A movie for every day of the year – a good one
The Mutiny on the Bounty, 1789
On this day in 1789, the year of revolution in France, some sailors on board the British ship HMS Bounty mutinied against their captain, William Bligh, and put him in a boat with 18 other members of his crew. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian, who had been promoted to sailing master by Bligh during the course of the ship’s ten-month journey from London to Tahiti. The ship’s mission was to take breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, to see if they could be grown there and used to feed the slaves. Collecting the breadfruit, cultivating and preparing them for the long and hazardous journey took longer than planned and Bligh and crew had been in Tahiti for five months when it came to time to leave. Some of the men had formed associations with Tahitian women – Fletcher Christian had married one – and didn’t want to leave. Contrary to what films repeatedly portray, though the outward journey had been difficult, Bligh hadn’t been particularly severe; it was on the island that he became strict, administering floggings and picking in particular on Fletcher Christian. The mutiny happened 23 days after the Bounty had set sail on the journey from Tahiti to the West Indies, bloodlessly and with little commotion, when Christian and 17 others (of a crew of 42) forced the captain and those who wished to remain loyal to him (or didn’t wish to be branded mutineers) into the ship’s 23 foot (7m) launch. Bligh and company then embarked on a 47-day journey with no charts to Timor, a remarkable piece of seamanship. The mutineers sailed first for Tubuai, then went back to Tahiti. There Fletcher Christian and his crew kidnapped some women and set sail for Pitcairn Island, whose precise location was wrong on British naval charts, thus making them invisible, and settled down. Bligh made it back to England, where he wrote a report on the mutiny, before picking up another commission to sail to Tahiti with the purpose of introducing breadfruit to the West Indies.
The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, dir: Frank Lloyd)
Anthony Hopkins is good in the 1984 version, The Bounty. But no one can hold a candle to Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh. Barking out lines such as “I’ll give you water, Mr Morrison – keel haul this man!” Laughton is the personification of the martinet in a version of events on HMS Bounty which doesn’t quite stand up to historical scrutiny. Still, history didn’t have Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian.
Gable always lived in fear of his manly image being compromised and balked at the idea of wearing a ponytail and breeches as Fletcher Christian. However the character of Christian is at the deep end of the red-blooded pool, so Gable clearly thought the authentic touches worth the gamble. And he was right – this is the film which, on the heels of It Happened One Night, confirmed him as a major star. And, apart perhaps from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s Laughton’s most famous role too.
Often not mentioned in despatches is Franchot Tone, who gets his moment in the spotlight towards then end, in courtroom scenes where Bligh attempts to get belated revenge on Christian. Until then it’s been a case of a hectoring captain (Laughton) subjecting a proud first mate (Gable) and a mollifying midshipman (Tone) to a daily regime of abuse on the high seas, until the Bounty weighs anchor in Tahiti, where things really kick off. In essence the film is about an unpleasant man attacking a hero, the drama coming from the audience trying to time the “enough’s enough” moment – we all know there’s going to be a mutiny, we just don’t’ know when.
This is beautifully handled by all concerned – all three leads were nominated for Best Actor Oscars – while director Frank Lloyd makes the film look like it cost a fortune, which it did, especially in the scenes set in Tahiti (which is exactly where the Tahiti scenes were filmed). This is the best of the bunch of Bounty films. In the 1962 version you actually feel for Trevor Howard’s Bligh having to put up with the lisping, mumbling of Marlon Brando’s Christian, which undermines the villain/hero dynamic. The 1984 fares better, though there Christian is played by Mel Gibson, who still has half a foot in the detached anomie of Mad Max and can’t muster the sinew-stiffening persona he displayed in Braveheart. Here, we have Gable, a manly leading man repulsed by homosexuality (to a suspicious degree?) acting against an openly gay man who was having sex with his masseur in the trailer when not on set. These two really didn’t get on. No, if you want Mutiny on the Bounty, this is the one to watch.
- All three leads nominated for Best Actor Oscars (it went to Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s The Informer)
- Shot largely on a real ship, it still looks impressive today
- Clark Gable on the way to becoming The King
- Look out for James Cagney as an uncredited extra
Mutiny on the Bounty – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014