Mutiny on the Bounty: Adventure on the High Seas

Throughout this blog, I’ve probably preached until I’m blue in the face anytime a film from or about the 1930s pops up. I’m talking, of course, about the influence of the Great Depression in the realm of Hollywood and pop culture at large. But, 80 years removed from the decade, I often feel as if I need to be reminded that times are dynamic and they are not often shaped by our singular national memory of a time, or even of a place.

 

There’s an education process that I never grow tired of when I find that times are certainly more complicated and nuanced than what has been presented in the past. In school, we’re taught the basics of history and the over-arching themes over the years. But a continual focus on one singular theme or period produces greater results that help explain the bigger picture. This does not, however, mean that The Great Depression didn’t influence media in the United States at that time, so much as many of the other events. The 1930s are not only defined by long food lines, millions of unemployed, the Dust Bowl and the western migration. No, it’s also defined by its tremendous international turmoil and domestic changes.

 

In 1935, for example, FDR created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and signed the Social Security Act into law. In Europe, Hitler continued to clearly defy the Treaty of Versailles by recreating the German Airforce, reintroduced conscription, and continued his use of eugenics and racial cleansing.

 

Enter: Hollywood. I’ve written numerous times that sometimes Hollywood’s main job was to provide an escape for an audience increasingly beseeched by radical changes both at home and abroad. All of the above is true. Sometimes, as in the case The Great Ziegfeld and Cavalcade, the results aren’t great, nor do they age well. Other times, like in Gone with the Wind, the results are incredible. At the halfway point in the 1930s, we see a film like Frank Lloyd’s  Mutiny on the Bounty. After a savaging attack on Lloyd’s last film, Cavalcade, I’ll admit that I had low expectations for this one. The movie is a re-telling of the true story of the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty commanded by the ruthless and strict Captain Bligh, played by Charles Laughton. With an impressive and in-depth scope, nuanced and emotionally charged story, and brilliant performances by Laughton and a mustache-less Clark Gable, Mutiny on the Bounty shattered my expectations and kept me rapt throughout the 132-minute running time.

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Now for the rest of the movie.

 

Plot

 

The film opens in 1787 with Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) leading a press gang into a pub to press the patrons into naval service in the name of King George III. Christian is the first mate on the Bounty. The ship’s mission is transplant 1,000 breadfruit plants from Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean to British holdings in the Caribbean. The ship is captained by the infamous William Bligh, played by Charles Laughton.

 

From the start, the men who know of Bligh speak only of incredulity, his cruelty. And this is on display from the start with Bligh continuing to punish an early offender of his order even though the man is dead.

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After the ship leaves for Tahiti, Bligh’s exacting nature and unscrupulous distribution of punishment continue to keep the men on edge, slowly adding heat to the fires against him. Christian is, at first, a simple objector to the punishments.

 

When the ship arrives in Tahiti, Bligh initially does not allow Christian to go ashore as punishment for disagreeing with the captain’s methods, a stand he later recants, and then recants again. After the ship leaves the island, the ship’s surgeon dies at Bligh’s hands. This, combined with seeing men in chains below deck, drives Christian over the edge and he leads a mutiny against Bligh, stranding and many of those loyal to him at sea. Bligh then goes on an unceasing quest to bring the mutineers to justice.

 

During my previous experience with a Frank Lloyd film, I didn’t think the film would be as captivating as it was. Sure, for the first 70 minutes or so, the film pulled many of the same tricks as Cavalcade, using comedy to help pass over complex emotional issues. But the film turns on a dime after the mutiny. It’s like watching two movies, with the second suddenly becoming both an action movie and a political thriller. I couldn’t look away during the last half of the film and this saved the picture in my mind. 1.

 

Writing

 

Garnering a screenwriting Oscar at the 8th Academy Awards, writers Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson adapted the movie from the 1932 novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Even though both the movie and the novel are based on a single true event, both pieces are not entirely accurate.

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That doesn’t dampen the script though. The dialogue throughout is typical of the 1930s and 1940s, or the Golden Age, with fast lines delivered with a wit and zeal that only men like Clark Gable could accomplish. The script is also funny at times, too. This is true during the first half of the film while the tone is lighter. The dry British humor keeps the morale high amongst the audience just as it would the sailors aboard the Bounty.

 

The script also serves the function of driving the action, a technique that I’m especially partial to in movies. The script is not a series of reactions, but rather a proactive approach to the problems of the characters at hand. This helps to establish who the characters are in interesting ways. 1.

 

Sound

 

Earning a nomination for Best Music, Scoring is Mutiny on the Bounty’s composer Herbert Stothart. The score itself is charming and perfect for the film. It features sea shanties and traditional English tunes. Stothart combined these two elements into original compositions to come up with a big and grand score that perfectly captures 1930s cinema. The score is wide-ranging from happy to sad to dark, even.

