Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro
Mutiny On The Bounty (1935). Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. 132 minutes. ****
Mutiny On The Bounty (1962). Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Charles Lederer, with uncredited script contributions by Eric Ambler, Borden Chase, William L. Driscoll, John Gay, Ben Hecht. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Marlon Brando,Trevor Howard and Richard Harris. 178 minutes. **
Other Known Versions: These are not adaptations of the Nordhoff/Hall trilogy of novels, but other dramatizations of the same historical events. The Mutiny Of the Bounty (1916; 55-minute silent); In the Wake Of the Bounty (1933; 66-minute documentary retelling with some staged scenes; starring a pre-stardom Errol Flynn (!) as Fletcher Christian); The Bounty (1984; 132-minute theatrical film starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian).
The known facts are these.
On 28 April, 1789, officers and crew members of the HMS Bounty, then returning from Tahiti with a cargo of breadfruit plants bound for Jamaica, rebelled against the ship’s Captain, William Bligh. The leader of the mutiny was his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian.
There were any number of factors contributing to this crime. First, the hard work, dangerous conditions and deprivations of the long voyage to Tahiti had been followed by five months of relative languor on the island, with its idyllic weather, plentiful and tasty food, and native hospitality that included plenty of sex with enthusiastic local women. After that kind of layover, you should only excuse the expression, Christian and crew then faced the prospect of many additional months of labor at sea, all so they could return to England’s weather, English cooking, and English sexual repression. One can imagine Christian and company holding their hands up palms upward like a set of scales and weighing the options.
More to the point was the behavior of Bligh, who never would have been given a coffee mug reading World’s Greatest Boss. By the time the breadfruit plants were ready for export, Bligh had taken a distinct dislike to Christian and was abusing him at every opportunity. Anything that went wrong, according to Bligh, was Christian’s fault. Nor did he spare the crew his wrath. Floggings became more and more frequent. Turn those hands into a set of scales again. On the one hand, you can stay in Tahiti with a doe-eyed lass eager for her sixth orgasm of the day; on the other, you can have months in a cramped and unpleasant space with a man likely to order the flesh to be lashed from your back. It isn’t rocket science.
Rather than kill Bligh outright, Christian set the Captain and 18 of his loyalists adrift on a longboat before returning to Tahiti, where the mutineers picked up their native lovers and several additional hands, before searching for some secluded island where they could bear to hide out for the rest of their lives. That was Pitcairn Island, where they eventually turned on one another in an orgy of killing that proved, if nothing else, that mutiny can be habit-forming. Also that British mutineers really have no idea how to get along with Tahitians they’ve talked into going with them, since the killings began when a couple of the women died and the Brits decided this meant that the Tahitians along needed to give up theirs. This is not the way to make friends on remote uncharted islands. By the time the colony was found, only one of the men was still alive, living with nine women and a gaggle of children. The descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian allies still live on Pitcairn today.
As for Bligh, he rose to the occasion with one of the all-time greatest feats of survival at sea, piloting the overcrowded and undersupplied longboat for 3618 nautical miles, until, 47 days of sheer indomitable will later, he landed at the port of Kupang, Timor, having lost only one man on the long journey. (Three more, weakened by thirst and starvation, died not long afterward…but he got them to port where they had a fighting chance, and that’s something.) Upon his return to Britain, a naval court acquitted him of all personal liability for losing control of his crew, and put him back to work, which may have been a bit of a mistake, as he went on to become a target of two more great historical mutinies during his lifetime. Some men just don’t know how to inspire loyalty.
