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Mutiny on the Bounty Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 11, 2011

    Mutiny on the Bounty Review

    I’m not leaving you, Mr. Christian, not ever. Go to the dirtiest little corner of the world … I’ll be there, right behind you … with a rope in my hand.”

    The tale of the doomed HMS Bounty that set sail on its ill-fated breadfruit-collecting voyage to Tahiti in 1787 has been told many times. I’ve already looked at the two lavish big screen adaptations that surround Lewis Milestone’s epic telling – 1935’s classic power-play with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, and 1984’s more realistic depiction of the seaborne drama with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins – and now it is time to make sail with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in MGM’s 1962 version.

    After colossal historical true-life epics like Spartacus, El Cid, Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, the trend for big, scenery-gulping fantasias of colour and spectacle seemed set to stay. But sailing far from the celluloid crush of massive armies and star-studded casts of thousands, MGM opted for the familiar, but eternally fascinating battle of wills between two determined souls thrust into violent conflict in the powder-keg environment of a tiny chamber-pot ship over months of arduous, stamina-draining perils. The story was already very well known. Audiences had lapped-up the Gable/Laughton voyage and the maritime moraliser had frequently been the subject of literary examination and even become the trigger-point of changing naval law. The combination of beautiful destinations, savage sea-storms, volatile characters, heroic chivalry and exotic romance has always been a heady and addictive broth. And the terrific thing about it is that, even if the most pertinent facts of tyranny and mutiny are adhered-to, there is ample room of varying characterisations … and it remains consistent fun to see a stalwart bulldog of stage and screen going head-to-head with a buzz-of-the-moment new wave icon, which has been the trend in all the movie versions so far.

    The story always boils down to the two leads locked in a viciously proud yet spirit-breaking conflict with one-another. Roger Donaldson’s earthier 1984 adaptation posited the two rivals as being friends at the start, but both of the earlier versions granted a different stance to the relationship. Here, it is clear that Howard’s Bligh does not approve of his dandified First Officer. Arriving on-deck at a busy and excitable Portsmouth harbour with a bevy of beauties and bedecked in finery, Brando’s Fletcher Christian is a playboy, a celebrity whose naturally avant-garde demeanour might mask some appreciable maritime skills but is sure to irritate any seasoned seafarer worth his salt, especially those with golden braid on their tunics. Bligh can surely see those skills, but he rankles at the showmanship that Fletcher maintains. His navy is not about baubles and bracelets, nor yet the prancing braggadocio that this peacock of a man ascribes to. It is apparent, even before the sails have been set, that these two individuals are not going to get along. And with a voyage that places the ship and the crew unnecessarily at the mercy of the elements and a sadistic rule that makes every moment a living hell, the luxuries and peace offered by the island of Tahiti and its willing maidens can only reinforce a staunch desire not to sail with Captain Bligh any further.

    In a similar manner to how the house of cards that was Fox's Cleopatra collapsed around its makers’ ears and took a large chunk of Tinseltown with it, largely thanks to the inflated self-opinion of Elizabeth Taylor and the legions of yes-men out to please her, the film was a massively troubled production that saw its budget and its shooting-time spiralling out of control by the presence of its once highly bankable leading man. One director, the great Carol Reed, was fired after too many confrontations with the producers and the star, and his replacement, Milestone, grew to resent his own involvement with the film. His difficulties with the hot-headed and obstinate Brando, who insisted on rewriting the script (accredited here to Charles Lederer and adapted from the famous novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall that was also the template for the Gable/Laughton version) and keeping the cameras rolling until he said cut and not his director, were continually usurping his power and control over the shoot, and sapping his enthusiasm. It didn’t help that critics were already sniping at the project due to the casting of this cinematic rebel. Just before Mutiny, Brando had directed and starred in the highly acclaimed Western One-Eyed Jacks and had delivered the goods, certainly, but had gained notoriety in so doing, as being an obsessive perfectionist and someone very difficult to work with. His own ego was blowing hard enough to push the life-size Bounty, which had arrived late for the shoot and would almost sink under the weight of all the camera gear, cast and production equipment (not to mention Brando’s own wildly fluctuating girth), around the globe a couple of times without stopping. Milestone, who had won an Oscar for All Quiet On The Western Front, was enduring tantrums and rows almost every day on the set, and Mutiny would end up being the last film he would direct in what had been a long and highly lauded career.

