May 19, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #86: Mutiny On The Bounty

Charles Laughton and Clark Gable clash over the proper way to treat sailors in this 1935 version of the infamous mutiny.

Mutiny on the Bounty has been made into a movie at least three times, with the character of Fletcher Christian played by the likes of Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson opposite Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins’ Captain Bligh, respectively.  Looking at the timing of the other versions, we may be overdue for another remake…

But this time around, we’re looking at the original film from 1935 with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable.

As with many of these older movies, even when I haven’t seen them before (and in the case of Mutiny, I have not seen any version before), I always feel like I’ve seen them before.  In the case of Mutiny, that comes from remembering when Bugs Bunny did a credible Charles Laughton impression and came out as Captain Bligh to cause more trouble for a pirate version of Yosemite Sam.

Ignore the whiskers and the ears, Sam.

But the story is based on history, albeit a somewhat loose retelling.  The cinematic versions of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh are very different from what came from the history books.  There’s good reason for that.  The real Christian was hardly a saint, and the real Bligh was nowhere near as cruel as he appears in the movie.  But really, that has to happen.  If audiences saw a historically accurate Christian enslaving the people of Tahiti rather than espouse some 20th century American values, or if Bligh didn’t keelhaul a sailor to death, then there wouldn’t be any sympathy for the purported heroes of this story, the mutineers.

Plus, a sense of old world vs. new seems to carry through with the casting to a certain extent.  Though set on an English naval vessel, many of the actors speak in distinctive American accents.  That includes Gable, unless his English accent is the same as his Southern one from Gone with the Wind.  Bligh for this movie represents the old way of doing things.  As an opening crawl explains, the mutiny on board the Bounty caused the English navy to examine its methods and change them for the better, creating a world where officers treated sailors with respect and dignity, thereby allowing England to dominate the seas.  As such, Bligh is a stickler for the rules and dispenses with punishments for each and every violation of those rules he witnesses.  As the punishments rarely fit the crimes, sailors grow to have good reason to grumble, even if there are suspicions that Bligh is not only a cruel martinet, but also corrupt.  On the other side is the ship’s second-in-command Fletcher Christian, a man who will enforce discipline, but also someone who believes in keeping punishments fair and understanding extenuating circumstances.  As if to iron out the old vs. new theme, Laughton the Englishman does have the accent of the Old World to the American Gable’s more egalitarian attitudes.

Bligh’s cruelty is borne out in many ways.  He’ll have a dead man flogged despite the fact the man is incapable of feeling the punishment.  He’ll refer to the sailors under his command as lesser creatures since many chose the sea as a means to escape a prison sentence or were caught up by press gangs.  The slightest lapse in discipline or respect towards his person will end with at least a flogging if not worse.

As for Christian, he does have another reason to mutiny:  love.  Gable was a handsome leading man, so of course he gets a romantic subplot.  Whether or not Christian rebels against his captain due to outrage or love may be difficult to say, but he does fall for a native woman on Tahiti, and the fact that he takes the captured Bounty right back to that island paradise where they don’t know what money is and have plenty to eat while lounging around in the sun all day, it’s clearly one of those islands that have no conflict or need for work that only exists in fiction.

The film ends for Bligh in a courtroom where, though he does see a legal punishment brought down on the handful of mutineers he managed to capture on a return trip, also acts as a rebuke in a manner that reminded me a little of A Few Good Men.  As Midshipman Byam questions his former companion, there may not be the sort of questioning that will lead to an accidental confession, but there is this sense that even as Byam (eventually pardoned by the crown because he, and he alone of the men brought back to England, has family connections to the powerful) is pushing to get Bligh to admit to something, even though Bligh never budges, Bligh’s way of doing things is ended forever all the same.

It’s a nice bit of historical fiction, and the movie even takes time to acknowledge Bligh’s seamanship getting the handful of loyalists from the Bounty back to land safely after being set adrift , but for a modern audience, maybe one of the more impressive feats is the setting.  Much of the movie was shot on location in various South Seas islands, the ships looks fantastic in many scenes, and all this in 1935?  They may have shot a lot of the movie on standard sets, but they went where the beaches were when they had to.

As a means of showing how old tradition can give way to better ways of doing things, Mutiny on the Bounty is great, but take the history involved with a grain of salt.

NEXT UP:  We should get some Marx Brothers in while we can.  Let’s skip back to 1933 for their musical political satire Duck Soup.