Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

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Director: Frank Lloyd

Producer: Irving Thalberg (MGM)

Writers: Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall (novel); ?Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson (screenplay)

Photography: Arthur Edeson

Music: Herbert Stothart

Cast: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Dudley Digges, Donald Crisp, Henry Stephenson, Franics Lister, Spring Byinton, Movita, Mamo Clark, Byron Russell, Percy Waram, David Torrence

While Errol Flynn may be considered the greatest of all high-seas swashbucklers, Mutiny on the Bounty has led its own mutiny against him. A remake of Flynn’s In the Wake of the Bounty two years earlier, director Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty was not only more successful — the highest grossing film of 1935 at $4.5 million — it was also the first remake to win Best Picture, beating Flynn’s famous pirate film Captain Blood. (A) Though both Blood and Bounty today carry strong support amongst scholars, Bounty‘s brutal Captain Bligh is more acclaimed than Flynn’s Captain Blood. Likewise, Mutiny on the Bounty has assumed the role of the quintessential high-seas adventure, arriving a full two decades before Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny (1954).

Based on the 1932 novel The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny on the Bounty follows the infamous mutiny led by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) against Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton) aboard the British Navy Ship, the H.M.S. Bounty. The film begins with the ship’s 1787 journey from Plymouth, England, to procure breadfruit trees from Tahiti. From the very beginning, the film builds a distinct dread for Captain Bligh, with one man trying to run when he hears that Bligh will be the ship’s captain.

A seafaring tyrant, Bligh is the kind of guy who makes his crew watch the flogging of a dead man, deeming the lashing necessary as a statement of punishment. His character is defined in two quotes, the first to Christian: “They respect but one law: the law of fear. … I’m not interested in what you think. I expect you to carry out whatever orders I give, whenever I give them.” Later, he gives the rest of the crew an order: “The ship’s company will remember that I am your captain, your judge, and your jury. You do your duty and we may get along. Whatever happens, you’ll do your duty.”

A real son of a bitch, Bligh ranked #19 on the AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains, just behind the shark from Jaws (1975), linking both as two of the biggest movie menaces on the ocean. Viewers need no other proof than Lloyd’s mid-film montage of Bligh cruelty, including a torture technique that’s even more terrifying than waterboarding, as Bligh ties a man to a rope and slings him overboard until he’s ready to pull him back up.

Fed up with such hard-ass punishment, as well as a lack of supplies and food rations, Christian finally confronts the captain over his tactics, prompting Bligh’s famous quip, “You mutinous dog!” Soon after, Christian defies Bligh’s authority with a romantic encounter on the island of Tahiti, and once back on board, rallies the crew to overthrow Bligh in an act punishable by hanging should they ever stand trial. But the act is deemed a moral necessity by Christian, now in command of the Bounty.

As for Bligh and his loyal followers, they are set out to drift in an open sailboat, at which point Lloyd intercuts Christian’s island adventures with Bligh’s quest for survival, a successful journey later called “the most remarkable conduct of navigation in the history of the sea.” Bligh’s survival causes him to proclaim, “We’ve beaten the sea itself,” and he gains control of a new ship, the Pandora, with a new goal in mind: tracking down the mutineers, retaking the Bounty and sending Christian to the gallows: “As long as I have a deck under me, I’ll search for that man.”

It’s at such moments of Bligh’s courage and ambition, when he plays the underdog survivalist, that he is the most admirable. After all, it’s he and he alone that envisions the safe survival of his exiled crew, a promise he makes good on even after cutting his rations (told in a montage of diary entries, counting the days: 27th, 39th, 45th…). But the film only shows shades of this side of Bligh’s character, overall painting him as one cruel bastard. This is the narrative choice to which some scholars take exception, pointing out the historical inaccuracies in the fact that the real William Bligh was not the full-evil man he is made out to be in the film.

The film’s sequels continued to blur the line between cinematic drama and historical fact. A 1962 version, starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh, failed miserably with audiences and with critics. A 1984 version, starring Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, gave greater sympathy toward Bligh, and is often considered to the most historically accurate. But inaccurate or not, Mutiny on the Bounty‘s simplified version makes the narrative all the more compelling, a formula later used in Howard Hawks’ western masterpiece Red River (1948), which similarly saw Monty Clift stage a “mutiny” against John Wayne on a cattle drive, causing Wayne to lead a Bligh-like quest back to face Clift. The film remains a classic not for its accuracy of character, but because of what the actors do with those characters.

