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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Warner Bros. // Unrated // November 16, 2010 // Region 0
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 8, 2010 | E-mail the Author
"Since I first sailed on the Bounty four years ago, I've known how men can be made to suffer worse things than death: cruelly, beyond duty, beyond necessity. Captain Bligh, you've told your story of mutiny on the men plotted against you, seized your ship, cast you adrift in an open boat, a great adventure in science brought to nothing, two British ships lost...but there's another story, Captain Bligh, of ten coconuts and two cheeses. The story of a man who robbed his seamen, cursed them, flogged them -- not to punish but to break their spirit. A story of greed and tyranny and of anger against it and what it cost. One man, my lord, would not endure such tyranny. That's why you hounded him. That's why you hate him...hate his friends...and that's why you're beaten."

The HMS Bounty
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was tasked with making the long, perilous journey to Tahiti to transport breadfruit trees to the West Indies -- to supply the slaves there with a cheap, hearty source of food. Neither the Bounty nor its cargo ever found port in the West Indies, however.

Life in the Royal Navy was arduous enough, and it certainly wasn't made any easier that the Bounty's crew was comprised in part of men plucked from prisons or pressed into who were unaccustomed to both the rigors of the sea and of military regimentation. Much of the ship's crew was already dreading what was certain to be a grueling two year journey...and then they met Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). One of their first encounters with the captain comes as he demands another in a round of daily lashings for a sailor that had struck an officer. As he's fetched for this next set of lashings, it's discovered that the man is dead. Undeterred, Bligh orders the beaten, battered corpse whipped nonetheless; death is no excuse for not carrying out the prescribed punishment. Bligh values discipline above all else, and he firmly believes that the most direct path there is through fear. A man who tumbles overboard is strung up to dry in the punishing heat of the sun. Another sailor whose knees had been rubbed raw from overwork asks for water to wash them off; he certainly gets that as Bligh has him keelhauled, and the captain has no perceptible reaction when the man's lifeless body is raised from the sea. Even the slightest infraction seems to be punished with two dozen lashes.

Bligh is, for all his many faults, a brilliant seaman, and his new first officer, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), admires him for that. Despite the many cruelties that Christian is forced to witness, he staunchly defends Bligh -- the rank more than the man, admittedly -- when anyone on the crew speaks ill of him. Bligh and Christian continually butt heads -- over the dribbles of horsemeat the men are served, over his zealousness with the whip, over men time and again ordered to march to their deaths, over putting the thirst of the breadfruit plants ahead of the survival of his crew -- but mutiny is slow in coming. Christian makes clear his complaints but never in an overtly disrespectful manner. He was raised in this life, and he has a healthy respect for the chain of command,
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no matter how much he may disagree with it. Bligh and Christian tolerate each other well enough on the journey to the idyllic island of Tahiti, but it's during the next leg of the voyage where things truly come to a head. Pushed well beyond the breaking point, Christian and a handful of men seize control of the Bounty. It's all Christian can do to keep them from exacting bloody retribution; the first officer's compromise is to leave Bligh and a few of the captain's loyalists adrift at sea on a small boat, some 3,500 miles from the nearest port of call. Their chances of survival are slim at best, but Bligh is nothing if not determined. Christian seeks sanctuary in the South Seas, but he's all too aware that the Royal Navy will not let mutiny go unpunished. No matter how remote an island he and his fellow mutineers seek out, the long arm of the Royal Navy will soon discover it...

Mutiny on the Bounty holds the distinction as the first film to earn Academy Award nominations for three of its actors, and it's well-deserved. Charles Laughton is particularly fascinating as Captain Bligh. This is a character that'd be so easily reduced to snarl and bluster, lacking any substance of note. Laughton contributes to him something far more layered without watering down the cruelty of the man. When Christian and his captain are first introduced to one another, Bligh makes it a point to mention that he's a self-made man, not a proper gentleman as Christian is. This comes through in Laughton's performance: that he's masking his insecurities through torment and sadism. Perhaps Bligh doesn't feel as if he deserves his station in life, and fearing the men under his command may feel the same -- men with whom he has more in common that perhaps he'd like to admit -- he overcompensates in the worst ways imaginable. At the same time, Bligh never once second-guesses himself. There is no glimmer of mercy. He knows, unwaveringly, that he is right. Cruel and exploitative though Bligh may be, he has moral certainty on his side. He sees fear as the ideal tool to sculpt these sea dogs into a proper British naval outfit. He certainly doesn't spare the rod, demanding dozens of lashings regardless of the offense, but at the same time, there's no indication that he revels in the agony of others. Bligh is doing
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what he believes to be just, and that's far more compelling than a moustache-twirling Saturday morning cartoon villain. The only time that scowl eases from his face is when he's dining with the ship's officers. He smiles, laughs, and jokes...for a time, at least, until recognizing the unspoken disapproval of the officers at his table. The snarling expression returns, never wavering for the duration, and his cruelty grows only more severe. Still, there are those few glimmers of humanity -- his visible woundedness when spurned -- and that elevates an already extraordinary performance that much further.