It’s a fascinating story, rendered all the more dramatic by the disconnect, in almost all dramatic versions, between our understanding that mutiny’s a crime and our willingness to consider Christian a flawed hero and Bligh a martinet who brought it on himself. The major problem, dramatically, seems to be that its effectiveness decreases in direct proportion to the degree of fairness to Bligh. Portray Bligh as a corrupt and unreasonable tyrant who inflicts pain for its own sake and you put your audience on tenterhooks, awaiting that special moment when Christian’s finally had enough. Portray him as a relatively decent man by the standards of his time who resorts to the corporal punishment standard at the time when crew discipline is shot by the pleasures of the harbor – as 1984’s The Bounty does – and the tension ebbs accordingly. Up to the mutiny itself, it’s not a tale improved by intelligent nuance.
In fact, one of the reasons the 1935 Bounty still outshines all other versions is that it throws nuance out the window…until, returning to the strict facts of the story, it brings nuance back.
Casting To Type
It begins by casting Charles Laughton, one of the most unlikely major movie stars of all time, as Bligh. Laughton, a pudgy (eventually obese) little man with a bulbous lip, would be assured his permanent place in cinema history had he never played any parts other than his heartbreaking lead in Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939), but he was a prolific performer who played major roles all the way up to the 1960s, most famously as villains, since the combination of his face and his delivery, coupled with the right screenplay, virtually guaranteed the successful evocation of a character who could only be improved by a punch to the face. (He could also be likeable indeed, when the screenplay called for it.) Laughton’s Bligh is an out-and-out monster, not just stern, but unreasonable and corrupt and cruel. He is not interested in earning the loyalty of his men, or in fulfilling any obligations he might have to their welfare. When he orders a man flogged to the point of death, it is because he enjoys it, and when he browbeats Christian, it is because he hates the man (hates everybody, really) with every fiber of his being.
As if to complete the extermination of any possibility that we might harbor any sympathy for the martinet tormenting his crew until they set him adrift, the same film casts the manliest of manly men, Clark Gable, as Christian. He’s a hero from frame one, even when he’s scouring saloons for men to be pressed into service against their will. This Christian has charm, a no-nonsense bearing, and a deep moral outrage already simmering from prior encounters with Bligh. When this Christian tells us right off that his Bligh is a straight-up sadistic monster, and when he reacts to every fresh outrage on the trip out with the anger and contempt of a man being pushed to the breaking point, there is absolutely no doubt who we should be rooting for. By the time Christian spits, “He doesn’t punish men for discipline. He likes to see men crawl,” it’s not just resentment talking. In movie terms it could not be better structured. You don’t set up that kind of dynamic without also assuring the audience that it’s worth waiting for the moment of karmic retribution.
In the 1962 Bounty, Trevor Howard plays Bligh as just as cruel but far more restrained in his personal manner, and Marlon Brando plays Christian as an upper-class fop openly contemptuous of the mission who, for the longest time, delights in baiting his superior. Just look at this scene, their first meeting. In real life, Bligh and Christian already knew each other, and were not on bad terms. But look at how the no-nonsense Bligh is here invited to despise Christian at first sight.
Granted, it’s actually fun, in the second film, to see how many times Christian skirts insulting Bligh to his face, without going far enough to earn himself a punishment. For the longest time, starting with their spectacularly uncomfortable first meeting, his defiance of Bligh takes the form of infuriating politeness, best embodied by his comment, “I assure you, sir, that the execution of my duties is entirely unaffected by my private opinion of you.” Indeed, one of the funniest scenes in any version of the story takes place in this version, after the ship’s arrival at Tahiti, and after Bligh orders Christian back to the ship to prevent him from getting it on with the king’s beautiful daughter. It turns out that the king considers this an insult to his daughter, and threatens to call off the deal…a diplomatic crisis that obliges a supremely uncomfortable Bligh to order Christian back to the island to have sex. The scene that follows is a tiny masterpiece of comedic manners, as the repressed Bligh dances around the issue and the deeply amused Christian pretends at length to not get what he’s being asked to do. The scene ends with the perfect punch line, as Christian, pretending to be struck by this thought for the very first time, notes that it’s not like he’s being asked to fight for his country. It’s insolent, it’s open mockery, it’s entirely civil and it’s designed to leave Bligh alone in the room feeling like a palace eunuch. (And what really makes it hurt, from Bligh’s point of view, is that Christian knows what he’s doing, Bligh knows what Christian is doing, Christian knows that Bligh knows what he’s doing, and Bligh knows that Christian knows what he’s doing.)
