Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
MGM's proudest spectacle of the 1930s can't top its extravagant silent epic Ben-Hur
but does represent an impressive scale, with an entire ship constructed for the
show and a long shooting schedule, some of it at sea. An intelligent script combines humor and
drama well and almost overcomes the tale's pro-empire politics. Laughton is superb as the contemptable
Bligh and Gable cements his serious acting reputation; he'd hit a home run in a comedy, It
Happened One Night the year before. After this critical and boxoffice success, Metro must have
felt it could do no wrong.
Lt. Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) press-gangs a crew from the bars of
Portsmouth and takes his position under Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton) of the Bounty,
bound for Tahiti to bring back breadfruit to feed the slaves of the West Indies. Bligh so mistreats
his crew that Christian's disposition toward the ship and the navy changes. When the ship reaches
Tahiti, further complications spur the charismatic Christian to lead a mutiny against the
Frank Lloyd's 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty is still the most popular, with the
Brando-Howard and Gibson-Hopkins versions running a distant second and third. The remakes should
have an edge on realism with their extensive location shooting, but the Gable-Laughton pairing
still carries the most powerful dramatic charge.
The old Hollywood always seemed to favor England, as both this seagoing staple and various versions of
Down to the Sea in Ships soft-peddle the story of the inhuman conditions for English seamen before
the reforms of the late 1700s. MGM in the 1930s had a strong anti-union bias, making
Mutiny on the Bounty a tough subject to tackle with its sympathetic mutineers and outlaw hero.
Bligh has to be a dastardly villain for the film to work - he claims to be enforcing discipline and authority, but is a sadist and a cheat,
punishing his men for missing foodstuffs that he himself has robbed to fatten his retirement. Laughton
doesn't soften the character and allows Bligh to have few redeeming qualities. According to naval
history, his navigation of a lone whaleboat to safety across hundreds of miles of ocean earned him
the respect of all for his seamanship under impossible conditions.
Gable is equally excellent as the dashing officer turned renegade Fletcher Christian. Christian turns
his back on England and revolts against intolerable injustice, and suffers
a sorry fate, hiding as an outcast with his mutinous crew on the 'lost' island of Pitcairn. MGM's
version is as sympathetic as it can be to Christian but still pegs his actions as tragically wrong,
and perhaps motivated by a selfish desire to return to the paradise of Tahiti. A text disclaimer
at the beginning of the show lets us know that conditions in the English navy changed, and
the later reels imply that this incident was directly responsible. The Brits make amends, pardoning Midshipman
Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) while snubbing Bligh socially. We're supposed to overlook the fact that the mercy
shown aristocrat Byam didn't extend to the rest of the 'loyals' of the Bounty, who were
hanged. Some petty reforms were instituted, so now all's well, the movie seem to say. Maybe the next boat
out successfully imported breadfruit trees to the West Indies, relieving the colonials of the bother of
feeding their slaves.
The DVD contains a short subject released at the time of the feature that celebrates Bligh's navigational
feat and shows what remains on Pitcairn today (well, in 1935). The great-great grandchildren of the
mutineers were old people by then, eking out a living on the island. Like many 'docus' of the time,
the short is filled with suspicious preaching and possibly phony reportage. The most offensive idea
in its agenda is that the mutineers lived under a curse and that sinful-sounding
'inbreeding' resulted in extinction for most of them.
Modern research (lately in a new book on the subject) confirms what should be obvious - Bligh's
pilferage of provisions and abuse of ordinary seamen was the norm in the Navy, and the main conflict
between Bligh and Christian may have been about a debt. Confined and isolated on Pitcairn, the mutineers
fought and murdered each other, greatly reducing their number in just a few years.
Taken as a seagoing adventure, Mutiny on the Bounty has few peers, among them Billy Budd
and this year's excellent Master and Commander. Bligh's punishments and tortures retain their
impact; he has a dead man flogged and murders another with a keel-hauling. The Polynesian beauties
wooed by Gable and Franchot Tone are lovely, and some shots flirt with nudity. The high-spirited
Tone is good company for the brooding Gable. MGM imported British comic Herbert Mundin to
be the ship steward; he continued doing similar schtick in several Tarzan movies. A robust Donald
Crisp is a stalwart seaman here, several years before he started portraying older men in John Ford
How Green Was My Valley and
The Long Gray Line.
MGM threw all of its resources into the depiction of the sea voyage. Some harbor and deck scenes
were filmed on Catalina and at sea. The film stock has the older, early-30s quality but the opticals
and rear-projection are expertly done. As can be expected, the natives range from Latins to ordinary
Anglos and the leading ladies wear glamour makeup, but other details seem authentic - a Tahitian
song sounds very much like the Polynesian (Melanesian?) choirs heard in
The Thin Red Line.
Warners' DVD of Mutiny on the Bounty is one of a pack of best-picture Oscar winners coming out
simultaneously. The quality of the picture is high, but it's not going to impress as much as some
other Warner releases lately. Bounty was an enormously popular film and reprintings and reissues
doubtlessly wore out most of the good printing elements. The MGM vault system took comparatively good
care of the materials, but duping stock in the 30s weren't all that good. The result is that the
the film is clean and intact, but not as sharp as we'd like. It also has a lot of grain, depending
on the scene. Most of it looks film based, perhaps aggravated a bit by the encoding. Please don't
get me wrong, the film plays extremely well, but you won't be overly impressed by the visual texture of
the B&W image ... it's no Sunset Blvd.
In addition to the short subject about Pitcairn, there's an awards newsreel and two trailers, an
original for this version and a loud, music-driven endless one for the '62 remake that was one of
the low points of Marlon Brando's career. The disc has subs in English, French and Spanish, and an
alternate French track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mutiny on the Bounty rates:
Video: Good -
Supplements: Pitcairn Island Today (1935 short subject), newsreel, trailers
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 19, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson