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It's a fact: some movies take on a new life decades after their original release. Despite a rocky filming history and a negative critical reception, the Ultra-Panavision 70 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty is a fine and exciting adventure film that makes an ideal entertainment in Blu-ray. Marlon Brando's interpretation of Fletcher Christian as a foppish aristocrat was heavily criticized in 1962, and compared unfavorably to Clark Gable's Oscar-nominated performance three decades before. This MGM remake of its own Best Picture winner ran wildly over budget, even after figuring in the expense of building a full-sized replica of the original Bounty from the keel up and maintaining a filming company for months in Tahiti. The original director Carol Reed was fired and replaced with the 65 year-old Lewis Milestone, whose previous film assignment had been to play babysitter to the Rat Pack in Ocean's Eleven. This version benefits from glorious scenery and a thoughtful script by Charles Lederer that examines the self-imposed exile faced by Fletcher Christian's mutineers.
Among the extras on Warners' DVD are the original opening and closing of the movie, cut before its Road Show run and only exhibited once -- pan-scanned -- on a network television showing. Warners new Blu-ray disc is a bargain -- it costs $6 less than the DVD version released several years ago.
The story's famous characters receive new and interesting interpretations. The preening and flamboyant Fletcher Christian (Brando) and the unyielding Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) do not see eye-to-eye on their voyage to Tahiti to pick up breadfruit trees to transplant to Jamaica. Christian's subtle disapproval only makes Bligh more cruel in his handling of the men, as when he has Seaman John Mills (Richard Harris) flogged to cover up his own petty theft. Eager to make good with his first command, Bligh is obsessed with getting to Tahiti He wastes weeks in a futile effort to take a short cut round the Cape Horn, a failure that he blames it on his crew. Tahiti turns out to be four months of paradise, as Royal Gardener William Brown (Richard Haydn) must wait for the right time to pot his breadfruit plants. The Tahitians encourage fraternization between the sailors and their willing women. Bligh tries to forbid Christian from taking part until the Tahitian Chief Hitihiti (Matahiarii Tama) insists -- his daughter Maimiti (Tarita) and Christian have fallen in love. On their way back to England, Christian watches as Bligh's continued abuses result in the deaths of two men. Bligh then withholds water from the crew so that the precious breadfruit plants can have more. When Bligh sadistically puts a third man's life in danger, Christian can take no more.
Mutiny on the Bounty came at a time when Hollywood was under scrutiny for being wasteful and inefficient; millions of dollars in delays made for good news copy when the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton Cleopatra was reportedly bankrupting its studio. Serious film critics also took offense when Carol Reed was fired soon into production, severely affecting the great director's career. Lewis Milestone's work is certainly adequate, and the movie's dramatic scenes are nothing to be ashamed of. The press made fun of Marlon Brando's fussy Fletcher Christian, adding the movie to a growing list of supposed "failures" like his ambitious One-Eyed Jacks. Even Mad Magazine got into the act in a cruel parody titled Mutiny on the Bouncy in which Brando and Trevor Howard have a spat over fashion. The thousand breadfruit trees were all dubbed "Arthur," in keeping with one of the magazine's in-jokes.
This Fletcher Christian is written as an historically-accurate aristocratic naval officer, to better contrast with Bligh's up-from-the-ranks martinet. Christian gives forth with the courtly manners, sly asides and preening attitude. When we see him sleeping in an amusing nightgown with a tasseled cap, we're not going to confuse him with Clark Gable. Perhaps audiences thought Marlon was having cynical fun with the role, which seems to be the case at several other moments. Fletcher makes Bligh squirm at the notion that he's being 'ordered' to make love to the Princess, and anticipates his shore leave by choosing that moment to peel a banana!
The ocean voyage includes an impressive storm scene for the failed attempt to navigate the Cape Horn, with excellent model work and convincing physical effects. The script handles the growing discontent among the crew by assigning rebel status to Richard Harris, well cast as a complaining sea-lawyer. Brando sulks and seethes at the injustices he witnesses but is always composed in his exchanges with the other officers. Trevor Howard's Bligh grows to hate Christian for his impudence real or imagined. But Fletcher's even-handed attitude is made clear when he upbraids a whining Midshipman, telling him that if he feels so badly, he should ask the ship's carpenter to make him a cross to drag around the deck. At one point Fletcher hands Bligh the ship's cat 'o nine tails with the remark, "Here is your flag." The screenplay gives the characters depth and bite.