That’s funny as all hell. It isn’t absolutely fatal to a dynamic that requires us to hate Bligh and follow Christian, but it does unbalance the story a little, away from the original’s perception of Christian as hero, and therefore farther away from the emotional catharsis that the original provides at the moment of Christian’s rebellion.
So that works.
But there are two serious problems with the 1962 film, each major enough to be fatal.
First Problem: Misguided and Unbalanced Story Economy
It’s startling, now, to remember just how much story the 1935 version tells in a little over two hours. It establishes the antagonism between Bligh and Christian. It shows us Bligh’s shipboard atrocities and gives us fine reason to hate him. It lands at Tahiti and provides us with various romances between the Bounty crew and their native lovers. It continues to ratchet up Bligh’s villainy throughout the interregnum on Tahiti. It dramatizes the departure from Tahiti, the events leading up to the mutiny, a detailed retelling of the mutiny itself, the final words between Christian and Bligh, an extended sequence detailing Bligh’s astounding and unexpected heroism in piloting the longboat to safety, Bligh’s personal return to Tahiti to arrest the mutineers, pursuit aboard the Pandora, the court-martial of the mutineers (and innocents) captured by Bligh, a couple of climactic courtroom speeches, and a wrap showing Christian and company living comfortably on Pitcairn. All of this, without ever once seeming to rush through the story, and still leaving time for vivid supporting characters, enjoyable dialogue, and visual sweep.
Let’s grant that much of what it includes is Hollywood hokum. Bligh never did take to the open waters in relentless pursuit of the Bounty mutineers, nor was there any thrilling high-seas pursuit. (The wreck of the Pandora, the vessel holding the captured members of the mutineers, is real, but Bligh was not aboard it and thus did not cause it with reckless seamanship.) In real life, the Bounty was never seen again, and its fate remained a mystery until Pitcairn was rediscovered by another British vessel many years afterward. But that’s still a lot to stuff, effortlessly, into a little more than two hours. Even by today’s attention-deficit standards, the story moves.
This is a major requirement when it comes to any telling of this particular tale, which by its very nature it bleeds tension at the midpoint, when the Bounty lands in Tahiti and Bligh’s unhappy crew gets to party with all those delightful native women. In both these two films and the unrelated 1984 The Bounty, the narrative effectively stops dead during this little vacation in paradise. The layover is integral to what happens afterward, but it needs to handled in a manner that never allows us to forget that this interval of peace is just an illusion, and that the central conflict continues to fester at the story’s core.
The 1962 film is effective enough until the Tahiti scenes and acceptable during them, but doesn’t quite manage to jump the hurdle. It never regains the lost momentum. (It doesn’t exactly help that some of what happens after the intermission is just plain stupid.) What’s worse, for a big-budget epic with musical overture, intermission, and entr’acte that clocks in three quarters of an hour longer than the Gable version, it otherwise gives us less. The mutiny itself is rendered a daytime event and truncated to the point where it sits on the screen like a dead lump. It pretty much amounts to Christian saying he’s had it, and taking Bligh prisoner almost without a fight. The pursuit consists of a white sail glimpsed on the horizon, that might be a navy ship on the Bounty’s tail, and might just be some entirely unrelated ship following an errand that has nothing to do with any hunt for mutineers. There is no highly dramatic trial, just a declaration by a board of inquiry and a personal rebuke of Bligh much milder than the one he gets in 1935. Nor do we get to see the fate of the mutineers who allow themselves to get captured. The aftermath is reduced to Christian’s suicidal shame at what he has done.
