Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935): A Review (Review #364)


Seas And Resist...

One can argue about the historical accuracy of Mutiny on the Bounty, but the film itself has some extraordinary, now-iconic performances.  It is both a tale of adventure and romance, an exotic travelogue, and a terrifying journey to a heart of darkness. 

It is 1787, and the HMS Bounty is about to sail.  In order to get a crew, the Bounty second-in-command, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) presses men from taverns (which he had full authority to do by law).  Among the unfortunates are now Seaman Smith (Herbert Mundin), a nervous bumbler assigned to the be the Captain's manservant, and Ellison (Eddie Quillan), a young man with a newborn son.  Also on board is Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), a member of the aristocracy who joins to learn the Tahitian language. 

In command of the Bounty is Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), a man who will brook no opposition or dissent and runs his ship as a totalitarian.  Things obviously start out disastrously when Bligh orders that a sailor be lashed...even though said seaman is already dead from having been whipped to death as the unfortunate was flogged by other ships.  The sight of Bligh ordering that the prescribed punishment be inflicted on a corpse horrifies and angers the Bounty crew, but Bligh is clearly not interested in what they think. 

In fact, he delights in inflicting fear among his crew and will order flogging and other punishments regardless of whether they are right or even sane.  At one point, some mild horseplay by Byam against another causes Bligh to order Byam to ascend to the highest point on ship.  Bligh keeps him there for hours and hours, and won't consider pulling him down even when they are caught in a storm.  As Byam, virtually unconscious, hangs on only because he had tied himself down, Christian goes up in the storm and brings him down.  When Bligh hears that Byam was brought down, an enraged Bligh orders Byam go back up while the storm rages on. 

As the Bounty sails on from England to the Cape Horn, then to Cape of Good Hope and onwards to Tahiti, we get hints of Bligh's cruelty and tyranny.  He flogs the crew, has them eat rotten meat, works them mercilessly, and with every incident Christian's patience wears thin.  They come to a breaking point when Bligh demands that Christian sign a records book Christian knows to be false.  Just as they are finally about to come to blows, they arrive in Tahiti.

Tahiti proves the paradise one pictures it to be.  The Bounty crew go ashore and enjoy its many delights.  Byam works on his Tahitian/English dictionary, and both Byam and Christian find love with the native women.  Still, they came for a reason, and once they'd collected their breadfruit trees, it was off to England.  However, Bligh's cruelty to the crew goes one too far, and Christian, finally fed up, heads up a mutiny.  He orders Bligh and sailors loyal to him onto a raft, where Bligh damns him and swears to take the raft to England if he must and promising to see all of them hang. 

Amazingly, Bligh manages on his small raft to sail, not to England, but to a Dutch colony, covering open sea in 53 days.  The mutineers on the Bounty, including Byam who had no part in the action, sail back to Tahiti.   Their stay, while idyllic, is also short-lived, as another Royal Navy ship is sighted.  The group splits up: Christian takes some men, along with Tahitians, aboard the Bounty to find a new refuge, while Byam and another group stay to return to England.  To their shock and horror, the commander of the ship that has arrived on Tahiti, the Pandora, is none other than Captain William Bligh himself!

The court-martial ends with the captured men (including those whose only crime was not having gone with Bligh) being condemned.  Byam, who had influential friends, is pardoned by royal command.  Christian and his men find a new island, Pitcairn, where they decide to settle and to prevent any return, burn the Bounty

Again, one should point out that Mutiny on the Bounty is not meant to be historically accurate.  The screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson is based on novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, so those are the sources.  However, the story, despite its two-hour-plus length, moves remarkably fast, a credit to Frank Lloyd's direction.
Charles Laughton OWNS the role of Captain Bligh, who is without any redeeming qualities but who terrifies you even from the safety of your home.  In Mutiny on the Bounty, Laughton's Bligh becomes a cold, brutal villain, a man without conscious but with a high degree of intelligence.  Laughton is menacing through his barely controlled anger, his haughty nature, his inability to show or give the slightest compassion or consideration.  However, the fact that he maintains control over his emotions makes him even more evil. 

The scene where he swears vengeance for this mutiny which in his mind came out of the blue (since Bligh has always believed himself to be a firm but fair commander) is a frightening and brilliant piece of acting: Laughton appears ready to bring down the wrath of God Himself in his fury over being thrown off his ship.  Bligh, however, is given his own moment to shine when he leads the raft to safety (a seafaring feat that even today is amazing and might make a film onto itself).  Lloyd was wise to include this in Mutiny on the Bounty (even though it does lengthen the film and could have been cut or trimmed if one wanted a shorter running time).  However, with the extraordinary performance by Laughton, who would want that?  In fact, Laughton as Bligh has become so iconic that, despite the years, when people think of Captain William Bligh, it is Laughton, not Trevor Howard in the 1962 remake or Anthony Hopkins from 1984's The Bounty.

Even today, the imagery of Laughton hangs over the idea of what Captain Bligh looks like, and his behavior is what we think of when we refer to someone as being a "Captain Bligh" even if one does not know the source material.

Likewise, Gable's Fletcher Christian is someone who is an intelligent man but who, unlike Bligh, has a heart.  He does his best to keep his loyalty to the Captain, and his evolution from loyal shipman to head mutineer is another brilliant performance.  Gable can also play the romantic lead, one so enraptured by the beauty of Maimati (played by Hawaiian actress Mamo) that one would swear to go back to her.  Credit should also be given to Tone, an actor not well-known or remembered today: his Byam was the epitome of the wet-behind-the-ears, eager, almost innocent midshipman more interested in knowledge and good times to do much about the cruelty aboard the Bounty.  At times, Byam does appear to be a little too innocent, almost clueless, but Tone does a great job bringing across Byam's enthusiasm for sailing.

I think we should also credit the screenwriters and Lloyd for allowing some comic moments to lift the levity in Mutiny on the Bounty.  The light moments of humor come from Mundin as the hapless and inept Smith (constantly botching things without meaning to).  When he first comes across a native girl and finds her brood, he runs away in fear.  When he has to depart, we see the sadness Smith has, along with his woman and her children.  Nothing is overtly stated, but in Lloyd's capable direction, all is understood.  Also bringing comedy to the film is Dudley Digges as the drunk ship doctor (appropriately named Bacchus).  His constant tall tales as to how he came about to have a wooden leg are amusing (especially since he never settles on one) but at his death, it is the end of whatever revelries the crew would have (apart from those of the bathing beauties). 

Mutiny on the Bounty is a little long, but the pacing is strong and steady, filled with moments of lush romance and great performances, in particular Gable and especially Laughton as the tyrannical Captain Bligh, who has been damned by history and popular culture in the same way he damned the mutineers.  It is a towering performance, one that anchors Mutiny on the Bounty as a thrilling picture that still holds up today (pun intended).

1936 Best Picture: The Great Ziegfeld

Please visit the Best Picture Catalogue for reviews of the top Oscar.

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