Mutiny on the Bounty (United States, 1935)

January 09, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mutiny on the Bounty Poster

It's a testimony to the enduring popularity of the story of Mutiny on the Bounty that it has been represented cinematically five times. In addition to the Oscar-winning 1935 production, which is arguably the best of the bunch, there are four others. The first was a 1916 Australian silent that has been consigned to the lost film files like so many of its contemporaries. Two years before Frank Lloyd's production reached screens, Errol Flynn made his screen debut in In the Wake of the Bounty, which combined narrative techniques with documentary footage. The troubled 1962 version had star power, with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris, but suffered from too many egos and too little control. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Cleopatra (they were simultaneously before cameras) when discussing out-of-control budgets and Hollywood excess. Finally, although the underrated 1984 movie, called The Bounty, is damaged by uneven pacing and some tedious passages, it is well-made and represents the most historically accurate account of events.

The 1935 edition, which is intended as an adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's semi-fictionalized book rather than as a direct representation of the historical record, offers a rousing adventure film set on the high seas. The production values, like the acting, are of the highest standard and the movie stands up well even by 21st century standards. The film tackles a theme that has universal resonance: When it is legitimate to overthrow lawful authority because it oversteps the bounds of reasonableness and decency? This subject was of special importance to those living during the time when this movie reached the screen. World War I was not yet a distant memory and the pieces being assembled on the global stage would lead to an even bigger conflagration.

The movie's story tells of the 1787 journey of the H.M.S. Bounty from Portsmouth to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit plants, which would be transplanted to the West Indies as cheap food for slaves. The ship's commander, William Bligh (Charles Laughton), is disliked by a majority of his crew for his inhumane forms of discipline and his stern, uncompromising attitude. On the other hand, his first officer, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), is seen as a fair-minded leader. The relationship between Bligh and Christian becomes increasingly fractious during the outbound journey. It eases somewhat while the ship is anchored off Tahiti: Christian spends most of his time on shore, even marrying one of the native women (Mamo). Once the return journey is underway, however, the conflict between Bligh and Christian explodes, resulting in a mutiny. Bligh and those loyal to him are set adrift (with supplies) in a lifeboat while The Bounty sets sail back for Tahiti. Incredibly, Bligh survives the long, arduous journey to Timor (in the Dutch East Indies) and is able to return to the Western Pacific aboard the H.M.S. Pandora on an expedition charged with finding The Bounty and bringing the mutineers back to England.

The film plays fast and loose with some of the facts. In particular, Mutiny on the Bounty commits character assassination on Bligh (who is generally well-regarded by the history books) in order to make Christian seem more righteous and to provide a compelling rationalization for the mutiny. In the movie, this action is not so much a crime as it is an instance of overthrowing a tyrant. From a storytelling perspective, the movie's approach is the correct one. Mutiny on the Bounty is a more engaging drama with a clear hero and equally obvious villain. The 1984 interpretation of the event, which attempted to be as true as possible to the record, colors both Bligh and Christian with shades of gray. The result, although not uninteresting, is less compulsively watchable.

Mutiny on the Bounty earned a boatload of Oscar nominations: Picture, Director, three for Actor, Editing, Score, and Screenplay. The only captured statue was the most prominent one (and from a wide field - there were 12 Best Picture nominees that year). It is widely believed that Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone (who had a supporting role as Christian's best friend, Roger Byam) "split the vote," resulting in none winning. This led directly to the Acting category being parsed into Lead and Supporting groups the following year.

Charles Laughton, remembered for playing twisted and unconventional roles, presents Bligh in the least likeable light. As essayed by Laughton, there's nothing good about the man (except his skills as a seaman); he's a classic "love to hate" villain. Bligh represented one of several famous turns for the actor, who was Oscar nominated three times and won once. He also played Nero in The Sign of the Cross, the title roles in The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Island of Dr. Moreau, Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Captain Kidd in Captain Kidd. He worked until his 1962 death, although the majority of his late-career parts were on television.

At the time he appeared in Mutiny on the Bounty and received his second of three Oscar nominations (he won for his appearance in the previous year's It Happened One Night), Clark Gable was already an established star and a reliable box office draw. His ascent to superstardom was six years off - that would occur when he memorably essayed Rhett Butler in 1939's Gone with the Wind. Nevertheless, Gable's charisma is undeniable here. Christian comes across as engaging, likeable, and completely justified in his actions. Gable's imprint on the role is indelible. When one thinks of Christian, this interpretation leaps to mind, even though the role was subsequently portrayed by Brando (in 1962) and Mel Gibson (in 1984).

For director Frank Lloyd, who won the Academy's directing citation a mere two years earlier (for 1933's Cavalcade), this represented the conclusion of a period in which he was a regular fixture in the Oscar nominee category. Before Mutiny on the Bounty and Cavalcade, he had been nominated for three separate films in 1930 (he won for The Divine Lady). In the wake of Mutiny on the Bounty, the quality of his films underwent a gradual erosion; he never attained the same level of success despite making another 14 films before retiring from the movie business in 1955.

Mutiny on the Bounty kept the gossip columnists busy during its contentious production, with reported strife between Laughton (a homosexual) and Gable (a homophobe). If anything, that enhanced the film's box office, as did the theme of the righteous man standing against the tyrant. It was well-received by critics and the public alike. Unlike many action/adventure films made during the 1930s, Mutiny on the Bounty has stood the test of time, in large part due to Laughton and Gable, whose mutual star power has long outlived them both. Presumably, the future will unveil at least one more version of the story, made with all the lavish special effects Hollywood can craft. To unseat the 1935 interpretation as the most engrossing of the cinematic Mutiny on the Bounty accounts, it would have to be very good, indeed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (United States, 1935)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1