Mutiny on the Bounty Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Mutiny on the Bounty Review

    “I'll live to see you – all of you – hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet!”

    Three awesome performances power this first cinematic telling of the most infamous saga in British maritime history. Three performances that have informed an armada of actors down the ages ever since. But then this most infamous saga in British maritime history, and an incident that chronicles tyrannical abuse, treachery and incredible courage, has been mightily influential as well. Not only did its outcome herald a new set of Naval Laws that would see fairness and respect brought to the service, but its depiction and cultural relevance has also ushered-in a set of standards that would alter the abuse of power in all walks of life.

    The story of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh has been a popular source of melodrama in film and on television many times over, and it has been written as both factual and fictional accounts. Three pivotal big screen versions have sailed across the rough seas of critical acclaim. In 1984, we had Roger Donaldson's excellent interpretation with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins going head-to-head beneath the rigging. In 1962, it was Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard – a man whose ferociously stern face was enough to strike fear into the heart of even the most barnacled of buccaneers. But way before both of these, there came Frank Lloyd's triumphant 1935 take on the legendary battle of wills. Clark Gable and Charles Laughton rise to a foaming tempest of seething mutual hatred in a deadly duel of morals and duty aboard the chamber-pot of HMS Bounty, their incredible locking of horns becoming the template that all other cinematic pairings and personality conflicts had to follow.

    This version, screenwritten by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson, was based upon a historical trilogy about the mutiny and its legacy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Actor-turned-writer/director Lloyd had fallen in love with the sea from an early age and, even before this epic set sail, had taken the wheel and steered a flotilla of other notable briny dramas, such as The Sea Hawk, The Eagle Of The Sea and The Divine Lady to acclaim, so adapting what he considered the most dynamic and emotive adventure that had washed up on the shores of nautical mythology seemed preordained. Now those books by Nordhoff and Hall, and consequently this film, are not exactly accurate to the facts of the real-life matter, but this is Hollywood of course, and the thing is that, much like Raoul Walsh's classic Custer picture They Died With Their Boots On (1941), they are dealing with the popular and accepted knowledge of the times and, as such, you have to cut them an awful lot of slack. History has reappraised the once-vilified and demonised Captain William Bligh (here played unbeatably by Charles Laughton as an out-and-out sadistic monster) and we now believe him to have been actually quite lenient on his men and rather unjustly betrayed by Fletcher Christian who, writers love to claim these days, simply wanted to get back to Tahiti and the native girl there that he had fallen in love with. Romantic, certainly, but Christian is often also painted, these days, as being something of a slave to his own power-trip, hungry for command of the Bounty and having plotted for some considerable time to wrest the ship from his commander.

    Regardless of the filmmakers' veracity, the story is a fabulous one that tells of exotic lands, vicious in-fighting, irreversible personal sacrifice, star-crossed love, deception and adventure on the high seas. Our fascination with the saga, though, is not necessarily one fuelled by Patrick O' Brien-style derring-do, or Hornblower's Napoleonic chivalry. Mutiny On The Bounty is a brutal story of clashing personalities and of a crew bewitched by paradise. It set a precedent for conduct at seas, and created a moral morass from which has sprung a myriad interpretations of human behaviour. But, as far as we are concerned, it provides superb material for movies.

