Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Mytteri på Bounty
”Mutiny on the Bounty” is big. Like really big. In many ways this was the “Titanic” of the thirties.

·         It was monstrously expense for its time (2 million $) yet it became a big financial success.

·         The sets were exotic with a beautiful tall ship as the centerpiece, but also a South Sea island and although most of it is a studio creation there are still wonderful outdoor shots.

·         The cast stars Clark Gable (without moustache), the DeCaprio of his age plus an excellent supporting cast.

·         Finally, it was nominated for six Academy Awards and although it only won one, it was the big one.

When Hollywood flexes its muscles and rolls out its big production machinery it is difficult not to be impressed and swept away. Usually when you then dip into the substance I often find it wanting and it makes me a bit suspicious, but on the other hand when Hollywood gets a good story I appreciate that the funding and care is spent on making it a grand experience. I would say this is one of those cases. There are a few places where I sigh and think that they are only getting away with it because it is such a grand film, but mostly I am surprised at how captivating it is and how well it maintains its illusion of reality.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” is essentially a road movie on the high sea. We get a brief introduction to the essential characters, including some hints that Captain Bligh might not be an easygoing type, and then it is off to sea. From the point when they leave port they are basically left to themselves. It is indicated that they visit some ports on the way, but we never see it. These men are isolated from the rest of the world, a micro-cosmos of a social experiment, which eventually will get out of control.

Clark Gable may be top billed but it is Charles Laughton as Captain Blight who steals the picture. That little man with a hat way too big for him looks every bit as sinister as a Darth Vader. Every time he appears you can feel the temperature drop a notch, even in the sweltering heat of the South Seas. It is soon clear that he is at heart a sadist who enjoys punishment for his own personal gratification, almost as if he has declared war on the world to compensate for his low stature. His luck as the story goes is that a captain is an undisputed king on his ship and vested with these powers it becomes his personal objective to break his men into groveling animals. I have rarely seen as brilliant a performance as a sadistic villain and the only actor I can think of as being able to get close would be Peter Lorre. Charles Laughton was nominated Best Supporting Actor along with Clark Gable, but lost out to Victor  McLaglen of “The Informer”, a movie not even on the List.

In this hellhole devised by Blight we find Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) as the representative of decency. He is first mate and thus second in command, but so opposite Captain Blight that they soon fall out with each other. I am the first to admit that Christian’s position is difficult and his dilemma is at the core of the film, which I will return to shortly, but I am not as happy with Clark Gable as with Charles Laughton. He is altogether too much the hero. Smiling his hero smile, dashing around, working himself up into righteous anger. These are the antics of a movie star, not a first mate of the Royal Navy. Therefore he may be super sympathetic, but not really believable. Franchot Tone as Midshipman Byam suffers the same problem, but since he is only supporting cast (and is supposed to be young and naïve) it is easier to eat.

The central part of course is the mutiny and this is a very interesting and worthy story. So good in fact that it has been used numerous times in various disguises. The dilemma is which imperative is the more important: The sea laws by which the navy operates and really cannot function without or the humanistic imperative that you must do what you can to protect your fellow men from injustice and harm. When is enough enough? Is there any excuse to dispense with the laws and rebel against them? The movie wisely presents both positions. Though the balance may be tipped in Christians favor the film also makes us aware of the problematic in conceding to Christian. It is obvious to us that Blight is a monster and it is obvious that many will die unnecessary if he is not stopped. But there is good reason why the captain is king on his ship. Unless you have iron discipline on such a ship with too many people sharing too little space in an environment of hardship and deprivation the entire ship will just dissolve. This is so much truer of a warship such as Bounty. Combine that with the fact that much of the crew was pressed into service and found among convicts and you get an understanding for why the navy was so obsessed with discipline.    

So is it okay or not okay to commit mutiny? I am undecided and the principle of that dilemma is such a good story that a movie needs little else.

But we do get more than that story and I am not altogether happy with that. I already mentioned that Christian is setup as a real old-school movie hero, while less would have suited him and the story. Laughton ends up dirty and grimy in his longboat, but Gable hardly even sweats. Also we get all these side-stories and characters that a big Hollywood production always must include: The obligatory love story, the (totally unnecessary) “funny” sidekick (the captain’s steward), the heartbreaking story of the lowest crewmember who was forced to leave wife and infant son at home etc. Really, we do not need this. The story is strong enough as it is and all these detours just unfocus the story or even detracts from the realism.

Not that this is a true interpretation of the real events to begin with, the film admits to be based on a novel, not the factual event, but it strives so hard to give us a realistic story and takes us so far that I can almost taste the saltwater and feel the whiplashes that I wish it had left us with that.

This is the third of the nautic films of the thirties and by far the smelliest, dirtiest and most brutal of them. As such it is a pinnacle of nautical films only rarely surpassed. It is worth noticing that two later remakes never met with the same acclaim as this original and while I never saw the Marlon Brando version, I did not care much for the Mel Gibson version. But then again I do not care much for Mr. Gibson.

Sailing on a tall ship in the old days was not altogether fun after all. Maybe it is better to stay on land.  


  1. I definitely agree that this story is much more about Bligh than Christian. Every incarnation of it I've seen (I also enjoyed Brando's 1960s version), Bligh is the fascinating and complex character when held next to Christian's fairly straightforward "hero." And Laughton is fantastic.

    1. He is indeed. He is the actor and the character that lifts this film from ordinary Hollywood fare to something exceptional.

  2. I like this far better than the 60s remake with Brando. I agree that Laughton is great as Bligh. This is the only film where three men from the same movie were all nominated for Best Actor, which is probably why all three lost.

    1. Could well be. Too many chefs? I can see that "The Informer" took a lot of prizes that year, but I never even heard of it. And from "Mutiny..." they had three choices..., well well.

  3. In all honesty, the only thing I remember about this film is Charles Laughton as Bligh. The rest is a complete wash.

    1. Then you remembered the most important part. Or the one most worth remembering.