The most jaw-dropping of all the elements denied to us has been referenced before, the sudden appearance of nuance in the characterization of Bligh, as dramatized by his seamanship in piloting the longboat 3600 nautical miles to the nearest safe port.
In the 1935 film, we stick with him and watch with dropping jaws as this supercilious little son of a bitch who we’ve been given every reason to hate suddenly proves himself to be courageous, resourceful, and fully capable of inspiring men who would lose all hope without him there to provide an iron example. (There’s even a moment of kindness, breathtaking coming from him, where he gives special care to one of the men closest to death.) It’s bad news for Christian and company that he survives, but that doesn’t matter. By the time he does get his overcrowded little boat filled with dying men to port, the audience cannot help but admire his accomplishment.
The 1962 film cannot be bothered to show us any of this. It has Bligh on the longboat, declaring his intentions to a band of dispirited men who glumly obey his orders and start to row. It cuts back to the Bounty mutineers and several scenes later suddenly returns to a uniformed Bligh, painlessly back in civilization, and marching into a government building to hear the verdict on his actions. Seriously: what the hell? It’s like dramatizing the life of Abraham Lincoln and forgetting to mention the Civil War.
Second Problem: An Incredibly False, Stupid, and Dramatically Inert Ending
All three of the major films based on the Bounty incident, even the 1984 Mel Gibson film that is certainly the most historically accurate, distort the actual events for their own purposes.
The 1935 version ramps up Bligh’s villainy, adds a thrilling sea pursuit for additional derring-do, and ends with Christian and his fellow mutineers living happily on Pitcairn, eliminating all the nasty Lord Of The Flies stuff where they turned on one another later.
The 1962 version has Christian, who’s determined to return to England and face the consequences, fatally injured trying to put out the fire a fellow mutineer set to destroy the Bounty after their arrival at Pitcairn.
Forget that this is actually further from the truth than the 1935 version, since we know that burning the Bounty was Christian’s idea; in real life, he had too much common sense to ever want to go back to England. He burned the Bounty so it wouldn’t be spotted by any passing ships, in the hopes that Pitcairn would remain on the books as uninhabited. More to the point, it makes absolutely no sense as staged. This being a would-be blockbuster, the fire aboard the Bounty is presented as a major conflagration, with flames leaping multiple times the height of a man, even as Christian rows from shore to try to save it. Sorry. As seen, that ship was already toast, and Brando’s Christian should have known it. It also came equipped with cannons and therefore must have had gunpowder aboard…a factor that is totally ignored as Brando and his minions leap aboard to fight the fire.
Christian’s death is also a serious bummer at this point of the proceedings, but that didn’t have to be fatal to the film, as anybody with even passing interest in movies can quickly come up with a dozen whose heroes die tragically (but with a point) in the final scene. But it doesn’t work at all here. Christian’s death is stupid, and his death scene interminable. It is impossible to give a damn about the loss of a man we are supposed to have cared about, only relieved when he’s done emoting.
We cannot make this any clearer. Any scene starring one of the five greatest actors of the twentieth century, portraying the tragic death of the central figure in one of the most famous stories of all time, that nevertheless emerges as having about as much dramatic resonance as a detergent commercial, seriously needed to be rethought from the ground up.
The result was predictable. Brando had emerged from his great performances of the 1950s an iconic figure and one of the most universally-imitated performers of his era. Misfires like Mutiny (and being a pain in the ass to work with) contributed to a precipitous decline in his career that continued throughout the 1960s, and led to him being considered pretty much “over” by the end of the decade.
By the time the next decade began, he ultimately had to take a screen test, a virtual insult to a star of his caliber, in order to land the lead role in a little gangster movie called The Godfather.
All things being equal: 1935 version, one of the great Hollywood films. 1962 version, an interesting alternate take that turns to crap at about the halfway mark.