    In 1787, the HMS Bounty sets out from Portsmouth on a two year voyage that will take her to Tahiti, by way of Cape Horn, on a mission to collect and transport breadfruit plants to the West Indies as a cheap food source for slave labourers on the vast plantations there. Captain Bligh and his First Officer, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), have different ideas about how to run a tight ship and are soon at loggerheads over the mistreatment of the crew. The situation worsens under Bligh's heavy-handed authority and dissension amongst the men begins to spread. Petty squabbles become deep personal grudges. The intensity of Bligh's punishments spirals out of all proportion to the perceived crimes. A voyage that alternates between ferocious tempests and soul-sapping doldrums erodes the spirit, and the mission, itself, seems cursed. Seemingly in the nick of time, before either Bligh or Christian totally snap, they arrive at the tropical island paradise of Tahiti and, during their stay of several months, relationships with the locals bloom, and reluctance to go back under Bligh's harsh command takes a firmer hold of the men. But Fletcher Christian, who has already incurred the wrath of his master – the two are in a position of deadlock over allegations of theft and unfair conditions and intend to bring one another to Admiralty book once they get back to England – is barely a step away from breaking point, despite his best intentions. Once they leave the island, circumstances turn dire and Fletcher Christian makes that fateful decision to seize the ship from Captain Bligh and set him, and a few of his devoted followers, adrift in a launch to take his chances against the sea with scanty provisions and virtually no nautical equipment.

    Both men, and their allies, then sail on into the history books … and maritime legend.

    With such ripe material at his fingertips, Frank Lloyd delivers a magnificent film, lavish and large-scale, turbulent and haunting, that is let down only by Herbert Mundin's little comedy interludes as Bligh's ever-nervous and twitchy mess-man, Smith, which we have to accept were a necessary concession to the times in which it was made. It was obviously thought that such a grim tale as this needed some moments of brevity to lighten its oppressive tone. But the prevailing mood is one of ever-growing tension and simmering violence, all draped in highly authentic period dressing. Even the historical inaccuracies are forgivable because so much of what happens adheres pretty closely to the pertinent facts of people, places and events. Mundin, incidentally, was regularly used in such roles, even supplying much of the same ingredients in the expanded part of Much the Miller's Son in the classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood a few years later.

    Where history and the later instalments of the Christian/Bligh confrontation have portrayed both men as being equally complex and subject to huge swings of emotion and ill-judgement, Laughton is at pains to play his Captain as nothing more than an ogre, bereft of all compassion and charity until he is forced into the launch and tasked with getting himself and his few loyal companions to safety amid the most hellish of conditions. Here, at last, Laughton provides his indomitable monster with the humanity we had so longed to see him express throughout the voyage, and it is such a blessed relief – almost a pleasure - to witness that we almost, yes almost forgive him for his mostly volatile and callous attitude, otherwise. But it is seeing him at his most tyrannical that we remember from this towering performance. Having lost weight so he would be able to get into the same size clothes that the real Bligh wore, Laughton is not afraid to walk the deck in vicious squalls and to square off against all manner of swarthy, shirtless sailors. His absolute disregard for human feeling is actually quite eye-popping at times. Flogging a dead man, for instance, is an immediate indication that this trip is not going to be plain-sailing. When even those who are not guilty of an offence – the guilty party having admitted to their crime already – are still flogged, you can bet that his assertion that he is judge, jury and, if need be, executioner until they drop anchor back in Portsmouth is not a bluff. The look on Laughton's face when a keel-hauled miscreant is dragged back on on board, and discovered to have died during the ordeal, is not one of pity or guilt, but one of contempt – how dare the man die without his say-so! But there is a terrific spirit to his bullying and the sort of primal contempt that you just know Laughton would not be able to shake off between takes. When another crewman falls dead on-deck, and the blame lands squarely at Bligh's feet, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife … but Laughton has Bligh stare down his amassed enemies and win back the situation through snarling attrition alone. The man is a true force of nature, unforgiving and remorseless.

    The irony of Bligh finally being able to exhibit the perfect skills of leadership and compassion only when the odds are horrendously stacked against him does not go overlooked. In Donaldson’s take, Gibson’s Christian roars at Hopkins’ Bligh from the safe end of a cutlass “Why are you being so damned reasonable now???” and this is exactly how you feel when you see Laughton’s inspiring and humanitarian side manifest itself in the outcast launch to a crew half-dead from exhaustion and starvation. If he had been able to show even an ounce of this selfless nobility during the main voyage then he would never have lost the Bounty.

