WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: The crew of The Bounty are tested beyond their patience by the arbitrary and disproportionate cruelty of Captain Bligh during their mission to pick up breadfruit trees and take them to Jamaica. First Mate Fletcher Christian, seeing his men suffer past endurance, eventually takes action and seizes the ship; but his decision to set Bligh loose will have repercussions for them all.
Although MGM’s handsome portrayal of the famous and notorious story of the British ship The Bounty gives the game away in a lengthy foreword, the tale is so well known that all it does it prepare us (even more than we are already disposed) to cheer on the ‘hero‘, Fletcher Christian. As Mutiny on the Bounty begins, Christian (Clark Gable) is in Portsmouth, cheerfully but muscularly pressing sailors into service on the ship for a two-year voyage to take breadfruit trees from the South Seas and transport them to Jamaica in order to cheaply feed slaves. Some of the jacks (like Eddie Quillan’s Ellison) are reluctant to go because they have loved ones at home, whilst others blanch at the name of the ship’s commander – William Bligh (Charles Laughton). Young Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) is not in the least bit reluctant, as he is on a quest to write a Tahitian dictionary; but as the ship sets sail, Bligh’s zeal to display authority is demonstrated when he insists that punishment is carried out in full on a sailor who is already dead.
Throughout the journey to Tahiti Bligh’s contempt for the men who serve him is contrasted with Christian’s more encouraging style, and matters are made no better when Byam himself is singled out for punishment, Fletcher’s decision to rescue him in high seas setting him and Bligh on a collision course. Tensions are raised further when Bligh is suspected of taking provisions off the ship for himself, then accusing others of theft; but just as Christian’s patience is about to snap, they strike land, where all are welcomed by King Hiti-hiti (William Bambridge) and his extremely friendly natives. Byam strikes up a relationship with Tehani (Movita), whilst Fletcher – once he wangles his way ashore – becomes smitten with Maimiti (Mamo Clark). Given a taste of the islanders’ unfettered lives, the sailors are naturally reluctant to re-join the ship, and Bligh’s insistence that the men are deprived of water so that the breadfruit plants survive is the last straw. Christian takes control of the ship, putting the captain and others faithful to him on a launch. Miraculously, most of them survive and Bligh swears revenge, not only on the man responsible for mutiny but anyone who could be seen as taking part in it.
The most immediately impressive aspect of Mutiny on the Bounty is the scale of the enterprise. It is patronising to consider filmmakers of the 1930s as primitive, but considering that talking pictures were not yet a decade old, the achievement of bringing life on the ship to the screen – plus a wealth of outside locations to represent Tahiti – is considerable. Occasionally the film’s ambition stretches the technology to its limits, with some of the rear-projection work quite obvious and a few shots of Byam up the mast asking too much of the celluloid; but by and large, the film convinces in Portsmouth, the middle of the ocean and on the island paradise of Tahiti. The no-expense-spared filming deserves a plot to match, and the film pulls off a neat trick of highlighting characters other than Bligh and Christian without lessening our appreciation of them, Quillan’s Ellison in particular proving a sympathetic mutineer. The concentration on Byam in the film’s courtroom climax is a decision that can be debated, especially as history has been mangled to have Bligh present; but Byam’s moving speech promoting dignity at sea justifies it and his ultimate fate provides a satisfying and relieving closure. The film certainly has more drive than later efforts at telling the story, as it chooses not to linger too long in Tahiti and has an exciting chase element when Bligh – incredibly – appears on the Pandora in single-minded pursuit of his nemesis. That said, a little more explanation of the journey might not have gone amiss, The Bounty’s thwarted attempts to round Cape Horn represented only by a series of squiggles on a map.
Uniquely, Mutiny on the Bounty’s three leads were all nominated for Best Actor at the 1935 Oscars (they all lost) and each are excellent in different ways. Franchot Tone treads his difficult middle ground with skill, his humanism naturally allying itself with Gable’s Christian, the passionate yet personable First Mate who ostensibly carries the film. However, Gable’s strong performance would have been significantly diminished had he not played opposite Laughton, who is brilliant as the self-made Captain. Laughton’s Bligh is haughty, hypocritical, and eyes both sailors and officers with utter contempt, making it completely believable that he would give water to his cargo before his men. Even so, he is an impressive seaman throughout and Bligh’s nobility in the launch ensures that he is far from a one-dimensional villain. Elsewhere, although many of the sailors are limited to being flogged and giving Bligh murderous looks, they also have jokes and moments of comic relief (the doctor is also quite a comic part) which break up the harsh conditions and violence on the ship, something Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty of 1984 sorely lacks.
Mutiny on The Bounty was a smash hit in 1935 and unlike many of its contemporaries still looks good and raises the pulse today. True to the facts it may not be, but it proves a point that filmmakers ignore at their peril: if you give your characters compelling motivation and exciting things to do, the audience will gladly come along for the journey, and may even (metaphorically speaking) do some of the rowing for you.