Judge Dennis Prince has never sailed the high seas, freely admitting that deck shoes just don't wear well on him.
"…cruelty with purpose is not cruelty—it's efficiency!"
The historic tale of the Bounty and the events that culminated the most cited uprising in the annals of naval record have admittedly been reshaped somewhat to better suit a filmmaking endeavor. The original big studio film version, MGM's 1935 classic that featured Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, was responsible for capturing the Oscar for Best Picture in its day and likewise secured additional critical and public praise universally. But, as the 1960s approached and studios were mounting even more lavish and larger-than-life film spectacles, MGM determined to revisit the seafaring tale of an unrelenting captain, an unsuspecting crew, and an unlikely hero. It was regarded an uneven affair, both behind the scenes as well as on the big, big screen but has been nonetheless regarded as a significant achievement, now worthy of a two-disc DVD edition and this HD DVD-formatted release, both in November 2006.
Facts of the Case
It's December 23, 1787 and the British sailing vessel Bounty is departing Portsmouth en route to Tahiti to secure the tropical breadfruit plant. With expectations that the plant holds commercial appeal as a new food staple among Englanders, the Admiralty has commissioned first-time Captain William Bligh (Trevor Howard) to set sail with a full complement of crew and provisions. Assigned to serve as First Mate is foppish and nearly flamboyant Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando). Upon first boarding the Bounty, Christian and Bligh engage in a sort of verbal sparring, the First Mate never outright in his insubordination yet not in full allegiance to Bligh's likings.
Underway, the Captain quickly makes his temperance known, ordering two dozen lashes to ship's mate John Mills (Richard Harris) in response to his speaking out of turn. Insistent that he then exceed the Admiralty's expectations for delivery of the breadfruit plant, Bligh orders the crew to risk the battering seas around Cape Horn rather than spend the five months of sailing by way of the Cape of Hope. The risk is an ultimate failure and cost the life of one of the crew members. Callous to the loss of life under his command, Bligh orders a halving of food rations to the crew to make up for the lost month of the failed navigation of Cape Horn. Along the way, Christian also navigates the fine line between his loyalty to his commanding officer and his difficult-to-stifle compassion to the crew.
Finally arriving at Tahiti, the crew enjoys an extended stay (the breadfruit plant is in dormancy and cannot be successfully transplanted until it becomes active again) and all indulge in the social and sexual hospitality of the native people. Christian himself develops a relationship with the tribal King's daughter, Maimiti (Tarita), for to shun her would be seen as a rebuff of the King himself. But once the breadfruit has emerged from its dormancy, the ship is loaded with specimens and the Bounty sets sail for the drop-off destination of Jamaica. Bligh, however, is by no means placated and, upon learning that his overabundance of sample plants will require more fresh water than was originally accounted for, he orders severely reduce water rations for the crew. This becomes the final act of arrogance that Christian cannot withstand and pushes the previously aloof First Mate into stark defiance of the despicable Captain Bligh.
The story of this particular production of Mutiny on the Bounty has been well chronicled over the years, beginning with the period prior to its original theatrical release when reports ran rampant that the film was severely running over schedule and over budget. Star Marlon Brando was cited as the source of much of the trouble, insistent that his personal interpretations and posturing be accommodated by the rest of the film's cast and crew. The result was a script that was tooled and re-tooled by many writers (with Charles Lederer being the last man standing) and a director's chair that was unceremoniously abandoned by Carol Reed, quickly to be filled by Lewis Milestone.
The production was logged as an embattled journey similar to that of the Bounty attempting to sail the angry waters south of Cape Horn. Brando, then a top box office name and first to command a staggering $1 million fee, was said to be as preening and petulant as his Fletcher Christian. Reportedly unhappy with many aspects of the script, particularly its inability to portray the actor's pet theme of "man's humanity to man," he elected to single-handedly delay the production as an exhibition of his displeasure, all the while indulging himself in the delights of the Tahitian location. Of course, the Bounty itself was late to set sail from the outset—literally—given the fact that the full-sized and fully functioning replica ship, commissioned by the production at the cost of $750,000, was two months late to arrive.
When the film was finally completed, past schedule and millions of dollars beyond budget, it opened to the detest of the critics and moviegoers. With fond notions of the Gable-Laughton version still in mind, this re-imagining of the material was deemed overlong, over-inflated, and deceptively over-billed. Brando was mocked for his uneasy English accent, while the overall picture was bemoaned as difficult to endure, running for nearly three hours. The poor box office showing coupled with the immense expense to complete the picture, nearly sunk MGM and resulted in the end of second director Milestone's career. By all accounts, the film would forever show as a black mark on the grand studio's largely enviable achievements.
