensign Pulver. Fonda’s performance was unaccountably ignored by the Academy in an, but it is still vivid in the public’s memory.
Fonda plays the first officer on the Reluctant, a cargo ship miles away from the battle zone, whose route is described by him as “from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony.” The War is close to an end, and Roberts is anxious to get into combat before it is too late. Roberts’ numerous requests for transfer are all turned down by his tyrannical and mad captain (Jimmy Cagney). But with the assistance of the sympathetic crew, his wish is finally fulfilled. Mister Roberts ends on a sad note when we are informed that its hero has been killed in action.
Mister Roberts provided Fonda the kind of distinctly American role, which he played to perfection. Fonda’s contribution to the war movie genre, other that this picture, which took place rather late in his career (mainly in the 1960s), was undistinguished.
Fonda played several cameo roles, such as an Admiral in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, which stars John Wayne; a Navy Captain in Robert Aldrich’s cynical adventure Too Late the Hero; and another bit part in the blockbuster Midway, which recreates the 1942 battle in the Pacific.