    Although he had initially protested at taking the role, Howard is excellent as Bligh, giving the swine a surly viper-like venom and a wanton spite for all those under his command. He plays him as a true villain, a real cad of imperiously cruel ambition and someone who is thoroughly detestable. Laughton, as ogreish as he was in the role, still imbued his Captain with a sense of dignity and pride that could be seen as sympathetic in the tropical light of pompous control. Hopkins is incredibly sympathetic as the duty-constrained antagonist, imbuing his character with borderline homoerotic feelings of jealousy for his First Officer but never losing his grip on that essential humanity that makes for such a complicated drama. His is the most fully rounded performance of the trio. Howard, by contrast, has absolutely no such qualms or hidden layers. He is a foul and nasty piece of work who derives sadistic pleasure from floggings and keel-haulings, and from cajoling innocent jokes into acts of gross misconduct to be punished severely. Look at how a harmless jest results in the near freezing to death of a midshipman. He is infinitely clever and articulate, able to twist pathetic and weak-willed opinions around his little finger and taking great pleasure in manipulating the merest dissention or show of independence into corners of goaded shame. And yet we believe that this man could still hold down such a rank and status in the Royal Navy. We totally believe that he could command the respect and trust of the Admiralty and never, ever find himself to be at fault over any issue at all. Howard’s Bligh is a monster … and yet his performance is scarily credible and powerfully captivating at the same time. It may be easily equated to that of a boo-hissable pantomime villain, but he exudes such apparent relish at each harsh tactic that you can forgive Howard his excesses … and simply shudder at his every appearance.

    And then there's Marlon.

    I always find that it takes me a good half hour, at least, to adjust to Brando’s poncified voice, but, once I have, I find his performance amazingly nuanced, though still problematic. His Fletcher Christian is professionally savvy and duty-bound, albeit with his own agenda, and pretty unwavering in his adherence to the Captain’s sway, no matter how illogical, or downright cruel it may seem to be. Even when his subordinates relay their fears and discontent over matters of hierarchical tyranny and strife, justified issues we believe he must surely concur with, Brando’s First Officer smites their concerns aside with the tired sarcasm of a pure Bligh-wannabe. He becomes not so much the obvious rival to the Captain, but more his logical extension of rule. Even in a film this old, this personification seems fresh and probably more realistic, given the circumstances of the times, the naval doctrines and the social mores that govern their attitudes. If Fletcher was so opposed to Bligh’s methods of command and, as a consequence, so easy to corrupt in the first place, there would be no dynamic to the conflict. He would have overthrown his command long before they even reached Tahiti. Whereas Gibson plays the character as a schizophrenic, and Gable as a thoroughly decent, stout-hearted and altruistic chap, Brando does something altogether more intriguing with the role. He is a sanguine fop in Bligh’s eyes and the epitome of all that is wrong with the Navy. In his own aloof, passionless and arrogant way, he is just as condemnable to the common sailor as the hard-line Captain, himself as he appears not to care either way when Bligh puts his foot down. But his rebellion, when it comes, is more personally fired, his own pride the wronged-victim rather than the misrule that has been brandished upon the crew. Brando’s Fletcher Christian is as smug as they come and could just as easily have been cast into the Bounty’s launch as unequivocally as any of Bligh’s loyalists.

    Thank you … thank you. I've been puzzling for a means to take the strut out of you, you posturing snob.”

    When Trevor Howard utters the above line to Marlon Brando at the point of being struck down in front of the men, you can tell that he means every syllable of it … far more than his character of Captain Bligh does.

    The star courted controversy with every step he took during the production. His exorbitant number of takes wore everybody down, especially Howard, who actively ridiculed his pontificating nemesis …and even pretended to dance with him on-deck to relieve the boredom of waiting for Brando to find a delivery that was “just right”. He cited the former Wild One as being thoroughly unprofessional, and it is hard to disagree with his sentiments when Brando diverted production funds and crew to help out a friend’s exotic wedding in the islands, and frequently held up the shooting schedule on mere whims. In a way, this sort of behaviour actually seems in-keeping with the original narrative. Howard and the studio were to become a real Bligh, exasperated at every turn by an egotistical superstar who was acting, to all intents and purposes, as a veritable rebellious Fletcher Christian. With this in mind, it becomes helpful to understand that we are far better suited to evaluate the end results of the endeavour than anybody who was actually involved with it at the time.