Tahiti turns out to be a literal island of love, and the sailors run riot with the willing natives. Fletcher partakes as well, when Princess Maimiti (Tarita) makes it clear that she's attracted to him. This entire segment of the movie takes on a deeper resonance when one reflects on the fact that Brando fell in love with Tahiti and later made his home there on a private island. In many of the actor's later movies it really seems as if he's only present to have fun, and is barely interested in the work. Not here. 1
Modern revisionists have re-interpreted the story of The Bounty to place Captain Bligh in a more favorable light. Screenwriter Lederer repeats the 1935 version's idea that Fletcher Christian and his mutineers were the real losers, doomed forever to hide on the 'lost' island of Pitcairn. Ironically, Lederer posits Fletcher Christian as a good man precisely because he's an aristocratic elitist. Both Bligh and the lowly crewmen have been brutalized by the cruel naval system and are incapable of humanistic altruism. Only the enlightened Christian thinks beyond his own selfish needs. He ends up paying the stiffest penalty of all.
Curiously, the film's initial director Carol Reed had already covered the theme of Fletcher Christian's fate in his earlier Joseph Conrad adaptation, the superb Outcast of the Islands. In that film Trevor Howard starred as a seagoing adventurer who habitually betrays his benefactors and friends, and is slowly forced to retreat into exile in the savage wild. The 1952 movie starred Ralph Richardson, Robert Morley and Wendy Hiller and is seldom screened.
Despite the mostly unimaginative camera setups Mutiny on the Bounty looks great. Brando and Tarita are a sizzling couple. 1962 seems too early for the near-nudity in the sexy dance festival and it's fun to see all the veteran English actors (Hugh Griffith, Noel Purcell) having a ball gamboling with the native maidens. Some of them may have had some explaining to do to the wives later on.
The movie is so satisfying that it one must think to remember why it wasn't a runaway success in 1962. Adding to the possible reasons is the fact that the original version was still fresh in people's minds, unlike the original silent Ben-Hur from 1926 or so. Also, the downer ending didn't exactly leave the audience laughing.
Warners' dazzling Blu-ray of Mutiny on the Bounty finally catches up with an HD-DVD disc release of four or five years ago. As one would expect, the original 65mm materials produce a beautiful picture when transferred to HD, two hours of dreamy South Seas ambience to enjoy along with the drama and the pretty island women. Bronislau Kaper's thundering score sounds great in 5.1; and makes us want to review his filmography for other gems.
Most of the extras are about the expensive ship The Bounty built expressly for the film. Several vintage short subjects discuss its construction and a post-filming tour to promote the movie. A new featurette interviews the new owner and a number of shipbuilding experts and their adventure refitting the boat when it would barely stay afloat. It ended up being used in at least one more film outing, 1990's Treasure Island.
The most fascinating extras are the original Prologue and Epilogue that were long unseen in a widescreen format. They have not been amended to the movie because Mutiny on the Bounty was never publicly shown with them intact. This is a shame, as these bookends help to balance the film's tone and to soften its harsh ending. In the brief opening and closing, a British ship accidentally finds Pitcairn Island a number of years later. Its Captain Staines (Torin Thatcher) goes ashore and discovers that the old Royal botanist William Brown is still alive. Brown tells what happened to the mutineers and offers himself up for hanging, thus becoming the narrator for the bulk of the movie that was meant to follow.
The Prologue certainly would have helped the opening, because without it the official film starts with an ugly straight cut to a special effects optical in progress. That the shot wasn't re-composited or a fade added suggests that the filmic bookends were yanked out of the movie at the last minute. I watched for the appearance of unbilled Anna Lee but she didn't turn up, a clue that an additional scene in London might have been dropped as well. Could she have played Captain Bligh's wife, selling his stolen Navy stores on the black market?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.