Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 27, 2004)
Through the end of 2003, only four of the Oscar Best Picture winners from the Thirties appeared on DVD. The folks at Warner Bros. put a big dent in the absentees on February 3, 2004, when they put out three of the missing titles.
One of these provides 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty. An adaptation of the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Bounty tells the tale of the eponymous ship. Set in late 1787, the story follows a journey from Britain to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit trees. The action focuses on the boat’s leader, Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), and his first mate, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable). We watch as Christian forces civilians to join the crew, and also observe as wealthy young Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) eagerly hops on the voyage to help develop a Tahitian dictionary, among other duties.
When Bligh appears on the scene, we quickly gather the nature of his character. Obsessed with discipline, he insists that a sailor undergo his punishment of two-dozen lashes although the man already died. Christian soon warns Bligh to treat the men more gently, as they’ll be stuck together for two years. The captain ignores this advice and insists that fear is the best way to get what he wants.
As the voyage progresses, Bligh continues to treat the crew harshly and without any mercy. This creates greater levels of antagonism from the men as well as more and more disdain from Christian. Push comes to shove when Fletcher refuses to sign a false inventory authored by Bligh. This almost leads to Christian’s court martial, but the ship arrives at Tahiti, which disrupts the conflict briefly.
Byam earns the favor of Chief Hitihiti (William Bambridge) and stays in his home. He meets and falls for lovely native girl Tehani (Movita). The men aspire to party but Bligh makes sure they work the vast majority of the time. Christian also becomes smitten by Hitihiti’s granddaughter Maimiti (Mamo).
After that brief escape from misery, the ship heads home. Unfortunately, matters don’t improve, as Bligh remains brutal as ever. The remainder of the movie follows the unpleasantness that leads to the titular uprising.
Bounty provides a moderately intriguing experience, but it doesn’t stand as one of the better Best Picture winners. Part of the problem stems from the slow build-up to the inevitable. Given the film’s title, we know that the crew will eventually revolt. Unfortunately, the movie takes forever to get to that point. It’s been a long time since I read the novel on which the movie was based, so I can’t recall how faithful this pacing is. However, it seems slow here and plods at times.
If the film used the time to richly develop the characters, it would be well spent. However, that doesn’t really occur. Some may argue that we need the slow pacing to get a feeling for how desperate the men became due to Bligh’s maltreatment. In a way, that’s correct, as we wouldn’t want to see them turn tables with only small provocation.
However, the film uses lots of time to build the arguments against Bligh. Eventually they simply seem redundant. We quickly get the idea that he treats his crew terribly, so the ad infinitum repetitions of this concept simply belabor the point. It doesn’t help that the other characters seem similarly one-dimensional. In particular, Christian and Byam come across as relentlessly noble and without flaws. That makes them cartoony heroes without much depth.
At least the actors handle the roles well. Laughton seems especially strong as Bligh. He takes on the part with a grim, scowling demeanor that don’t seem particularly true to life, but he makes Bligh entertainingly nasty. Laughton avoids any temptation to elicit sympathy for the character, which again leads him to feel somewhat artificial but seems like a laudable attempt to stay true to the film’s tone.
Bounty also presents a suitably epic feel. Clearly a lot of the movie was shot in the studio with the use of process shots, but we still get a good impression of the high seas. Even though I recognized the techniques used, they still managed to work nicely and created a tone of reality.
Mutiny on the Bounty presents a good story and it works acceptably well as a whole. The film picks up considerably during its third act, as the drama accelerates. Nonetheless, it remains a flawed flick that meanders too frequently and that pursues too many of the same points over and over.