In a role originally considered for Wallace Beery, who had portrayed a sea captain in Lloyd’s The Sea Hawk (1924), Laughton tears the screen to pieces and steals the show as Bligh. Having previously won Best Actor for The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Laughton gives the greatest performance of his fine career, but surprisingly lost to Victor McLaglen for The Informer (a film that also gave Best Actress to Bette Davis). By all accounts, Bligh should have won the Oscar, failing to do so only because he shared the category with two of his Bounty co-stars. Clark Gable was Hollywood’s #1 box office star at the time and had won Best Actor a year earlier for Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). Meanwhile, Franchot Tone was nominated for Best Actor because the Academy had not yet created a Supporting Actor category to fit his role as the earnest midshipman Byam. Many scholars believe that the triple nominations for Best Actor — the first and only time in Oscar history — split the vote so much that they canceled eachother out and allowed McLaglen to score the upset.

If there were an award for overall ensemble cast, Bounty surely would have won. Aside from the nasty Bligh, charming Gable and conflicted Tone, the film boasts a number of fine supporting performances from some of the biggest Hollywood players of the ’30s — Herbert Mundin (one of the Merry Men in The Adventures of Robin Hood), Eddie Quillan (The Grapes of Wrath), Dudley Digges (The Invisible Man) and Donald Crisp (Oscar winner for How Green Was My Valley). Adding to the film’s mystique is the appearance of several stars as uncredited extras: David Niven (The Guns of Navarone), Dick Haymes (State Fair) and, believe it or not, James Cagney (White Heat).

Gable was weary about putting on the silly pants and pony tail required for the role (A), reminding us of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt quote, “But I don’t wanna be a pirate!” But Gable’s decision was practically made for him, with huge audience demand for such high seas adventures. The genre’s appeal, one of a romanticized freedom, is captured in the film’s upbeat montages of men scaling the ropes and raising the ship’s sails, in the promise of exotic islands and fascinating native cultures, in the “unimaginable beauty” of the crew making “music at sea,” and in the words of a sailor toasting the journey: “To the voyage of the Bounty! Still waters in the great golden sea, flying fish like streaks of silver and mermaids that sing in the night, the southern cross and all the stars on the other side of the world.”

It’s this romanticism that made pirate flicks so popular in the industry’s early decades, with Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue (1927). But Mutiny on the Bounty was less a swashbuckler and more of a serious look at morality on the high seas, a basic study of how one should and shouldn’t treat a man. At the same time, it also staged one of the biggest spectacles that audiences had ever seen, in the most expensive MGM production since Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1926), going over-budget by about $2 million. (A)

Mutiny on the Bounty boasts lavish visuals of shipwrecks, island life, 17th Century costumes and nasty ocean storms, shot both on location in Tahiti and off the California coast. Without the luxury of CGI that films like Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean would enjoy, Mutiny had to instead use a full-sized replica of the Bounty and thousands of actual actors to create the high seas adventure it wanted. Today, the massive scale of the project is still impressive, even if the quality has become dated.

Still, at the time, it was the best the industry had to offer, pulled together by Lloyd, who had won Best Director Oscars for both The Divine Lady (1929), becoming the only director to this day to win for a non-Best Picture nominee, and Cavalcade (1933), which won Best Picture, an honor Mutiny on the Bounty itself won. In the Oscars’ only nine-year-old history, Lloyd had played a major part as not only one of the Academy’s original 36 founders, but as one of its earliest presidents, serving from 1933-1934, the time between Cavalcade‘s win and Mutiny‘s eight nominations.

But just as the stature of Lloyd has tailed off over the years, so has the acclaim of Bounty. An undisputed masterpiece upon release, the film is considered one of the classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, scoring a place on the AFI’s original 100 Films list, before dropping off in the 10th Anniversary countdown. It should be no surprise that the film has fallen from that upper crust of greatness, due to its obvious datedness, a phenomenon that list-watchers should expect to continue. But even if it no longer belongs among the best of the best, Mutiny on the Bounty will always remain a landmark in film history and a classic in the genre, and as such deserves a firm place on any list of any breadth.

Citations:

CITE A: Tim Dirks, AMC Filmsite.org

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