Mutiny! Maidens! South Sea Love!
It's Oscar time and, per tradition, Warner has issued several Best Picture winners on DVD for the first time. We'll be taking a ride aboard the H.M.S. Bounty in this 1935 Best Picture winner. Hold on tight, because it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Facts of the Case
The Mission (according to history)
An English ship, the H.M.S. Bounty, begins a two-year mission. The mission: to travel to Otahite (Tahiti) to obtain breadfruit plants. The breadfruit, a large oval fruit whose flesh has the consistency of bread, is determined to be the ideal (and cheapest) food to provide to slaves in the West Indies. After loading the breadfruit onto the ship, the next destination is the West Indies, where they will be planted.
The People (according to the film)
The captain of the Bounty is William Bligh (Charles Laughton). Known as a vicious taskmaster, Bligh doesn't flinch at giving two dozen lashes to any malcontent on board. The Bounty's first mate is Lt. Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), who despises Bligh but has somehow earned the captain's respect. Also serving Bligh is Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), a newcomer to the seas.
What Happened (in this account of the story, anyway)
Bligh makes life miserable for the crew of the Bounty. His harsh punishments and brute tactics earn disgust, not respect. Fletcher Christian objects to Bligh's harshness, but is careful not to incur Bligh's wrath. After the Bounty leaves Tahiti for the West Indies, an act is committed that will change history. Bligh orders the ship's doctor, a dying man, to stand on deck despite his illness. The doctor arrives and suddenly dies, which begins a chain reaction of anger leading to Christian leading a mutiny against Bligh. Roger Byam goes with Christian at first, but longs to return to England.
If there's one event in history that still provokes many unanswered questions, it's the mutiny on board the H.M.S. Bounty. Upon his return to England, Captain William Bligh published his journals, containing a full account—from the captain's perspective—of what happened before and after the rebellion. As expected, Bligh comes across as a stern but reasonable man in his own version. The novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, on which this film is based, paints Bligh as a total monster and Christian as a holy hero.
Who is telling the truth here? It's still hard to say for sure. Most film versions omit Bligh's court-martial, in which he was acquitted and granted a newfound respect. The 1962 film version starring Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian played around with key facts, giving Christian a far more noble death than his actual demise (he was eaten by cannibals in real life; in the film, he dies after being consumed by flames on board the abandoned Bounty). The 1984 Roger Donaldson production, which starred Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins as Christian and Bligh, respectively, is considered to be the most accurate account of the event. But even that version is not without some fudging of certain facts. Regardless of the truth, what cannot be denied is that the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty is a great film.
Wallace Beery was approached to play Bligh, but he turned down the role after discovering that his co-star would be Clark Gable. Berry and Gable did not care for one another after making a few MGM films together. Charles Laughton was approached and he accepted. MGM contract player Franchot Tone signed on to play the green Roger Byam. A stellar supporting cast, including Donald Crisp, Spring Byington, Eddie Quillan, and Ian Wolfe, was quickly put together. Production began in late 1934 under the supervision of director Frank Lloyd. The result: a masterpiece of epic proportions.
Mutiny on the Bounty is wholly satisfying. There is excitement, with the storm sequences and the actual mutiny. There is humor, during many of the scenes involving the crew cavorting with the native Tahitians. There is great drama, creating doubt and suspense in seemingly simple situations. It is a long film at 132 minutes, but the story does not feel slow or dull at any point. It is exactly the right length, delivered at the right pace.
Director Lloyd realized that by concentrating on creating a balance between action and character development, he would get the audience involved in equal measure. The three lead performances are all superb; so strong and assured that, for the only time in Oscar history, three men from the same picture were nominated for Best Actor. The votes were split among Gable, Laughton, and Tone, allowing Victor McLaglen to take the award for The Informer. Tone would likely have won if there had been a Best Supporting Actor category (the category was created the following year to prevent this kind of split from happening again). Gable is excellent, providing both charisma and strength in his portrayal of Christian. Watch the subtle way Gable delivers his performance, and you will see that it is a superior piece of work to the overblown, hammy Brando portrayal in the 1962 film version. Charles Laughton, however, is the standout of the three leads. He should have won the Oscar, and probably would have had the vote split not occurred. He plays Bligh as a monster, but avoids the clichés with which Hollywood usually portrays madmen. A gentleman in real life, Laughton fully becomes this hateful SOB with vigor and authority most actors lack.
Warner's presentation of this 1935 Best Picture Oscar winner is pretty good overall. I am more forgiving than most would be, I admit. Many scenes look fabulous, as new as the day of the premiere. A few look downright terrible, with heavy grain and evidence of the ravages of time, such as flickering and those pesky vertical lines in black or white—the affected scenes are the sequences that use stock footage to augment the newly filmed material. This transfer far outstrips the prints that surface on Turner Classic Movies and have been a staple of the various MGM/UA VHS releases. Some scratches and specks are evident, but these are a result of the "dry printing" technique I have discussed in the past.
Audio is your typical Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. It sounds terrific, especially since this is a film that was made almost seventy years ago. There are some problem areas, such as crackling sounds and some mild hiss, but those are common occurrences in early sound recording. These issues never become overwhelming, so don't worry too much. Should a stereo mix have been used? Not necessarily, since stereophonic sound in 1935 was nothing more than a dream. This track is proof that mono mixes can be every bit the equal of a great stereo mix.
Extras include some interesting historical material. A companion MGM two-reel documentary, Pitcairn Island Today, is in extremely rough shape, but it is an interesting comparison between film and reality. A 1936 vintage Hearst Tone Newsreel shows exclusive footage of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) presenting the Best Picture Oscar to MGM studio head Irving Thalberg. This is a must for those who get a kick out of awards programs. The film's original theatrical trailer, in full frame and in poor condition, rounds out the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's one thing that saddens me, it's that Warner hasn't given Mutiny on the Bounty the respect a Best Picture Oscar winner deserves. The ideal presentation would have been a two-disc Special Edition. The first disc would contain a full-scale restoration of the 1935 original. Disc Two would contain the 1962 Marlon Brando-Trevor Howard remake on a double-sided disc. Audio commentaries by film scholars are all the rage; why not find a writer with a particular passion for these films (someone like me, perhaps?) to record one?
I think the disc is worth purchasing for someone who adores this film and desperately wants it for his or her collection. The $19.99 retail price will not hurt anyone seriously in the wallet. It's a chance to own a bona fide masterpiece. Others will want to stick with a rental.
I'll dismiss the charges brought against this fine film and I'll dismiss the charges against Warner as well. They have done a good job bringing this masterpiece to DVD, and although a detailed restoration would have been nice, this effort is good enough for now.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage 1936 Newsreel
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