My utterly, unscholarly snapshot review of “Mutiny on the Bounty” is that it rocks the party. I can’t believe that 32 years have lapsed before I finally got around to watching this film. In fact, I can’t believe I haven’t even really heard anything about it before. I kind of feel like people have been holding out on me or something. I know there must be someone I know who knows this movie is epic and maddening and glorious and just hasn’t told me about it. Well whoever they are, they should know they’re in big trouble for not bringing “Mutiny on the Bounty” to my attention earlier.
It truly is that rare film that has managed to avoid the destructive elements of time to still be thoroughly entertaining and watchable, even by contemporary standards. Directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, “Mutiny on the Bounty” was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1935, walking away with only the top prize. Apparently, it is the last film to win Best Picture without winning an Oscar in any other category.
The titular mutiny erupts on the HMS Bounty, which set sail in 1787 from Portsmouth, England to Tahiti. Its mission: Collect 1,000 breadfruit trees and deliver them to West Indies for the purpose of providing cheap food for the slaves there. The ship is captained by the odious William Bligh, a brutal tyrant with an obsessive streak for administering harsh punishment at every infraction. Even in death, members of Captain Bligh’s crew can’t escape their due penalties as, at one point, he insists upon a dead sailor still receiving his two dozen lashings.
The yin to Captain Bligh’s yang is embodied by Fletcher Christian, the Bounty’s lieutenant, who disapproves of his superior’s governing methods. It’s this disapproval that eventually pushes Christian to rally the men to mutiny against Captain Bligh and those loyal to him. The mutineers send the lot of them adrift in a life boat on their merry way toward the blue horizon, before turning the Bounty around back toward the paradises of Tahiti. Captain Bligh and his band survive their ordeal, eventually reaching the Dutch West Indies. Thirsty for revenge, Captain Bligh returns to Tahiti, but fails to capture Christian, leaving his sense of crime and punishment in tattered frustrations.
Captain Bligh really is a villain for the ages. He came in ranked number 19 on AFI’s list of the greatest 100 Heroes and Villains, which puts him ahead of such classic cinema baddies like the Terminator, Freddy Krueger and Cruella de Vil. I mean come on, if you’re worse than a woman whose ambition is to skin puppies in the name of fashion, you must be pretty bad.
I think a lot of the credit for why one would brew such a strong repellent sense toward Captain Bligh belongs to Charles Laughton’s dedicated performance. For starters, Laughton looks physically villainous, but in a completely out-of-the-box sort of way. He possesses a total ham face, adorned with a giant grey wart perched like some moldy cherry on top of a melted sundae. His posture is slumped diagonally forward, pushing his face outward in a way that makes it appear as though in a permanent state of beady scrutiny
But Laughton doesn’t just rely on looks alone, or lack thereof, to make Captain Bligh so detestable. He has this effortless ability to project a smugly superior countenance. However, due to his authoritative demeanor, it feels like a countenance completely fueled by a sinister “revenge of the nerd” mentality that one would imagine was forged over several years in the harsh social trenches of a high school setting. But despite his best efforts to reinvent himself into a sea captain, the reality seems as though Captain Bligh is doomed to retain his status as an awkward outcast, try as he might. This is evident at the end of the film when, upon learning of his behavior on the Bounty leading up to the mutiny, his equals and superior officers regard him as though he were just an intolerable odor bringing shame to the gang. Moreover, his seething anger in failing to apprehend Fletcher Christian seems to reinforce his inner tortured socially discordant self because Clark Gable is the comparative opposite: good looking, athletic and effortlessly popular with everyone. In a way, it's as if the jocks are still emerging triumphant.
|Clark Gable, left, and Charles Laughton in "Mutiny on the Bounty."|
Apart from loathing Captain Bligh, the film’s story is thoroughly engaging because at the heart of it all is the enduring question of whether it is acceptable to defy lawful authority. In “Mutiny on the Bounty,” I think the case is made in the affirmative, as Captain Bligh is so over-the-top in his abuse of powers that it crosses the line of what is legal. Adding to this sense of affirmation is the trial of several of the mutineers, an event which the film implies led to revised attitudes among the leadership of the Royal British Navy regarding the way crews should be governed. In effect, if it were not for the mutiny on the Bounty defying lawful authority, reforms might not have been called for as quickly as they were.
On an unrelated note, during the opening credits of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” I noticed that the film was edited by a woman named Margaret Booth. This caught my attention because I suspect that not many women were given the opportunity to cut together a major Hollywood film in the 1930s. Given the time period, it would seem like the field of film editing would have largely been dominated by men. A quick Google search reveals that Booth had started out working for D.W. Griffith before moving to MGM, where she ultimately established a career that spanned nine decades. Curiously, her only nomination sprung from her superb efforts in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Thankfully, she was later awarded an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement. However, nothing I read delved into whether she faced any gender discrimination early on in her career, which would be interesting to research. I wonder if she is sort of the Amelia Earhart of the film editing world. Somewhere in there is a good documentary.
To wrap up, anyone who loves movies should take the worthwhile voyage on“Mutiny on the Bounty” at least once. It truly is a great cinematic ride for the ages. And if anyone tries and tells you differently, then I suggest raising a mutiny of your own in protest to such irresponsible criticisms.
Favorite Line: In a conversation with Fletcher Christian and other high ranking members of the Bounty, Captain Bligh sarcastically replies to one of his colleagues, “You would have made an excellent historian. You have a profound contempt for facts.”