* * * * * * * * * *
And now, for the wife’s opinion…
Mutiny On The Bounty (1935). Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. 132 minutes. ****
Mutiny On The Bounty (1962). Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Charles Lederer, with uncredited script contributions by Eric Ambler, Borden Chase, William L. Driscoll, John Gay, Ben Hecht. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. 178 minutes. ** 1/2
Other Known Versions: These are not adaptations of the Nordhoff/Hall trilogy of novels, but other dramatizations of the same events. The Mutiny Of the Bounty (1916; 55-minute silent); In the Wake Of the Bounty (1933; 66-minute documentary retelling with some staged scenes; starring a pre-stardom Errol Flynn (!) as Fletcher Christian); The Bounty (1984; 132-minute theatrical film starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian).
Commentary by Judi Castro
I’ve just finished re-watching the 1935 and 1962 MOTB and can definitely see the differences in the tastes of one generation of viewers to the next.
1935- My parents are ages 5 and 1 respectively.
1962- My parents are married with one child age 3 and another (moi) on the way.
Why do I bring this up? Because again, my Dad introduced me to both these films and I think his take influenced me as much as anything else before I reviewed these films just this week. See, I can remember my dad talking about Clark Gable and how he was a man’s man, rough, tough and sure. And how the Brando character was just pretty, like the film. Hmmm….think on that. He-man vs nancy-boy. And Laughton’s Bligh was petty, vindictive and cruel, whereas Howard’s was just plain military cruel. Kinda Raamses vs Cheney.
Let me proceed to state my case.
Both films have homoerotic overtones, as many naval films have accidentally acquired. However, the earlier Gable version has his larger than life persona to help offset this. The scene where he and the midshipman lie down together on the beach and share bananas is lessened by their Tahitian “wives” joining them minutes later. The Gable Christian is never seen as anything but a good man in a cruel position. One willing to bend only so far, so to speak.
The Brando version of Fletcher Christian is beyond the pale. From his flouncy intro to the ongoing costume changes, we are shown a man who cares more about his appearance than his ship and crew. Early on, he is asked, “Why did you join the King’s navy?” His response could just as easily have been “It was the priesthood or the Navy and I went with the nicer outfits.” We hear about his pomaded hair and well cut suits more than once. Between that and Brando’s overly affected soft speech pattern, if he was trying to insinuate a homosexual bent for the character, I believe he went a bit further than expected.
Now, do I believe that either character portrayal was directed toward a sexually ambiguity? No. I feel in the earlier version this was not even looked at as a possibility, given the actor playing the role. In the latter, I believe the actor himself wielded the power to finagle the character in the direction he sought to portray. No ambiguity, just a bit of bravado on the part of an actor about to lose control.
Point Two: The taskmaster and the taker.
Charles Laughton was an actor who made me believe. In MOTB, I believed he was a petty criminal, soured on the aristocracy, who had gained a bit of power and wielded it with an overly iron fist. He had learned all the rules and regs and used them to keep both his peers and his betters down. He used the system as the slave owner used the whip. Nothing genteel here, just rough-hewn and so be it.
Trevor Howard, however, was too elegant to be the rough boy raised up from the ranks. He was much more the militaristic user we’ve read much about these days. He sought to gain prestige and profit and his crew be damned. The military, or in this case the East India company (Halliburton; oops) needed to feed their slaves cheaply, so the Bounty is set the task of obtaining breadfruit (oil, oops again). Howard, as Bligh, shows this to be the only important measure and so crew sicken and die under his harsh measures. The comparison to any ongoing military engagement is inevitable, so I better stop here, before I really get off course.
Both films are beautifully shot. And, the stories are well written, as long as you don’t have any historical comparison (or an Adam-Troy Castro historical narrative throughout). I must admit that I am partial to the Technicolor for the sheer splendor, but the opening shot did remind me of Dr. Doolittle. But, overall, the less obtrusive and more entertaining is the shorter earlier version. Superior acting and a more compact story with a few more details, just make me like it a bit more. Thanks Dad!