Clark Gable is terrific as well in the lead. I'll admit that the Fletcher Christian that most immediately springs to mind when I think of Mutiny of the Bounty is that of Marlon Brando. His take on the character is a preening fop, and although I do enjoy his film's approach more than most, it's difficult to imagine that these men would rally around him as they must. Gable's Christian, on the other hand,
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is a leader...a man. The Fletcher Christian witnessed here is himself harsh when he deems it appropriate. In one of our first glimpses of him, he politely orders the family and friends of the crew off the ship as they prepare to raise anchor, and as one straggler lingers on longer than he should, Christian picks him up and throws him offboard. Christian understands the need for discipline, but he and his captain view these sailors in entirely different ways. Bligh sees animals that must be tamed...must have their wills broken to march in lockstep with his commands. Christian, meanwhile, sees men. If treated with some measure of respect, they'll likely return it. The mutiny promised in the title is long in coming, and when Christian finally gives into the inevitable, it's not at all treated like a heroic moment. This is a defeat in everything Christian had come to believe in. Longstanding friendships are irrevocably fractured. He has to rein in a crew that's hellbent on vengeance. Their drive for respect and humanity has been replaced with an insatiable bloodlust. Though they are free from Bligh's tyrrany, this is anything but a victory. The life he knows is over, and there is no hope of sanctuary from the retaliation of the Royal Navy. The best Christian can strive for is to delay the inevitable.

There's so
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much to admire about Mutiny on the Bounty. Again, the performances are brilliant. I appreciate that the cruelty that's such a defining aspect of the film is balanced with a playful sense of humor, one that ultimately accentuates the drama rather than deflating it. This prevents the movie from coming across as unrelentingly bleak, and at the same time, it's certainly more harrowing to see men this harmless and immediately likeable suffer dozens of lashes at Bligh's command. Mutiny on the Bounty captures the exotic allure of Tahiti without becoming distracted by it as the 1962 film sometimes could. It is paradise in every sense of the word, and although life there is simple, it's a healthy civilization rather than barbarous and primitive. It seems appropriate that the last time we see Christian smile comes at what looks to be his last glimpse of Tahiti. This comes in stark contrast to some of the film's grisly imagery: lingering looks at the corpses of the men who died from Bligh's cruelty, the tattered flesh of the whipped, and a hand skewered by a bayonet in the heat of battle.

This film prefers to approach Christian's final escape as something almost mythic. I wouldn't say that Mutiny on the Bounty whitewashes the unfortunate reality of what happened -- the difficult life that lay ahead for them on Pitcairn, the mutineers turning on each other, and their barbarism eclipsing anything Bligh had forced them to endure -- but the movie certainly has no interest in exploring it. As comfortable a fit as this material would find in the adaptation that'd follow nearly three decades later, this just isn't that film, and the romantic sense of hope it inspires feels well-earned. Mutiny on the Bounty makes no claim of this story having a happy ending, but it offers the possibility of one. With the way the finalé is constructed -- directing the focus away from Christian and his crew and instead towards the trial of a few captured mutineers -- it's difficult to imagine the film ending any other way.

Mutiny on the Bounty is in every way a success, boasting an epic scope that continues to thrill to this day, spectacular performances, and a skilled sense of craftsmanship. Though the meager extras and not-inconsiderable sticker price come as a mild disappointment, this is a remarkable film that's well-worth discovering on Blu-ray, especially considering how wonderful this remastered version of Mutiny on the Bounty now looks and sounds. Highly Recommended.