    Unsurprisingly, Brando was singled-out for critical ridicule at the time of the film’s release, and his accent was, unfortunately, one of the major elements contributing to this drubbing. Well, as I say, it does take some time to acclimatise to, but I have certainly heard worse attempts from an American to speak with an English accent. Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for one. The problem with Brando’s voice is that it makes Fletcher come across as effeminate and flouncy and of decidedly aristocratic stock, which the real man, himself, was anything but. Thus, it is exceptionally hard for many viewers to fall-in with him. He already appears to be somebody too easy to chide and to mock, especially when we witness him in a silk dressing gown and a silly nightcap and looking like a cross between Wee Willy Winkie and Ebeneezer Scrooge. And this is our hero! However, it is precisely this tweaked and oblique persona that enables Brando to inject something fresh into a role that Clark Gable had ensured was simply dashing and heroically larger-than-life. Gibson found a great balance – his Fletcher Christian was hardly refined, but he had aspirations and a moral compass that hovered more in the direction of the common sailor than the stuffed-tunics. His conflict was more deeply etched because we could see him crumbling under the pain of torn allegiances all the way through. So, unlike the ever-stubborn and disagreeable Bligh, we have three hugely diverse interpretations of the leader of the mutineers.

    Of course, with this being the sixties, audiences expected a bit more psychology to go with the emotions. But there wasn’t going to be any hearts on sleeves with this maritime affair, with Brando ebulliently clipping his ardour for Tarita's blossom-bikini'd King's daughter Maimiti, and demonstrating supreme decorum under an escalation of ceaseless pressure. Indeed, whilst the romantic angle is hugely truncated, the doldrums of Brando's post-Mutiny soul-searching is much more effective. His grim promoting of the stalwart three rebels who would have hanged if they hadn't wrestled the ship from Bligh brings his self-loathing conscience to the fore. Here, at least, that accent seems to slip overboard and a darker tone tars the hull of his grave demeanour. But, for many, this was too little too late.

    Any seafaring tale worth its tot of rum needs a solid supporting cast. You’ve only got to look at Peter Weir’s magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World to see how much depth and texture can be gained from recruiting a strong roster of colourful characters above and below decks. The real-life Bounty certainly had its fair share of personalities and attitudes and, thankfully, each of the three big tellings of the tale have taken this on-board. Donaldson’s take had Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Bernard Hill, Neil Morrissey and Phil Davis to compliment its fuse-lit leads. With Milestone’s version, we have the notable character actors of Richard Harris, Richard Haydn, Gordon Jackson, Percy Herbert, bug-eyed Hugh Griffith and Duncan Lamont, who all bring a tremendous credibility to the sailors’ lot. Harris, especially, is wonderful as the hair-trigger Mills, a man who is perfectly responsible and hard-working until he is pushed and made a scapegoat out of … and Bligh’s mistake is making a scapegoat out of him right on Day One. And Haydn provides a complex backbone to the tale as the ship’s botanist and the film’s part-time narrator, William Brown.

    Visually, this is the most luxurious telling of the tale. Filmed in positively huge Ultra Panavision by the master DOP of Robert Surtees, this was the sort of film that set out to place you aboard the Bounty and sail you across the seas to Tahiti, and to leave with you with the taste of the briny on your lips and the singe of the trade winds and the sun upon your skin. When you see the horizon in this film you genuinely feel as though you are looking out into another time-zone. And when we hit the island paradise of Tahiti, the sense of embracing another world is wholly tangible. The ship is a fantastic, fully operational delight. It was built to the specifications of the original vessel, and it feels lived-in and adaptable. Plus the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of native outriggers putting to sea is one that mingles awe and fear at the same time.

