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"When you're back in England with the fleet again, you'll hear the hue and cry against me. From now on they'll spell mutiny with my name."
Facts of the Case
The end of the 18th Century is approaching, and the HMS Bounty is embarking upon its latest mission. Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind), Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone, Advise and Consent) and the rest of the crew are given the task of traveling to Tahiti to gather breadfruit plants. As the journey proceeds, Christian becomes increasingly concerned about Bligh's exceedingly stern leadership. Bligh's fear-based method of command is quickly breaking the spirit of the men aboard the Bounty, and he refuses to back down despite Christian's numerous impassioned pleadings. Eventually, Christian determines that mutiny has become a necessity.
Some of the specifics are still a little hazy, but the details of the real-life conflict that occurred between Fletcher Christian and William Bligh are considerably different from those presented in this film adaptation (not to mention the original novel). Bligh's behavior was much less severe than what the film presents, Bligh had no significant role in the capture of some of the mutineers, and Christian's would-be island paradise on Pitcairn eventually turned into a nightmarish place of rape and murder. There's a genuinely terrifying examination of human nature lurking within the real events, but the 1935 film version of Mutiny on the Bounty (and pretty much every other film adaptation, for that matter) is presented as a simpler, cleaner entertainment. It's hard to find much fault in that, as the film is a splendid Hollywood epic that remains engaging to this day.
This is a compelling story from any angle, and all of the film adaptations have at least some merit. The 1962 Technicolor remake offers a delightfully eccentric performance from Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian (the '60s equivalent of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow), while the 1984 version presents a surprisingly moving performance from Anthony Hopkins as a less-than-monstrous Captain Bligh. Still, I would make the case that the 1935 version is the strongest overall, a gripping adventure that boasts superb technical qualities and fine performances from the entire cast.
In an interesting move, the film gives roughly equal time to three different characters, all of whom have a different perspective on the events taking place aboard the Bounty. For a considerable portion of the running time, Fletcher Christian and Roger Byam are on precisely the same page: they feel Bligh is going too far and that the men deserve better. Even so, Christian is driven by a sense of honor while Byam is driven by a sense of duty. This leads Christian to come to the conclusion that mutiny is required, while Byam feels that orders must be followed under all circumstances until a protest can be filed through proper channels. These are both legitimate points of view, and the film offers its sympathy to both men even as they're being driven into fierce disagreement. The roles could have easily slipped into blandness, but Gable and Tone bring enough vigor to the table to prevent that from happening.
What Christian, Byam and the filmmakers all agree on is that Bligh is nothing short of a reprehensible human being. As written by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson, Bligh is a greedy, violent, corrupt individual who rules over the Bounty with an iron fist. It's not a fair portrait, but it's certainly a memorable one. Charles Laughton's performance is magnificently diabolical, as the actor dials the character's pomposity and general loathsomeness up to eleven. Vile as Bligh is, the film nonetheless grants the character a curious grace note: when the captain and his few loyal crew members are set to sea in a small rowboat, Bligh demonstrates surprisingly level-headed and selfless behavior in the name of harmony and survival. It's a sequence that brings some welcome nuance to a character that occasionally seems frighteningly one-dimensional; clarifying the idea that above all else (including human decency), Bligh is a great seaman.
At 132 minutes, the film manages to cover a great deal of territory without ever feeling bloated or rushed (an issue both remakes struggled with at times). The visit to Tahiti may be historically accurate, but it's dramatically problematic—it can easily deflate the building tension between Christian and Bligh. Fortunately, the film manages to make this sequence both a welcome respite from the intense sea voyage and an opportunity for Bligh to antagonize Christian's spirit in different ways. Likewise, the courtroom sequence at the end of the film is given enough time to build some dramatic weight, but not enough to feel like an overlong coda.
The full frame/1080p transfer is mostly excellent, offering pristine detail and a remarkably clean image. While there are a few extremely brief snippets that look pretty rough (one of the romantic scenes between Gable and his Tahitian lover in particular), most of the film has been very well-preserved. A handful of moments look quite soft, but that's entirely due to the manner in which the film was shot. There's a moderate level of grain present throughout and no evidence of noise reduction. The mono sound is a bit less remarkable, but its not bad considering the age of the track. There's a bit of hiss and crackling at times, and a few lines of dialogue sound a little muffled. However, the track is sturdy overall, and Herbert Stothart's robust orchestral score is impressively crisp.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A glance at the film's handsome "Blu-ray book" packaging would make one suspect they're in for a great special edition, but the supplemental package is incredibly disappointing. All you get are two brief vintage newsreel clips, 32 pages of photos and production info, a trailer for this film and for the 1962 remake. No commentary? No making-of documentary? Not even a new 20-minute featurette on the making of the film? It almost makes one feel mutinous.
Despite a depressing lack of quality supplements, Mutiny on the Bounty is a film well worth seeing. Boasting no less than three Oscar-nominated performances, it offers about as definitive a cinematic version of the story as we're ever likely to see. The handsome transfer is nothing to sneeze at, either. Climb aboard, mate!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Newsreel
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