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Warner Home Video has a surprise restoration for us this Fall, thanks to the major vault discovery of the original camera negative for 1935's Best Picture Oscar winner, Mutiny on the Bounty. Warners' previous DVD used the best film element available at the time. It suffered from a few of the flaws that plague popular releases from the 1930s, when specialized film stocks simply didn't exist to properly archive a movie: once all the first-generation dupe masters were worn out, one was left with dupes of dupes. What this means is that today's Blu-ray viewers can see one of the studio's most prestigious films in quality that rivals original release prints.
MGM's silent epic Ben-Hur may have been mounted on a grander scale, but Mutiny on the Bounty is a lavish achievement in its own right. An entire ship was constructed for the show and the long shooting schedule included a lot of time spent on the high sea. The film's intelligent script mixes humor and drama and handles the tale's pro-empire politics reasonably well. Charles Laughton is superb as the contemptible villain Captain Bligh, while Clark Gable cements his serious acting reputation. He'd hit a home run just the year before in Frank Capra's romantic comedy It Happened One Night. After this critical and box office smash, Metro must have felt it could do no wrong.
The story comes straight from James Norman Hall's novel. Lt. Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) press-gangs a crew from the pubs of Portsmouth and takes his position under Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton). Bligh's ship the Bounty is 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 his duty to the navy changes radically. When the ship reaches Tahiti, further complications spur the charismatic Christian to lead a mutiny against the tyrannical Bligh.
Frank Lloyd's 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty is still the most popular film version, with the later Brando-Howard and Gibson-Hopkins remakes running a distant second and third. The newer pictures should have an edge on realism with their extensive location shooting, but the Gable & Laughton pairing still wields the most powerful dramatic charge.
Old Hollywood scripts always presented England's "colorful" colonial and military history in a positive light. Both this seagoing staple and various versions of Down to the Sea in Ships soft-pedal 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, and Mutiny's sympathetic mutineers and outlaw hero were a difficult subject to de-fang for general audiences. But MGM should be credited for making Bligh into a complicated and realistic villain. Bligh claims to be enforcing discipline and authority, but is an obvious sadist and cheat. He punishes his men for complaining about poor rations, foodstuffs that he himself has robbed to fatten his retirement. Laughton allows the captain few redeeming qualities. According to naval history, Bligh's navigation of a lone longboat to safety across hundreds of miles of ocean earned him wide respect for his seamanship under impossible conditions.
Gable is equally excellent as the dashing renegade Fletcher Christian. When he revolts against intolerable injustice, Christian turns his back on England and his own identity. For his trouble he suffers a sorry fate, hiding with his mutinous crew as an outcast on the 'lost' island of Pitcairn. MGM's version is sympathetic to Christian but still pegs his actions as tragically wrong, and perhaps motivated by a selfish desire to return to the paradise of Tahiti and the arms of his Polynesian lover.
A text disclaimer at the beginning of the show hastens to inform us that conditions in the English navy changed, and the trial in 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. Perhaps the next boat out successfully imported breadfruit trees to the West Indies. The colonial masters fed their slaves for next to nothing, thus adding a few pence to the British GNP. Let's all celebrate!
The DVD contains a short subject 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 their extinction was hastened by sinful 'inbreeding'.
New research confirms what should have been 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 over a debt. Confined and isolated on Pitcairn, the mutineers fought and murdered each other, greatly reducing their number in just a few years. The film's entertaining & likeable crew glosses over the historical fact that many involuntary seamen were ignorant thieves and scoundrels, hardly a group to found an island Utopia. The film version takes great pains to apologize for the British Navy. Bligh is isolated as a bad apple. The navy had its problems, but none that justified revolt or mutiny. Give the press-ganged sailors the right of grievance? That sounds like pro-labor "agitation".
Taken as a seagoing adventure, Mutiny on the Bounty has few peers, among them Billy Budd (which also deals with harsh discipline in the Brit Navy) and the relatively recent Master and Commander. Captain 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 Music-Hall schtick for several Tarzan movies. A robust Donald Crisp is a stalwart seaman here, several years before he started portraying older men in John Ford movies like 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 a film unit really went to Tahiti. The film stock has the older, early-30s quality but the opticals and rear-projection are expertly done. As can be expected, the native extras range from Latins to ordinary Anglos and the leading ladies wear glamour makeup. Other details seem authentic - a Tahitian song sounds very much like the Polynesian (Melanesian?) choirs heard in The Thin Red Line.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Mutiny on the Bounty will delight fans of the famous show, of the stars Laughton and Gable, and people who just like movies about sailing ships (they're out there). The new B&W transfer looks phenomenal, showing cinematographer Arthur Edeson's fine work at its best. Getting decent scenes while filming on a ship at sea was never easy, and with the bulky cameras of 1935 the working days must have been long and slow.
The shortcomings of earlier prints and transfers have simply disappeared, including scratches, digs, uncertain splices and mis-registered shots that we've been looking at for ... many years. The only real flaw I noticed was a certain angle in a sequence on Tahiti ... in three or so brief cuts the grain goes up radically. Perhaps that particular angle was on film stock that deteriorated, or perhaps the shot was dark to begin with and difficult to match with the scenes around it.
Warners needs to be congratulated for their marvelous find, a 75 year-old original negative that suddenly decided to appear out of nowhere. I feel like getting up a list of lost films and films in miserable shape, to send to WB with instructions to please round up perfect archive elements, and make it snappy. We're never satisfied.
The audio is equally clear, encouraging the technically minded to imagine the expertise and experience necessary to coax good mixes from equipment of this era -- recording all audio onto film and mixing the tracks together while minimizing hiss. Yet the overdubbed and looped lines -- I'm assuming there must be many -- always blend in.
In addition to the short subject about Pitcairn, the disc contains a newsreel about the film's awards, and trailers for this version and the '62 MGM remake, the one with the overpowering music score. I believe the 1962 version was released in a road show cut on HD-DVD, but no Blu-ray of it has yet surfaced. The disc has subs in English, French and Spanish, and alternate mono audio tracks in French and two kinds of Spanish.
For their special Blu-ray Warners has placed the disc in a book package with a 32-page souvenir booklet illustrated in tinted color and B&W. One still of "Polynesian" princesses Movita Castañeda and Mamo Clark points out an amazing bit of Puritan nonsense dictated by the Production Code -- their navels have been covered with makeup!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.