    When Anthony Hopkins adopted the role – and brilliantly so, I should add – he brought pride and fear to the man's makeup. He was clearly shaking as much out of his own anxiety as he was out of rage whenever he blew his stack, the terror of losing face in front of the men one of the key triggers in his downfall. There was also his jealousy of Christian's infatuation with his native girl – even a hint of suppressed homosexuality - but Laughton does not make any such concession in his characterisation, leaving his Bligh as one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. Single-minded and ruthless.

    Gable is excellent too. Compelled to shave off his precious moustache, it is surprising to find that he resembles a cross between Sean Connery and Mel Gibson – and yet this is exactly the combination that makes Fletcher Christian such a desperately tormented, yet inspirational hero. Driven to commit the most heinous act of maritime treachery and to forsake his reputation, his future, and even possibly his life, for the well-being of men he would probably cross the street to avoid back home, is clearly not something undertaken on purely a whim. Gable's officer is no knee-jerk fool, nor someone bound-over by unbreakable principle. He understand the rule of discipline and he also adheres to the rigid class structure aboard the ship. But he is also a man who willingly sees the good in anybody and believes in justice and fair play for all. Punishment where necessary, but no hard-line dictatorship. The men like him for his sense of camaraderie, and the fact that he not only sticks up for them when he knows that a grave error of command is afoot, but that he is prepared to speak his mind to the Captain no matter the cost to his own personal status. Deep in our hearts, we all want to be like Fletcher … and I dare say that an unfair few of us have even found ourselves in situations not entirely alien to the breach of trust and righteous defiance that he extols during his darkest time of goaded fury. But Fletcher Christian is also one of the most tragic figures in history, and each of the films have not flinched from showing us the mad plight that drives him and his fellow mutineers to the ends of the Earth to seek sanctuary and self-imposed exile from the long arm of English justice. I have not been a fan of Gable's performances in many other films, the actor became the epitome of the Hollywood matinee idol and unlike, say, Errol Flynn, he seemed to allow this aura to take the place of a genuine portrayal. This is not the case here, though, and Gable positively shines with brazen attitude and doomed heroism once his hand has been forced. It can be argued that Brando's variation of the character – a piece of casting that actually caused howls of derision from critics – is possibly more realistic, and his development in the face of the increasingly impossible regime enforced by Howard's Bligh more believable. Gibson, on the other hand, was pretty-boy casting but proved to be dynamite in the role with such blinding intensity that Christian's schizophrenia and sulky petulance are given their full due. Whatever, Gable utterly nails this rendering of a man who was clearly very troubled, and compelled to act … come hell or high water.

    A great early scene has a swinging cabin lantern causing all sorts of queasy trouble for a gaggle of midshipmen – but the moment is gloriously amplified when it even temporarily transfixes the otherwise indefatigable Clark Gable, as well, revealing the star's brief, but impressive grasp of comic timing. And no-one looks cooler than the soon-to-be Rhett Butler in a white sailor's blouse, open all the way down his chest, or swimming back to the ship with his tunic and hat strapped to his back.

    But the weird thing about this take on the oft-told tale is the attention paid to the fictitious character of the Bounty's new midshipman Byam, who appears to be an amalgamation of several people who sailed aboard the Bounty. In the role, Franchot Tone is absolutely stupendous. Enthusiastic, youthful and keen, he is nevertheless shocked by the often barbaric nature of his Captain, and his virgin voyage is one that is fraught with difficulties. Rivalry with one his mates of the same rank leads him into trouble with Bligh, but he takes his early and harsh punishment on the chin, thanks to the aid and good will of Christian. A lasting friendship is forged and one of the film's strong points is how this bond is put to the test during the mutiny and its somewhat surreal aftermath back on Tahiti. But he will also have to face another ordeal once Captain Bligh battles his way to the island in Ahab-style pursuit of his nemesis, Fletcher Christian, and then yet another terrible predicament back home, when he suffers the most unthinkable of betrayals. In Tone's hands, Byam goes on just as much of an odyssey as two leaders battling for his soul, and his is possibly the most rounded and complete of the trio. Tone keeps things generally light-hearted, but this has the knock-on effect of making the shocking developments later on all the more effective.

