Director: Frank Lloyd
Mutiny on the Bounty is a historical tale of one of the most infamous mutinies in naval history. It portrays life in the British navy at a time when men could be conscripted into service against their wishes. Had first officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) been in charge, the voyage to Tahiti to obtain a cargo of breadfruit plants may have been uneventful; however, under the command of the tyrannical Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), morale quickly erodes. Idealistic midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) is on his maiden voyage and is torn between his friendship with Mr. Christian and his duty to follow his Captain’s orders even though he often finds them cruel and despicable.
An interesting side note to this film is the fact that all three actors were nominated for Best Actor (though none won). The Academy introduced the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories the next year to prevent such a reoccurrence. I thought the acting was good but not superb. Having just seen Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, it was a little difficult envisioning him as an 18th century naval officer after his excellent portrayal of the 20th century newspaper reporter. Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh seemed a bit over exaggerated but one clearly despises the character as the film progresses.
Technically, we continue to see improvement film production. The scenes of the HMS Bounty sailing through stormy seas are impressive and felt very realistic. The location scenes on Tahiti inFrench Polynesiapresent our first venture to a far off land for filming and provide a wonderful picture of the island and its people (even if some of the actors are clearly not natives). In fact, at a cost of almost $2 million, the film was MGM’s most expensive production at the time.
Although I had seen this film previously, I still enjoyed revisiting the seafaring adventure.
Mutiny on the Bounty showed a completely different side of filmmaking compared to the previous year’s It Happened One Night. As a viewer, it is hard not to acknowledge that I felt like Hollywood back-pedaled between these two films. I understand that this film was made in 1935 and Hollywood provided escapism for an America still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. However, I notice that a production is dated significantly more when the scale of the film is larger. The film was also our second film to be directed by Frank Lloyd, the first of which being the equally large scale production of Cavalcade. Lloyd often prefers shots from long distances that illustrate the scope of a scene, which while impressive and necessary for his subject matter, do not present the same polished nature of the closer shots exhibited by films like It Happened One Night. Clark Gable’s performance in this film did earn him a second Oscar nomination for best actor, but unlike It Happened One Night, he was not honored for his performance.
Based on the novel by the same name, Mutiny on the Bounty depicts the breaking point of Fletcher Christian (Gable) and the rest of the HMS Bounty sailors who are overly disciplined by the heartless Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton). Captain Bligh is presented as a man who derives sadistic pleasure from watching his crew be disciplined, and views any objection to his cruel means of punishment as insubordination. The film introduces Captain Bligh in a scene where an offender, guilty of striking an officer, is set to be punished in front of the crew. Already having received a lashing, as indicated by his shredded back, the offender is pronounced dead before the punishment has even begun. Rather than accept that the deceased has received enough punishment, Captain Bligh insists that the additional two dozen lashes required by naval law be administered to the dead body. This extreme example of corporal punishment sets the precedent for the impending two year long journey that the crew is about to embark on.
The first half of the trip is comprised of the rising tensions between Captain and Crew that were only temporarily alleviated by shore leave in Tahiti. By this point, the Captain’s strict and excessive punishments had claimed the lives of a couple of crew members; he also starved the ship while maintaining his own particularly gluttonous diet. The series of increasingly brutal regiments of discipline, which included depriving some members of the crew of shore leave, caused an incensed Fletcher Christian to rally the lay people on the ship to mutiny against the Captain in order to survive the his heartless disciplining. After the mutiny, Fletcher Christian sets adrift the Captain and his supporters with limited rations and a compass to fend for themselves in the mighty ocean. The rest of the film can be summed up in three movements: 1). Fletcher Christian and the crew aboard the Bounty live in Tahiti for a year and then leave to start a settlement on an uncharted Island. 2). Captain Bligh and his supporters are in a tiny boat in the ocean for over 40 days and then board another boat to search for Fletcher. 3) A courtroom scene occurs where Bligh supporters, who were prisoners aboard the Bounty, are tried for mutiny after Bligh accuses them of collusion when they remain in Tahiti in hopes of returning to England.
The Best scenes in this film were those set inTahiti, and perhaps I would have preferred a movie with Clark Gable womanizing with the natives. I understand that this film is supposed to be painful to fit the sadism of Captain Bligh, but it also is not very compelling. In the massive scope of the film, characterization is lost and the outcome of the crewmates and the captain is not an overarching concern for film viewers. It’s hard not to like Gable’s character because of his presence on film alone, but Gable didn’t save this movie for me. The overacted and severely dated period film may have won a second Oscar for Frank Lloyd, but it didn’t convince me that this film deserved the accolades awarded to it in 1935.