Friday, September 4, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Mutiny on the Bounty"

"Mutiny on the Bounty" was nominated for eight Academy Awards for 1935, but won only one of them: Best Picture. It also boasted three actors nominated for the leading role Oscar from the same picture: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone.

The story of the Bounty is so famous and has taken so many forms, it's difficult now to say where truth ends and legend takes up the thread. The actual mutiny took place in 1789, and there were numerous contemporaneous accounts. Lord Byron wrote a poem about it in 1823. Sir John Barrow wrote an 1831 book that made the event famous. Jules Verne wrote his own book in 1879.

Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall wrote a novelization of the mutiny in 1932, and it's upon this source that the 1935 film was based. The novel introduces the fictional character of Roger Byam, loosely based on a real midshipman, who observes the growing tension between Captain William Bligh and Lieutenant Fletcher Christian.

There were several other film versions beyond this one. There was a 1916 silent version, and Errol Flynn made his screen debut playing Fletcher Christian in a 1933 Australian version titled "In the Wake of the Bounty." I haven't seen either of these.

The most famous version is the 1962 adaptation starring Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian. Then of course there was 1984's "The Bounty" with Mel Gibson as Fletcher, Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, with a great musical score by Vangelis. This latter film was based on yet another literary take on the mutiny, "Captain Bligh & Mr. Christian" by Richard Hough.

The 1935 and '62 versions of "Mutiny on the Bounty," and "The Bounty" are all very fine films with splendid actors in the leading roles. On balance, though, I'd have to say that Charles Laughton makes for the best Bligh. His captain seems to genuinely enjoy inflicting punishment on his men, and you can see notes of the man's self-loathing in the way Laughton cocks his head and glares from beneath woolly eyebrows.

I didn't think Gable, who always seemed to have a sardonic tweak to his characters, would make for a very good Fletcher Christian, but I was wrong. Appearing without his trademark mustache, Gable is daring yet serious as the dashing young lieutenant.

The contest of wills between Bligh and Christian occupies most of the film's screen time, although it seems to spend much more effort at depicting the events that took place after the mutiny than either the 1984 or 1962 films. The court martial of Byam, and the efforts of Christian and his mutineers to find a new island home must occupy at least 30 minutes after the actual mutiny has taken place.

Directed by Frank Lloyd, "Bounty" was made for a then-astonishing $2 million, with ships built from scratch for the production. It's a great-looking film.

Bligh has always been portrayed as one of the great villains of history, but modern accounts of the Bounty's voyage have been more favorable to him. He was cleared of any wrong-doing by the British Navy, and in fact eventually rose the rank of Vice Admiral.

It's interesting that Bligh is nearly always portrayed as a middle-aged man; in actuality he was only 34 at the time of the mutiny. Laughton was 36 when he played this role, but seems much saltier.

Ironically, the real Bligh faced another rebellion as the governor of New South Wales in 1808, better known as the Rum Rebellion. Whether or not Bligh was the monstrous captain these books and movies have made him out to be, clearly, somebody did not like him.

4 stars

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, Laughton may have looked older than his actual age back then, but still remains the actor who was closer to Bligh's age when he played teh part: the other look like Bligh's father, if not his grandpa.

    I personally rate it as my favourite version of the story... While otehr productions have been rated as more "historically accurate" they surely are far less gripping... And, as you say, the 1936 version never denied that it was based in a novel about the facts (instead of the *actual* facts).

    Many voices now claim Laughton's Bligh to give the bum rap on the captain, yet, unlike further versions (and, hum, yes I',m evidently partial to Laughton, heh), but his Bligh is portrayed both as a tyrant (in the bounty), but also as a hero (in the travel to Timor), and his character shows well Bligh's class resentment against Christian and other officers from the gentry (Bligh wasn't from a family of gentlemen and had to fight his way up by his own merits)