Thursday, December 27, 2012


Director Frank Lloyd’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” deservedly received the 1936 Best Picture Oscar as well as Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Directing, and Best Original Musical Score.  This entertaining 140-minute version of the vintage Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall novel, published in 1932, surpasses the costly remake that M-G-M launched with Marlon Brando in 1962 that clocked in at a grueling 178 minutes.  Indeed, everything about the 1935 “Mutiny on the Bounty” is superlative. Clark Gable reluctantly shaved off his characteristic mustache to play Fletcher Christian because British officers were prohibited from wearing upper lip facial hair.  Charles Laughton played the villainous Lieutenant William Bligh with immense relish, and Franchot Tone was cast as Midshipman Roger Byram on his first sea voyage.  Interestingly, these three thespians each received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor.  As good as Gable and Tone are as the protagonists, it is frog-faced Laughton with his imperious bearing that sticks in the memory long after the film has faded.  You’ll want to see Laughton swing from the yard arm for his performance because he is such a despicable villain.  Happily, Laughton radiates glimpses of humanity thanks to the skillful writing of scribes such as Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson.

His Majesty’s Ship Bounty disembarks from Portsmouth Harbor in 1787 and charts a course to Tahiti to gather breadfruit plants.  The plan was to grow breadfruit as an inexpensive food item to feed slaves in Jamaica.  As the action unfolds, Fletcher Christian and a press gang prowl the local taverns for seamen to shanghai for service. Meanwhile, young Roger Byram is itching to embark on his maiden voyage to Tahiti.  Byram has been assigned to compile a Tahitian dictionary.  Lieutenant Bligh has requested Fletcher Christian because he prefers to surround himself with gentlemen.  Bligh, it seems, is an admitted self-made man.  This marks their third voyage together, and Christian doesn’t like the captain.  The friction between these two eventually generates sparks that sets them at loggerheads.  In real-life, Gable abhorred Laughton because the latter was a notorious homosexual.  Some sources claim that M-G-M studio heads cast them opposite each other because they felt the homophobic Gable would give a stronger performance.  Laughton milks the insolent Bligh for everything he can.  Anyway, the question of stolen cheese and later purloined cocoanuts exacerbates their enmity for each other to the point that Christian is prepared to usurp Bligh as captain.  No sooner have they left Portsmouth than the energetic Byram gets into scuffle with a fellow midshipman and Bligh sends Byram aloft to weather a gale.

When they drop anchor in Tahiti, Bligh has had enough of Christian and openly goads the man.  Later, during the return voyage, Bligh cuts the water ration so that none of the breadfruit plants will perish.  Bligh already has too many plants on board and his decision to deprive his sailors of water backfires.  The inhumane treatment of prisoners aboard the Bounty is the last straw for Fletcher Christian and he leads a mutiny.  Roger Byram and another midshipman try to thwart Christian, but the mutineers overpower them.  Christian sets Bligh, several officers, and crew men in a launch.  Incredibly, Bligh manages to sail the open boat across 3-thousand miles or more of sea to a port.  Bligh returns to English and takes the Pandora back to search for Christian.  By now, Byram and Christian have resumed their friendship.  Meantime, Christian has married a native girl and they have a son.  When Bligh returns, the naïve Byram rushes out to meet the Pandora, and the vengeful Bligh puts him in chains.  Christian and the mutineers flee from Tahiti on the Bounty and eventually crash the ship on the reef of Pitcairn Island where they make a new life for themselves.  Bligh returns to English after he runs HMS Pandora on a reef.  Most of the mutineers are condemned to swing, including Ellison (Eddie Quillan of “The Grapes of Wrath”), who was kidnapped to serve as a sailor on the Bounty.  Through the intervention of a friend and a high-ranking Admiral, Byram wins a pardon and is allowed to continue as an officer in the British Navy.

Of course, Clark Gable was no Englishman, but he gives better performance than Marlon Brando’s hilariously awful performance as Fletcher Christian.  Laughton steals the show as the repugnant Bligh.  The only thing that the 1962 version has over this epic is its Technicolor cinematography and a replica of the actual Bounty.  Director Frank Lloyd depicts the challenging voyage that Bligh makes in an open boat.  This episode wasn’t emphasized in the Brando version.  Furthermore, Christian urges his men, against their wishes, to burn the Bounty once they have run it aground.  In the Brando version, Christian refuses to burn the vessel because he plans to return to England and confront the Admiralty with the facts of the matter.  Instead, Christian’s mutineers set the ship ablaze and Christian tries to save the ship.  In his efforts to preserve the Bounty, Christian is trapped below deck and burned so badly that he dies on the beach after his friends try to save him. Bottom line: watch this version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” rather than the 1962 version. Purists will want to watch the Mel Gibson & Anthony Hopkins rehash to see what actually happened.

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