To look at Mutiny on the Bounty today, with the benefit of knowing much of the back-story just noted, the picture seems to work well in spite of—or perhaps thanks to—its production woes. To begin with, Marlon Brando's portrayal of Fletcher Christian seems to benefit from the purported contempt he exhibited toward the production itself, lending undeniable credibility to his irreverent quips and sly insubordinations to the deserving Bligh. His crooked grin and piercing glance serve to outwardly placate yet ultimately provoke to his superior's outrages. And although it's clear that Brando's attempted British dialect and often ill-worn period costumes were deal breakers to some viewers, in this context these elements, along with the actor's self-important mannerisms, serve to add further insult to the injurious Bligh.
As for Trevor Howard, the veteran actor skillfully exhibits combating qualities much like Brando. Upon first appearance, his Bligh sports an uncertain smile and seemingly sparkling eyes that could make Christian emerge as the impetus to the ravings of an otherwise demure sea commander. Of course, any sense of altruism immediately evaporates as Bligh sentences seaman Mills to 24 lashes. With an offsetting style equal to Brando's, Howard imbues Captain Bligh with a wicked smile and a sinister glare that delivers determination with every brutal proclamation.
Attempting to tread water amid the overpowering personalities of Brando and Howard is then-newcomer Richard Harris. As seaman Mills, Harris serves as the voice of the common man, the conscience of reason and rightness, and, ultimately, as the exploited victim. Harris manages the role well enough but never delivers any level of performance that goes beyond the plot device that his character serves.
Of course, it's somewhat easy to make these more forgiving observations of the effectiveness of the film and its actors forty some odd years after the fact. Besides the bad press that was generated at the time of the picture's production, Mutiny on the Bounty was likely also rocked by the sheer competition that challenged it upon release. Recall that 1962 was the same year that brought us To Kill a Mockingbird, The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. No, and Best Picture winner, Lawrence of Arabia. It was a good year for good Hollywood product, ultimately making it a difficult year for a remake of this sort. However, when viewed away from its then-competitors, the picture holds up quite well.
Oddly enough, this film has not been given a DVD release up until this point, now with a near day-and-date issuing of Standard Definition and HD formatted special editions, both containing the same offering of bonus features (and it should be noted the film was also included in the SD day-and-date release of the Marlon Brando Collection boxed set). This HD DVD edition begins with a reasonably impressive 2.76:1 widescreen transfer, providing the same aspect as theater-goers who were treated to the Ultra Panavision 70 exhibition. The image quality is near-excellent with clean presentation and rich colors, yet it lacks the level of detail that we've become accustomed to finding in the better HD releases. This isn't to say the image lacks clarity, since it does deliver detail that can't be found in an SD rendition, but it seems to be devoid of details in the darker elements, with weak shadow definition and disappointingly murky black levels. This is too bad, really, since the rectification of this shortcoming would truly make this disc "pop" with dimensionality it rightly deserves. Thankfully, the presentation is nonetheless complete with the pre-film Overture, Intermission, and Entr'acte cues. The audio track makes up for the transfer's visual deficiency by offering an impressively mixed Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track that never feels artificially engineered. Main dialogue is properly anchored in the center channel while directional dialogue and numerous sound effects are naturally dispersed among the sound stage. Thankfully, composer Bronislau Kaper's rousing score is excellently managed throughout, adding the requisite "epic" feel to the on-screen exploits. And, ready yourself for a good taxing of your low-end channel as it roars with every wave that crashes across the Bounty's bow.
As for extras, although these are the same that are found on the two-disc SD edition, they're not as impressive as we would expect. Sorely missing is any sort of in-depth audio commentary (no, we wouldn't expect Brando to participate, but it might be interesting to have a renown film critic or scholar to lend some insight) or behind-the-scenes production documentary. We do get, however, a variety of featurettes, all of which tend to focus attention on the replica Bounty ship, beginning with the 2006-produced After the Cameras Stopped Rolling: The Journey of the Bounty. This featurette delves into the actual construction of the Bounty and includes interviews with one of the original seamen who sailed the replica to the Tahiti location. Four vintage featurettes follow, all released upon completion of filming, including Story of the HMS Bounty, Voyage of the Bounty to St. Petersburg, Tour of the Bounty, and the 1964 New York World's Fair promo piece. Most enticing of the extras found here are the rarely seen feature Prologue and Epilogue sequences in which the character of the on-board botanist, William Brown (Richard Haydn), tells the tale of the bounty to a British commander who arrives to Pitcairn Island more than a decade after the fateful mutiny (and this gives better context for Brown's narration throughout the film proper). These sequences were excised from theatrical showings and were only seen on the premiere ABC-TV broadcast in 1967. The extras wrap up with the original theatrical trailer (non-anamorphic) as well as a handful of other Brando film attractions.
There's no doubt, this version of Mutiny on the Bounty might not be for all tastes and it's challenging to endure over the course of its three-hour running time. However, it's satisfyingly effective is shows itself to be a well-executed production despite its many in-production afflictions. Repeat viewings are actually more enjoyable than the initial journey, allowing us to closely witness the sparring that goes on between Christian and Bligh. And, because of its pedigree of 1960s-era epics, it should be considered requisite viewing for those who study film style and studio history.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Prologue and Epilogue sequences
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