Morituri: Bernard Vicki’s WWII Drama, Starring Brando as a German and Yul Brynner

Producer Aaron Rosenberg cast Marlon Brando in the lead in Morituri despite tensions during the making of Mutiny on the Bounty, which he also had produced.

The book on which the film based was written by Werner Joerg Luedecke, who was a German naval attaché in Tokyo during WWII–until it was discovered that he was partly Jewish.  He was then sent back to Germany on a freighter as a prisoner and ended up in a punishment battalion on the Russian front.

To achieve greater authenticity, Rosenberg brought in German director Bernard Wicki and several other German actors.

The story begins in the summer of 1942, when German merchant naval Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner) is called to the German Embassy in Tokyo and ordered to sail a freighter, with a strategic cargo of rubber, to occupied France.  He balks at the assignment, as he is apolitical, but his first officer, Herbert Kruse (Martin Benrath), is a Nazi and the crew includes civil and political prisoners.

Meanwhile, a British Intelligence Officer, Col. Statter (Trevor Howard), approaches a rich and sophisticated German living in India, Robert Crain (Brando), and pressures him into working for the British.

Crain’s mission is to pose as an SS Officer on Mueller’s ship, and at the same time facilitate the British capture of the ship.  Crain’s task is to disarm the ship’s explosive charges if captured, thereby keeping its vital cargo safe.

Accepting the job, Crain takes his leave of the British Intelligence Officer with the words of the Roman gladiator’s chant: “Moritui te salutant” (“We who are about to die, salute you”).

On board the freighter, the Captain shows disdain for Crain, considering him a spy sent to watch him. Crain makes an ally of Kruse, telling him he may need him should it be necessary to take command of the ship.  The ruse is onerous to Crain, whose views are the opposite of those of Kruse and more in line with those of the captain, whom he respects.

He tricks Kruse into revealing the location of the scuttling charges, and later disconnects them, except for one.  The freighter comes close to being scuttled when it emerges from a fog bank and finds itself close to a British convoy but an attack by Japanese submarines engages the attention of the British and the Ingo slips away.

Later, one of the submarines arranges a meeting with Mueller, and 18 American naval captives and one German Jewish girl, Esther Levy (Janet Margolin) are transferred.  Crain enlists the aid of Esther, asking her to rally the Americans into a mutiny, and the only way she can do that is by offering herself as a prostitute.

Crain is revealed in a radio broadcast as an Allied agent.  The sailors loyal to the Nazi cause are better organized and armed and the mutiny is put down.  Among the victims is Esther, brutally beaten and shot by Kruse.

Crain confronts Mueller in his cabin, trying to persuade the captain to resume command of his ship rather than let Kruse take over.  Mueller refuses and Crain decides to scuttle the ship.  The crew abandon the sinking freighter and Crain and Mueller face each other.  Crain then asks Mueller to radio an allied ship, which he does reluctantly

Brilliantly photographed in black-and-white by Conrad Hall and subtly scored by Jerry Goldsmith, the picture swirls with psychological undercurrents.

Morituri was not successful at the box office, perhaps because of its nature as a serious wartime drama, rather than actioner. The movie tried to shed a sympathetic light on those Germans who were anti-Nazi–not an easy task in the climate of ideas back then.

But the film was deja vu for Brando, which experienced a similar problem in The Young Lions, when he presented a more humanistic image of the Nazi officer that he played.

Brando, who did not get along with director Vicki, did not like Morituri, claiming that he took the job just for the money.


Robert Crain (Marlon Brando)

Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner)

Esther (Janet Margolin)

Colonel Statter (Trevor Howard)

Kruse (Martin Benrath)


Running time: 128 minutes.

Arcola-Colony Production, released by Fox

Produced by Aaron Rosenberg.

Directed by Bernard Wicki.

Screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the novel by Werner Joerg Luedecke.

Camera: Conrad Hall.

Art direction by Jack Martin Smith and Herman A. Blumenthal.

Edited by Joseph Silver.

Musical score by Jerry Goldsmith.