Most of the major studios seem terrified at the prospect of digging deeply into their back catalogs, while Warner, on the other hand, has been taking remarkably full advantage of its expansive library. It's a thrill to see so many of their classics from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s make their way to Blu-ray, and that excitement is only heightened by the fact that Warner's approaching these films so skillfully. As has been the case with virtually every one of Warner's most classic titles, Mutiny on the Bounty looks stunning in high definition. There's not the slightest trace of filtering or heavy-handed noise reduction. The weight of the film grain never feels anything less than natural throughout. The image is largely free of speckling or wear, although there are a few faint vertical lines and small bursts of easily overlooked damage. Detail, clarity, and texture are all rather robust as well. A screenshot such as the one below says more than any rambling description I could ever put together, so perhaps you're better off clicking on that instead.

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I don't have any meaningful complaints at all, really. There are a number of shots that don't match the quality of the rest of the film at its best; if that dates back to the original photography or Warner piecing this presentation in part from later generation elements, I really couldn't say. It's not at all a constant nuisance, and it's generally isolated to individual shots rather than entire scenes. There's also some slight pulsing to the image at times, but this too is not unexpected for a film of its vintage. Mutiny on the Bounty looks wonderful in high definition, and though I don't have the DVD release handy to do a direct comparison, I'm sure this is a more than worthy upgrade.

Mutiny on the Bounty just barely spills over onto the second layer of this BD-50 disc. The film and its extras come tantalizingly close to fitting onto a single layer, really, and it's heartening to see that Warner went to this extra expense rather than compromise the quality of the presentation in the slightest. Mutiny on the Bounty is pillarboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and the video has been compressed with VC-1.

I'm very pleased to see that this Blu-ray disc features a monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. No attempt has been made at a clumsy multichannel remix, and the audio isn't limited to lossy Dolby Digital simply because the film is in mono as lesser discs have. This is a reasonably robust track as well. Though the dialogue stems unavoidably show their age somewhat, they're certainly clean and clear enough. The occasionally heavy accents coupled with the age of the soundtrack leave a handful of lines somewhat difficult to discern, but this generally isn't an issue. A number of effects are more full-bodied than I would've expected as well, such as the fate of the HMS Pandora. Some mild background noise does creep in, although never to the point of distraction. Again, this is a terrific presentation.

Mutiny on the Bounty features a slew of alternate soundtracks and subtitle streams. This Blu-ray disc offers soundtracks dubbed into French, German, Castillian Spanish, traditional Spanish, and Portuguese. The long list of subtitles includes streams in English (SDH), French, German, Castillian Spanish, traditional Spanish, Norwegian, and both traditional and Brazilian Portuguese.

  • Behind
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    the Story
    (11 min.; SD): I'm not sure 'Behind the Story' is the most descriptive heading for these two vintage clips, but that's beside the point. One of these clips is a minute-long excerpt from a newsreel dating back to 1936, and it offers a look at Mutiny on the Bounty being awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. The other is "Pitcairn Island Today", also hailing from the '30s. Following a somewhat lengthy retelling of the real-life story, we're told of the haven that Fletcher Christian, the other mutineers, and a handful of Tahitians found on Pitcairn Island and how their descendents continue to struggle to endure. The newsreel touches on how the homes in these little villages were built in part from the wreckage of fallen ships, generations of inbreeding making an already grueling life that much more difficult, and introducing several descendents of the mutineers, among them several related to Fletcher Christian himself. Religion, marriage, education, exercise, and communication are among the other elements of life on Pitcairn that are briefly explored in this ten minute reel.

  • Trailers (7 min.; SD): Also featured here are standard definition theatrical trailers for both this 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty as well as the 1962 film starring Marlon Brando.

Mutiny in the Bounty comes packaged inside a 32 page hardcover book. Though the extras on the disc itself don't delve into the making of the film, the book is filled with production notes, key cast and crew biographies, vintage promotional material, and production stills.

The Final Word
Long considered to be the greatest adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's novel, Mutiny on the Bounty remains as engaging now as it was when it first roared into theaters 75 years ago. This is an epic in the truest sense of the word: spanning one end of the globe to the other, and it's one oriented more around rich characterization and strong performances than more traditional adventure heroics. The lack of extras does come as somewhat of a disappointment, and the film being packaged in a book leaves it saddled with a price tag considerably higher than such equally worthy classics issued onto Blu-ray by Warner. Still, Mutiny on the Bounty is a terrific film that's been lavished with an equally wonderful presentation on Blu-ray, and it's more than deserving of an enthusiastic recommendation. Highly Recommended.
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