If was to sum up Mutiny on the Bounty it would be ‘immensely satisfying’. The actual build up to the mutiny itself is just so immense. Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist with no reverence for his crew, even more so due to his prejudice against convicts. I can’t stress just how much I love this performance. Shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Chriiiiiistian!”). For me, this is the ultimate love to hate character that when he finally gets his comeuppance after subjecting his crew to overworking, lashings and other mistreatments, it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate this character with a passion. On a personal level, I can see many of my old school teachers in Bligh. Ok, they weren’t that sadist but his harsh nature gives me déjà vu of my school days. Bligh is shown however to have a human side though. He does have a friendship with the King of Thatti, the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh. Their interactions are the only time in the film Bligh is shown to have a softer side. There’s just something about angry ship captains which make for such memorable characters (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts).
Of course, there is also The King himself: Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – A figure you would be glad to have as a captain, stern but fair and a man you would happily salute and shout “yes sir!” at. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hand of Captain Bligh. Like Laughton, the hairs on my back rise at any of his outbursts throughout the film (“I call ship’s company to bare witness, you killed him!”). Supposedly the two intensely disliked each other possibly due in part to Gable winning the Oscar for Best Actor the year before for It Happened One Night over Laughton’s performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This makes the seething hatred between the two characters feels more real making Mutiny on the Bounty a movie of two powerhouse performances. This was Gable’s first role in a period film and he fits well into the historical period. Likewise, I’ve never thought much or Franchot Tone as an actor but he’s very good as Rodger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh.
Then there are the scenes on the Island Tahiti. These were filmed on location and are as romantic as it gets. Tahati seems like a world too good to be true; a tropical drug shop of feast, song, and sleep. A seemingly carefree society in which the inhabitants don’t even know about the concept of money. It’s such a release after the tyranny experienced on board The Bounty, well until we have to return to the ship that is – no wonder a mutiny takes place. Even with the production code in effect, the scenes on the island are still very exotic and it’s defiantly implied Christian and native girl played by Mamo Clark had sex. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want? Although I do have to ask; were there really natives who had relations this good with the British Empire?
The life-size recreation of The Bounty pushes the boundaries of set design at the time. From a visual standpoint, the movie excels in the realism department. Likewise, the rousing musical score unleashes the imagination of your inner schoolboy. Oh, and did I mention James Cagney is in this film; yep he’s in there for a brief second. Just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any better.
In defense of the film for being historically inaccurate; this is a movie, a work of fiction, not a documentary (although I highly recommend 1984’s The Bounty, which tells the story with Bligh being the hero and Christian as the villain). Besides, how can we ever truly be sure what happened aboard that ship 200 years ago? Regardless of what really happened, I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.