John Ford‘s The Informer seems to have been a major beneficiary of Mutiny on the Bounty‘s riches at the Oscars. With three nominations for Best Actor (Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone), the vote seems to have split, taking the win from the major MGM production and giving it to Victor McLaughlin in the smaller, RKO picture. Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty is really an actor’s showcase, an effort by Irving Thalberg to effectively use the star system he had created to maximize profits at the box office (it worked) while taking on an existing property (the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall) and mounting it in MGM’s trademarked lavish style. The end creation is a solidly entertaining film more interested in polemic than dramatic potential with Captain Bligh being little more than a comic book-level villain.
Fletcher Christian (Gable) impresses some men in the English seaside community of Plymouth for the voyage of the Bounty, set to sail for Tahiti to transplant some banana fruit trees to the West Indies to provide cheap food for slaves there (it was a different time). The mission is captain by Bligh (Laughton), an expert seaman who is so dedicated to the vigorous application of regulation that he orders the flogging of a man already dead in front of the crew. A greenhorn on ship is Midshipman Byam (Tone), the son of a wealthy family that has been sailing the oceans in His Majesty’s navy for generations, setting sail under Bligh for the first time.
My problem with the film is really Bligh himself. I think he’s poorly written except in one, later sequence. He meaninglessly is attached to whipping as a punishment for any small infraction from the outset. He whips because of slight insubordinations. He whips because a man was late for his watch. He keel-hauls a man at one point, which kills him. If he were doing these things in the face of dire consequences because his men weren’t doing what he knew was necessary in order to successfully get the Bounty to its destination, and he was justified in it by getting them there, then I could see Bligh as a complex character with reasons for his excesses in the pursuit of maintenance of regulation. Instead, he’s just a bully. Laughton does everything he can with the character, giving a dedicated performance that tries to impart as much depth as he can through performance, but Bligh is simply not written well enough for his efforts to do too much.
The real heart of the film is split between Christian and Byam. Christian, as a lieutenant, has sailed many times before and knows how to deal with his men. Byam is caught between the two superior officers, Christian and Bligh, as he has to make a choice about which path to follow as a man who will be in the navy for the rest of his life. The appeal of Bligh should be stronger (having him manage the balance outlined in the previous paragraph would go a long way to accomplishing that), but the advice from Byam’s patron Sir Joseph Banks (Henry Stephenson) about duty being the utmost call to an English sailor is a solid foundation for him. Christian does everything he can to support Bligh, even when he disagrees with the severity of Bligh’s decisions, but it’s obvious that he can only take so much.
After failing to make it around the Cape Horn (there’s a storm sequence that isn’t about their month long effort to get around the Horn, which they completely skip, and I’m confused), they head around Africa, have a few more episodes of cruelty from Bligh, and get to Tahiti where the men find an island paradise (the contrast is the sort of thing that Terrence Malick could make hay of, and it makes me wonder if he ever considered making his own version of the story). Byam gets set writing a dictionary of Tahitian words for Sir Joseph while Bligh, as punishment, assigns Christian to refitting the Bounty for its journey to the West Indies, keeping him on board and away from the paradise he can see from deck.
The pristinely portrayed life of hedonism that the men enjoy for months was always doomed to end, and when Bligh orders to make sail, a couple of seamen try to hide away on the island but are quickly caught. Bligh’s order of punishment ends up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and a few days out from Tahiti, the temperature boils to the point where Christian takes up leadership of the mutiny naturally forming around him. Byam takes no part in the brief fight one way or the other, and, when Bligh gets exiled to a small boat with several other loyalists, Byam remains on board as a prisoner with freedom as long as he keeps his promise to not take back the ship from the mutineers, extracted by Christian. The souring of their relationship is the emotional centerpiece of the film, and it’s a good moment.
This is also where Bligh becomes a much better character. He honestly feels like a different character once he takes charge of the small boat, using his navigational and organizational skills to trek 2,600 miles to Timor and to keep their limited supplies in check for more than forty days is a great demonstration of his strengths as a character, the sort of thing we should have been seeing from the beginning. He feels completely justified in everything he does on that boat, which is in stark contrast to everything that he had done on the Bounty where he just feels like a meanie. There’s some later dialogue between Christian and Bligh about how Bligh is taking advantage of his position as captain to squirrel away stuff for himself at levels greater than “what is done”, but it feels, again, like comic book-level bad guy stuff.
The resolution is Bligh’s return to Tahiti in the Pandora where his arrival prompts the mutineers, led by Christian, to flee with the Bounty while the more loyal members (and some other, more guilty, members) of the Bounty‘s crew stay behind to get picked up leading to Bligh capturing them and putting them into a court martial where he gives testimony against the men. Byam’s prosecution becomes the final effort at polemic about changing the rules of the British navy, something that was accomplished more than a century before the film was made, and it ends up feeling weird because of that time difference. It feels like an issue movie for an issue that died a century before. It’s not about realistic appraisal of justice because Bligh isn’t a real character for most of the run time, so this effort to shoehorn in a change of regulation at the end feels more like pushing an issue on the audience rather than just addressing something that happened in conjunction with the story. Since the film is also horribly historically inaccurate, that hurts as well.
I think the film is good, a thin adventure story from material that could have been far better exploited. Bligh may be comic book-level in terms of his villainy, but he’s good at that level. The conflict that Byam finds himself in the middle of could have been more personal with a better written Bligh, but the conflict between duty and freedom as represented by Tahiti is strong enough on its own. The photography is great from beginning to end, especially on the high seas, and even during the storm sequence. It’s a much thinner story than it needed to be, but it is also a cleaner one that could more easily pass the Hays Office’s maxims. I can see why it would be a box office success in 1934, providing the kind of easy entertainment that the masses like to eat up, but there’s a better movie to be made out of this material at the same time.
2 thoughts on “Mutiny on the Bounty”
Clark “King” Gable returns playing the movie hero very well.
There really is a complex story here as the British Navy did indeed have a lot of brutal punishment for penny ante stuff. And Bligh was a below-average leader (but supreme navigator), the seamen really kinda went nuts in Tahiti, the movie barely touches just how wild and crazy the men went. Fletcher basically runs away from society and ends up getting himself and followers killed. So he’s no hero, as far as I’m concerned.
But back to the movie as a movie…fictional Fletcher is a human and heroic figure who isn’t very good at mutiny. Charles Laughton really does the best Captain Bligh and his portrayal lived in the popular zeitgeist for a few years, including making its way into cartoons even. As you said, it really is an actor’s showcase. I don’t know if I’d call it ‘best picture’ but..it’s more enjoyable than The Informer…though the latter is a ‘better’ film.
It’s a good time, but I struggle with knowing too much of the real history. I’m able to ignore that whenever the actors are acting….and because I know the British navy really was full of shitheads.
The movie really makes Bligh’s cruelty out to be something unusual in the navy. Fletcher recoils at what he witnesses, and so does everyone else. It feels unjust to Bligh himself, but if he’s this unusual case, why? Why is he so cruel? The movie never really bothers to try and answer it, offering some quick half-hearted excuses that may be it here and there. It’s essentially a purely fictional story where they gave their antagonist no motive.
That it works as well as it does is a tribute to everything else, to be honest, the acting first and foremost. Fletcher’s inability to commit to the mutiny at the beginning is a nice way to dramatize the conflict between order and liberty. Laughton really makes the most of Bligh, even if he doesn’t have as much to actually do as he should.
I’d much rather watch The Informer, though. It’s not fun, but damn…is that a great movie from beginning to end.