    That all three men were nominated for Best Actor In A Leading Role is staggering, yes, but also extremely well-deserved. Sadly, of course, they all lost out to Victor McLaglen for The Informer, but this takes nothing away from a powerhouse triumvirate of iron wills and impossibly opposed ideals.

    The location work is wonderful. With only a handful of back-projected squalls, ports and islands, the film feels fresh and invigorating. There is even a shot that has the Tahitian Chief, played by William Bambridge (who is very far from believable as a native, but a wonderful presence, all the same), come aboard between two ranks of sailors and Bligh's entourage that is clearly set-staged with the island bobbing about in the background, but it still looks very impressive. The fact that the production even went out to the real island of Tahiti is a remarkable enough feat in its own right, literally sailing history right back to its roots. And the use of thousands of Tahitians as extras can only add to this glorious authenticity. Tastes at the time dictated that bare female navels had to be covered up with makeup, but if you look closely you can still see Mamo Clark's, who plays Fletcher's island sweetheart. Incidentally, in one of those rare movie quirks of fate, the gorgeous Movita Castanada who plays Tehani, Byam's love interest, actually went on to marry Marlon Brando. What goes around certainly seems to come around, doesn't it?

    We get to know much of the rest of the crew as well. Leathery faces loiter about the frame, eyes raw with growing contempt and hatred. Great character actors such as Donald Crisp and Dudley Digges, Byron Russell and Pat Flaherty bake in the sun and spit salt in the eye of sovereign injustice. Thieves and scoundrels press-ganged into service, they may be, but your heart resides with them when Bligh degrades and humiliates them. Even young Eddie Quillan, as the unfortunate Seaman Ellison, who has been dragged away from his doting wife and newborn son to go to sea on the Bounty, changes from cherubic urchin to weevil-munching deck-swab … but you'll still feel for the lad when Bligh's final retribution catches up with him.

    The mutiny, itself, is a violent affair. Anyone thinking that this may be quaint little telling of the deed had best think again. Amongst the clubbings and skirmishes, there is the choice instance when a bayonet is plunged through a hand, impaling its owner to a beam. Thus, when these scurvy knaves gain control of the ship, there is real sense of anarchy, no matter how sympathetic we are to their cause. But then this is also a story of the cruelty and abuse that led to this apocryphal moment. We have seen numerous men put under the lash – even being dead doesn't save one of them – and when that poor bloke is keel-hauled we even get to see his body dragged across the rocks on the sea-bed. Bligh's command is aggressive, make no mistake, and Lloyd does not flinch from the blackest of moments. But he tempers this with the intoxicating reverie of Tahiti, and a few rail-side views across moon-glittering bays. The score from Herbert Stothart is full of pomp and good Olde English anthems, but it is not all that memorable otherwise. Both of the remakes changed course from this convention, with the Brando/Howard version swept along on a majestic score from Bronislau Kaper, whilst Vangelis provided a swooning, melancholy electronic mood-pulse for the Gibson/Hopkins take that, on paper, shouldn't have worked at all … but became a haunting classic.

    Alongside his leading men, his editor, his writers and his composer, Frank Lloyd was also nominated for an Academy Award, but he was equally as unsuccessful. Yet his intelligent and impulsive film would save the day for the lot of them when it rode the crest of the waves with a richly deserved Oscar for Best Picture as its new figurehead. And Mutiny On The Bounty remains a classic picture today that never fails to fire up that spark of rebellion in the face of such brutish tyranny and intolerance.

    Very highly recommended, Mr. Christian!

    The Rundown

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