Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ship Happens

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Few other cinematic experiences are as immensely satisfying as MGM’s 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty. Loosely based on the mutiny on board the HMS Bounty in the South Pacific on April 28th, 1789 (although at the end of the day how can any of us really know what happened on board that vessel over 200 years ago), the actual build-up to the seizing of the ship is just gloriously immense.

Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist, and a tyrant with no reverence for his convicts and low lives in his crew. With his arrogant stance, a face like a dead fish and his bushy eyebrows, it’s hard to stress just how much I love this performance; shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Miiiister 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 (which even go as far as leading to the death of some shipmen), it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate the Napoleon-complexed bully 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. There’s just something about angry, tyrannical ship captains which make for such memorable storytelling trope (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts, Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf).

Laughton’s performance as Bligh is not merely a caricature, however. Bligh is shown to have a human side which is expressively shown with the friendship he shares with the King of Thatti, Hitihiti (Bill Bambridge) – the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh with his crew and take a more liberal attitude. We don’t know why Bligh is the way is he, but it’s clear he’s very selective with whom he shows his respect and loyalties too. Whenever Bligh is on the lifeboat away from the convicts and lower dregs of society following the mutiny and only surrounded by his most loyal officers, suddenly he’s a great morale booster and a competent captain.

Second billed after Laughton is The King of Hollywood 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!”. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hands 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 fighting for dominance of the screen. This was Gable’s first role in a historical film and he fits well into the period even with his apparel of knee breeches probably being the most effete thing he’s ever worn on screen and his lack of an English accent (but ultimately this never gets in the way). It’s just a shame Gable would never again do an adventure role in the vein of Mutiny on the Bounty.

The complexity of Fletcher Christian comes from whether the character can be classified as a hero or a coward for his enacting of a mutiny. Christian could have tried to keep the crew’s lives as bearable as possible until they returned to England. On the other hand Bligh, on top of being tyrannical and corrupt, is responsible for the death of crew members. Was Christian justified in his action? It’s a question which the movie has no clear answer for (”From now on, they’ll spell mutiny with my name. I regret that, but not the taking of the ship. Every time think of Bligh, well I’d do it again”). When the mutineers celebrate the taking of the ship, Christian doesn’t part take in their exuberance and has a look of confliction on his face. For the mutineers they had noting waiting for them back in England, Christian, on the other hand, is throwing away his navel career, became a criminal and betrayed the crown in the process.

This question of whether a mutiny can be justified is also notably examined in Herman’s Wouk’s novel and subsequent film adaptation The Caine Mutiny, and there are quite a few plot threads connecting these two films together. In Mutiny on the Bounty Midshipman Byam sees a tall ship and asks if it is the Bounty, only to be disappointed when he’s directed to a much smaller ship; likewise Ensign Keith in The Caine Mutiny spots a new vessel and asks if it is the Caine, only to be directed to a rusty old minesweeper. In Mutiny on the Bounty, Bligh obsesses over two wheels of missing cheese, in The Caine Mutiny, Captain Queeg turns his ship upside down over a quart of missing strawberries. On top of this, both Bligh and Queeg are highly untrusting of their crews, even going as far as to draw up conspiracy theories based on half-heard and innocent conversations. I have to ask if Herman Wouk took inspiration from Mutiny on the Bounty when writing his own novel.

Rounding out the crew of The Bounty is a fine cast of players. I’ve never thought much of Franchot Tone as an actor (or at the very least didn’t get many meaty roles) but he’s superb as Midshipman Roger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh with his final monologue being one of the movie’s many acting highlights. Other character actor highlights include the drunken Dudley Diggs, the easily frightened Herbert Mundin as well as Eddie Quillan and Donald Crisp, who have small but very memorable and striking parts.

The scenes on the island of Tahiti are a major contribution to the pure escapism in Mutiny on the Bounty. Filmed on location on the real-life island itself, this portion of the film is 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 onboard 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 (even with the women’s navels being covered up with makeup) and it’s defiantly implied that intercourse has taken place. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want?

Mutiny on the Bounty also pushes forth a positive representation of the much-vilified British Empire with its patriotic overtones and the portrayal of the Empire having exceedingly good relations with a Polynesian tribe. Even with the appearance of a tyrannical and corrupt ship captain and his associates, the film indicates Bligh is an exception to the British Navy rather than the norm. Likewise, the film states in the opening prologue that the mutiny brought about reform to Britain’s navy:

“But this mutiny, famous in history and legend, helped bring about a new discipline, based upon mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain’s sea power is maintained as security for all who pass upon the sea.”

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 especially considering the lack of back-projection shooting. Likewise, the rousing musical score by Herbert Stothart 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). I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination and the yearning for adventure. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all. The beginning of both the Flynn-de Havilland partnership and the Flynn-Curtiz partnership, establishing Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a movie composer and ushering in a new era of swashbucklers. Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken more risks like this more often or was this just a freakishly lucky gamble?

Warner Bros where the best studio of the 1930’s when it came to making thrillers and action pictures in this their answer of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. The combination of Michael Curtiz’s direction, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s pumping music scores, Errol Fylnn’s embodiment of a swashbuckling action hero and the dynamic he shared with Olivia de Havilland represents all the elements coming together at the right place and time to create something truly special. It’s no surprise that these elements would reunite many times over the next few years.

The scenes between Flynn and de Havilland are pure movie magic, when they’re together and alone it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own, it’s truly phenomenal. With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Flynn has ever been more attractive that he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never appeared this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. During production scenes had to be reshot as Fylnn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time; the man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for. The character of Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality, a free spirit who has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes. De Havilland, on the other hand, was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still alive. As of writing this review, there are only two years left until she reaches 100. I am counting down the days.

The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt authority and the seeming meaninglessness of war (“I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French”) giving the film that added intelligent edge but this doesn’t take away from the film’s aurora of just pure unmitigated fun.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.