Untimely Movie Review: Mutiny on the Bounty

The true story of the Pitcairn Islands is fascinating.  The short version is that a segment of sailors (many of them conscripted) on the HMS Bounty fell in love with the island lifestyle when visiting Tahiti during a 1787–89 expedition.  Led by Fletcher Christian, 18 mutineers overtook the vessel.  They sent Lt. William Bligh, the captain of the Bounty, along with most of the rest of the crew, off to fend for themselves on a dinghy.

MutinyOnTheBountyPosterBligh and nearly everyone aboard his launch miraculously survived, leading to a subsequent trial for the few mutineers who could be found (including a couple of crewmen who likely weren’t mutineers, but served as handy scapegoats).  Most of the mutineers couldn’t be found, however.

Knowing they would never be able to return to civilization without being arrested, tried, and sentenced to death, the mutineers collected some Tahitian women and fled, eventually winding up at the uninhabited and hard-to-reach Pitcairn Island.  They lived out their remaining days there.  However, a society founded by mutineers quickly and predictably descended into alcohol-fueled, murderous near-anarchy.  The small modern-day population of Pitcairn is descended entirely or almost-entirely from the English Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian “brides.”

1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty presents a much more sympathetic view of the mutiny.

Sour-pussed Charles Laughton’s Bligh is a quasi-caricature for much of the film, doling out gratuitous cruelty at every opportunity.  He’s portrayed not only as cruel, but as a criminal as well, stealing from his own ship’s hold and blaming it on conscripted patsies.

Historical inaccuracy aside, Mutiny on the Bounty held my attention throughout, something relatively rare for a pre-WWII movie.  Like Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel, Clark Gable (as Fletcher Christian) stands out as a performer whose acting style (and stardom) would still resonate today.

Most of the other guys in this movie are hams in bad wigs.  But, as I said last time, that seems to have been the prevailing style of acting in the 1930s and 40s.  I haven’t seen the 1962 version, but watching the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty made me wonder how Marlon Brando edition might compare.

It’s fun to try to watch filmmakers in 1935 create some of the effects used in Mutiny on the Bounty.  With slightly managed expectations, I found that almost all of the effects hold up, with one exception:  The keelhauling scene, which looks like it was shot in my bathtub.

MutinyOnTheBountyAs for the history—the truth is that the guys on the Bounty just wanted to go live on an island somewhere and fornicate with native women.  Bligh was a strict navy man, but his brutality is exaggerated, and his thievery is, as far as I know, created from whole cloth.

This embellishment helps to create the one big problem I had with the film.

In the midst of the history of the Bounty, there’s a very inconvenient fact: Bligh managed one of the greatest seafaring feats of that era, or possibly any era, when he managed to navigate the overloaded dinghy 3,600 nautical miles to Timor over a period of 47 days.  He did so without the use of a map or a compass.

The filmmakers had a dilemma.  They needed Bligh to be alive in the final act of the movie, so they couldn’t simply gloss over his miraculous achievement.  Yet, in portraying that part of the tale with any accuracy, there was no way to avoid making Bligh look both sympathetic and amazingly skilled.

So, they did.

For just a few minutes, Bligh becomes Jack Aubrey.  The trouble is that the audience is implicitly asked briefly to root for someone who’s been a monster for the first hour, and will soon be a monster again.

Other than that piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit, Mutiny on the Bounty is good, swashbuckling fun.  I’m guessing that the scope of the film and the effects were major reasons why it won Best Picture for 1935.

One last note: It’s odd to listen to the accents (or lack thereof) from films of this era.  Although Clark Gable is portraying an Englishman, there’s no attempt by him to speak with an English accent.  That would be an unthinkable choice now by any actor not named “Sean Connery.”

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