Wednesday, November 10, 2010

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY(1935)


MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (DIR: FRANK LLOYD) (SCREENPLAY: TALBOT JENNINGS, JULES FURTHMAN AND CAREY WILSON, BASED ON THE NOVELS "THE BOUNTY TRILOGY" BY CHARLES NORDHOFF AND JAMES NORMAN HALL)

The name Frank Lloyd is one that rarely comes up when discussing great Hollywood directors of the 1930's, but he directed two films that won best picture in that decade: 1935's MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and 1933's CAVALCADE.  Although the films do have some things in common (they're both handsome looking period pieces with an English setting, appropriate enough for the Scottish born Lloyd), MUTINY is clearly better remembered and more revered than the earlier film.   It is also interesting to note that Clark Gable had a starring role in two best picture winners in a row, this film and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.   Amazingly, Gable starred in a whopping seven other films in the year between these two, a real good example of how much faster film production was at that time!  Reportedly, he had to be talked into taking the role of Fletcher Christian, at first thinking that he couldn't play an Englishman (his accent was, of course, wrong, but that was already nothing new for Hollywood, and he did shave off his mustache for historical accuracy), but he later said that it was his favorite role, and it's easy to see why: Fletcher Christian is perfect  for Gable's rough, manly, but charming persona and there's good amount of action and romance, both of which he had a flair for.
His antagonist in the film is, of course,  Captain Bligh, played memorably by Charles Laughton.  Rumor has it that producer Irving Thalberg hired Laughton because he was openly gay and Gable was homophobic; Thalberg thought their inevitable animosity off screen would make them more believable onscreen, and certainly their contempt for each other often feels palpable.

Gable and Laughton weren't just acting

With a budget just under two million dollars, this was Metro Goldwyn Mayer's most expensive film yet, and it features a cast of thousands, terrific looking ships, and beautiful location shooting in French Polynesia (a real rarity at a time when many films set in exotic locations used studio sets instead of actual locations).  As with CAVALCADE, Lloyd delivers a good looking film that is generally well acted.
Set in 1787 and based on the 1932 novelization of real events by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY begins with British seaman Fletcher Christian (Gable)using a press gang to round up recruits for a two year voyage on the Bounty, sailing to Tahiti to pick bread fruit.  Also on the journey is midshipman Roger Byam(Franchot Tone), who is from a royal family, and who will find himself torn between Christian and Bligh. The men are afraid when they hear they'll be sailing under Bligh(Laughton), and he immediately meets their expectations.  In a precursor of what's to come, he has a man flogged, even when he's already dead!  As the voyage begins, the movie starts to bog down a bit, with scene after scene of Bligh treating the crew horribly, which quickly start to become repetitive; since we know the mutiny is inevitable, Lloyd seems concerned that we really understand why it happened by making Bligh capital E Evil.  But that point was made almost right away, and further illustrations of his cruelty seem unnecessary.  By the time they finally reach Tahiti, I was as glad that they landed as they were.
The scenes on the island bring some welcome relief from Bligh's sadism, as Christian and Byam romance some native girls, and there's also a fine comic performance by Bill Bambridge as native chief Hitihiti, but soon its back to the ship, where Bligh's continued cruelty(he cuts the men's water rations in half so that they can carry more bread fruit plants) leads to the inevitable mutiny.  Given that the whole film is leading up to this moment, I wish this scene went on longer, and had more action.  Still,  Lloyd does use some exciting quick cuts of sudden violence well. It would appear here that Lloyd's fast editing is influenced by another film about a mutiny, Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 Russian silent classic, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, but unfortunately the short length of the mutiny here doesn't allow it to build to the powerful climax that POTEMKIN has.
After the mutiny, Christian nobly spares Bligh's life and allows him and his few loyal men to man a lifeboat.  Amazingly, they sail successfully back to England, and eventually Bligh returns for revenge.  He captures a few of the mutineers, but Christian and most of the men sail away.   For me, the film really should have ended here, but instead it drags on, giving us an unnecessary military trial in which Byam makes a dull speech about how, yes, captain Bligh is really evil.  Finally, the film ends with Christian, his men, and their native wives, settling on an island, realizing they can never return; it's a good ending, but it should have come sooner!
I have put off discussing Laughton's performance because it makes such an impression that I wanted to save it for last; although he won an Oscar for best actor in 1933 for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, it is for his captain Bligh that Laughton is best remembered.  Laughton plays the role full tilt, with a jutting lower lip, effete mannerisms, a stiff backed walk, and an absolute bellow of a voice.  While often entertaining, this is a one note, hammy performance; Bligh has not one ounce of humanity or sympathy in him.  While it is implied that his cruelty stems from the unjust system that ran the British navy at the time, he goes well beyond his officer's training: at one point he steals from the ship's cargo and blames it on one of the men!  Yes, this is an all around repulsive character, and I wish that the screenwriters had ignored historical accuracy and given him some kind of comeuppance at the end(walking the plank?), instead of having him return to England and continue his captaincy.  Interestingly, I find Laughton's best scenes come when Bligh is at his lowest point: after the mutiny, when he and a handful of loyal men are put on a life raft, and, with grim certainty, he sails them back to England.  Laughton practically burns with vengeance, and we have to admire his character's nautical skills here, even if he has brought the situation upon himself.


 Captain Bligh bellows at Christian one last time

The sheer volume and force of Laughton's performance underlines for me what I think is the film's main flaw: its lack of subtlety.  Here is a simple of tale of good and evil, with both sides represented in the most obvious way: the good represented by the young, physically attractive Gable and the bad by the flabby, older Laughton.  I think a much more interesting film could be made in which Bligh is more sympathetic and Christian less noble, which would make the film more about the conflict between duty and desire, and less of an obvious story with a hero and a villain.  In fact, such a film does exist: it may be seen as sacrilege to old movie fans for me to say this, but I think the 1984 film THE BOUNTY, does a better job with this story(it is also believed to more historically accurate).  There, Anthony Hopkins portrays a far more complex and believable Bligh than Laughton.  Sadly, that film was a flop, and the 1935 one remains as the best known version of this story.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

All in all, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY is an entertaining (if overlong and simplistic film), and with its big production values and stars, it's easy to see why the Academy gave it the award.  But it's not my favorite of that year; I prefer Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS, Sam Wood's Marx Brothers classic, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, and Mark Sandrich's Astaire Rogers vehicle TOP HAT.