    Frank Lloyd’s languid original made Tahiti a hazy dream – real, yet infused with petals of exotica. A more down-to-earth depiction would be visited in Roger Donaldson’s 1984 version, with Mel Gibson at loggerheads with Anthony Hopkins, and their island was gorgeous, but also workmanlike. Tahiti felt even more real, and somewhat damp and drab and miserable as a result. It was cocooned in a cloud of sweltering and oppressive doom as much as it was a ray of tropical sunshine. The place felt heavy with sweat and dripped with the ominous sense of a coming storm. Here, though, the island – which really is Tahiti - is an explosion of colour, of energy and of vitality. It teems with life and fertility, a ripe and succulent rainbow of escapist, passionate abandon and devout hedonism. In this middle interpretation, there is a rich endorsement of fabulous, lost world liberation. And it helps no end to understand that the filmic Bounty lands at exactly the same place as the real Bounty did a couple of hundred years before, lending a sense of poetic symmetry. Six thousand Tahitian extras help make the arrival in paradise even more authentic and the sort of set-piece that really takes the breath away. Look at the sheer indulgence of the fish-chasing ritual, and the numerous crowd scenes and ceremonies. Arguably, this robs the film of its natural rhythm, dropping momentum for DeMille-style excess, but then the crew fall into this tremulous thrall too … so the lethargy and gaiety are vital ingredients in our understanding about why they don't want to leave.

    Couple this splendour with the lyrical sweet aroma of romance in the air and no-one can blame the hard-driven crew for falling under the island’s bewitching spell. These topless beauties have a lot more to offer than the wasp-chewing bulldog of Captain Bligh. Although Brando would actually marry and have two children with Tarita, who plays Fletcher’s Tahitian paramour with a surly grace, there isn’t much bonafide chemistry on display with their on-screen infatuation. The shine in the eyes that Movita had for Gable and the out-of-control lust that Tervaite Vernette had for the smouldering Gibson is absent here. Tarita looks jaw-droppingly enticing in her exotic beachwear, but her bond with Brando’s wayward First Officer is lacking in sizzle. What should have been a catalyst in Mr. Christian's attitude simply becomes just a bit on the side. Interestingly, Movita would actually also become a wife to Marlon Brando. Say what you want about his performance as Fletcher Christian, but he certainly took one element of the character above and beyond the call of duty.

    Fletcher, I’m proud to be with you.”

    Well you’ve done rather well, Ned. Promoted to the rank of criminal. Not even twenty and a death-sentence on your head.”

    What I love about this interpretation of the actual mutiny is that it really seems as though it has come about literally in a flash. Christian has been keeping his anger bottled-up so successfully that none of us believe it will ever erupt. We truly think that he is more concerned with maintaining his own status than reacting to any enforced deed of deliberate tyranny. His act of water-fetching mercy at this pivotal juncture is not, in the least, a mark of betrayal, nor even a deliberate commitment to insubordination, so his shock and anger at Bligh’s violent reaction to his charity is all the more abrupt and volatile, and convincingly spontaneous. The gradual build-up of resentment and distrust over the course of the voyage has never been as apparent on Brando’s face as it has on Gable’s or Gibson’s, who both take the knocks but are gradually worn down. He has been far more aloof and stoically lenient for his true feelings to be made manifest. But suddenly, at this moment, he becomes a seething volcano of bitterness and justified recrimination, and you could easily believe that he, himself, had no idea, up until this very moment that is, that such emotions even existed within him. Capping this, Bligh makes the great and profoundly cutting remark “What a big price to pay … for such a little show of temper,” as he is forced to leave his ship. This comment is the sealing word on Brando’s mutiny. His act is wildfire and knee-jerk, an insane moment of conscience-be-damned resilience and whiplash defiance to authority. It is the blink-of-an-eye, almost imaginary rebellion that we all feel from time to time. But whilst most of us think it, and then calm down, Fletcher does it. Out of Gable, Brando and Gibson, it is possibly Brando who makes this impulse the most immediate, cathartic and incendiary even if only for a moment.

    And Bligh’s response is magnificent. Although reined-in and measured, he spits molten rage with every perfectly arranged syllable. Each sentiment of mercy that Fletcher imparts is treated to a toe-curlingly acrimonious threat of sinister intensity. “Here’s your flag,” offers Christian as he contemptuously lays Bligh's favoured flail over his shoulder, to which his former Captain replies with simmering relish, “I don’t need a flag, Mr. Christian. I still have a country.” You almost get the impression that if the film had been lensed chronologically, Howard was breathing a huge sigh of relief at getting away from the smug upstart.

    It is a shame, but the thing that always upsets the pace of this story is the third act.

    As inevitable and as necessary as this element is, the parting of the ways post-mutiny marks a massive decline in the tension of the drama and a considerable diluting of the thrill of slow-burn resentment and animosity. Once Fletcher is in command and the mutineers make the return trip to Tahiti, there is something of a sour taste in the mouth. This may be accurate (well, fairly) to the story but we’ve lost the tyrannical edge that made the first half so riveting. And the frightening but inspiring (in reality) saga of Bligh and his loyalists adrift in the launch is practically forgotten about in this version. Mind you, in terms of this telling it obviously wouldn't do to have the beast of a man come across as being, in any way, heroic and, thus, we get to see none of the epic and courageous voyage that he and his few trusted men undertake back to civilisation. So this version, more than any of other, can be blamed for losing its steady narrative pull during such a less antagonistic phase. Even though it never happened, we can’t help wanting some sort of final confrontation, some cataclysmic conclusion to such a strong personal vendetta. After the massive middle-act on Tahiti, this marks a time when Milestone's picture could get back on track, but it somehow spirals into a whirlpool of bland moralising on the one half, and Ahab-like zeal on the other … and the section becomes monotonous and rambling, with only the inner rage creasing Bligh's face as he takes criticism from the Admiralty providing any of the grit that made the first act so memorable. The script even makes the horrific blunder of trying to provide Fletcher with heroic martyrdom. An exciting last-minute action sequence is at odds with all that has gone before, and is not only historically inaccurate but leads into the film's laughable finale. You can bet that Brando's hand was at the wheel in the construction of this risible climactic stab at sacrificial poignancy.

    I had the dubious pleasure of reviewing the somewhat amateur re-recording of Vangelis’ classic electronic score for Donaldson’s 1984 version which was just a pale imitation of the film’s haunting qualities, but the real musical masterpiece of the Bounty’s cinematic saga came courtesy of the great Bronislau Kaper, whose exciting, rambunctious and exotically colourful score is the very epitome of lavish, big studio-backed indulgence. Available in a sumptuous 3-disc edition from FSM, this is the sort of large-scale, multi-faceted excellence that is the hallmark of the great movie extravagance and no-expense-spared creativity so prevalent from the studios during this monolithic period. He brings typical sweep and majesty to the seafaring scenes, rolling tempestuously with the hellish storms and helping to sear the cruelty of Captain Bligh across the screen with flail-lashed vigour. But it is his delight in the percussive tribal atmospherics of Tahitian rituals and celebrations that seems to provide the film with its exciting core of wild escapism. Certainly, his music and Surtees' photography are the most consistently classy elements.

    Although audiences have always been more forgiving to this version than the critics, Milestone’s epic still doesn’t seem to get the recognition that it probably deserves. This is a shame as the production actually seems to have benefited from the strife that took place behind the scenes. I would say that the tension off-camera adds to the simmering discontent aboard the Bounty and certainly fuels the demonstrative portrayal of Howard’s Bligh – his mocking frustration of Mr. Christian positively burns in his eyes and his remarks become that bit more cutting when directed at Brando's pompadour. The film is visually huge and overflowing with marvellously flamboyant imagery. The dynamic between the leads is certainly different from other interpretations, but this only aids the film in finding its own unique and distinctive identity, and it is fair to say that the production, as its own entity, enjoys this vicarious personality clash. Still, I'm afraid that most of this intriguing stuff then comes apart during the final act which, I have to say, founders on the rocks of narcissism and is likely to have modern viewers giggling just as much as those who saw this grand ego-trip sail across the screen way back in 1961.

    But, for fans of the Bounty's cinematic legacy of ripple-effect grudge-matches, this is still well worth seeking out and stowing aboard for. Funny in the wrong places, it may be, but Howard is a fantastically cruel SOB and it is certainly very interesting to watch how Brando deals with his quirky curve-ball of incarnation of Fletcher Christian.

    Idiosyncratic, odd and immensely decorative, Mutiny On The Bounty, Brando-style, has all the skewed attitude that we love of Sixties Cinema – it just didn't realise it at the time. Foibles and oddities aside, this is the sort of spectacle that they just don't make any more, and it remains hugely entertaining in its own ramshackle and cocksure way.