 

On the other side of the sound stage are the sound effects. For movies shot with film, the sound effects were limited, particularly in the early history of film, before the technology improved. On the sides of each frame are soundtracks that take up literal space on the frame. So, the sound effects can be somewhat limited as the film could only have a certain amount of space dedicated to it.

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Mutiny on the Bounty, however, has loads of sound effects, or more than I would expect. The wind is always blowing, or there is chatter from the crew. You can even hear the ship’s bells and whistles in the background or waves crashing against the boat. These are all very simple and foundational sounds in film, but they all layer together to help sell the experience.

 

Set Design

 

With Mutiny on the Bounty taking place on a ship, obviously, a ship was used. Lloyd, however, was very creative while using a ship. Many of the scenes were indeed shot on the deck of a replica of an 18th-century ship (the Commodore II, in fact), but the interior of the ship was shot in a sound stage in Los Angeles. The soundstages were also impressive as they had to move to mimic a ship’s motion.

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Portions of the movie were shot on the ocean off the coast of southern California, but other portions were in Tahiti as well. Much like Cavalcade, the set of this Frank Lloyd picture was expensive and excessively detailed. 1.

 

Cinematography

 

Arthur Edeson was the director of photography for Mutiny on the Bounty. He did not receive one of the film’s eight nominations at the 8th Academy Awards.

 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his cinematography was the number of shots on the open ocean in a trailing boat. I can’t imagine that handling a large and sensitive camera on the high seas in all kinds of weather is an easy task. Yet, it helps to put you right into the action.

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The rest of the camera work is by no means innovative, it’s still very fascinating to watch. Edeson puts you in the shoes of the sailors on board the Bounty by choosing shots of the ship from primarily the deck. The upward-titled camera brings to life the grandness of the ship but also makes it appear larger than it is.

 

Finally, I want to talk about editing. Margaret Booth was nominated for Best Editing for her work with this film. The film’s editing stands out to me in two places. The first is while the ship is preparing to set sail. Quick cuts are interspersed with close shots of Laughton’s face as he shouts orders to his new crew. This montage perfectly captures the chaos on board a ship ready to set sail.

 

The second instance is during the actual mutiny. The editing helps move this film from an adventure story to an action movie thanks to more quick cuts. This time, the shots are dramatic and violence, demonstrating the true nature of an uprising. 1.

 

Acting

 

Just one year after winning the Best Actor for It Happened One Night, Clark Gable was back at it again, this time playing Fletcher Christian, the first mate to Captain William Bligh aboard the Bounty. Gable is his charismatic self in the film, first appearing on-screen in the opening shot with a thin, wry smile on his face.

 

Fletcher Christian is often the voice of reason, not afraid to stand up for his principals. He’s openly defiant of Bligh’s orders and cruelest intentions, earning himself on the captain’s “bad list” early and often. However, Christian is also a loyal man, refusing to take part in any talk of mutiny and defending the captain’s authority on the vessel. Only after the death of the ship’s surgeon and seeing his fellow crew members in chains does he take the reins on mutiny, giving it his full weight. He’s a natural leader, with the men, and myself, entranced by his intelligence, gleaming smile, and bold eyebrows.

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I was skeptical about Gable’s role at first, having seen him in It Happened One Night and Gone with the Wind, however, he plays this part well, even with a shaky accent. The biggest tragedy of this role is that he had to shave his iconic mustache, but at least we got to see him without a shirt.

 

Opposite of Gable is Charles Laughton who plays Captain William Bligh. From the start of the movie, Bligh’s reputation proceeds him and Laughton fills the role perfectly. At one point, Bligh is described as an imposing man with pointed teeth. That’s exactly what he looks like whenever you see him. Laughton, in my opinion, is not a handsome man, and he felt the same way. In fact, he was very self-conscious about his appearance next to the swarthy Gable.

 

Regardless of this, Laughton portrays a Bligh that, while almost senselessly cruel, is very confident in his abilities as a captain, but also very aware of his surroundings. That doesn’t change that William Bligh is the boss from Hell. Any small transgression on his ship is met with a variety of savage punishments including keelhauling, lashes, and even death.

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When he’s deposed of his captain’s chair, Bligh is left adrift at sea. It is here where we see that, regardless of his cruel ways, he is a natural leader and inspires his men. Forcing to sail 3,500 miles to the nearest port in a boat that’s little more than a life raft, Bligh is a survivor, plain and simple. He gets his men to stretch their 10-day supply of food and water to more than 40 days. This voyage, in conjunction with his bitterness, leads him home to England and then back to Tahiti to track down those who betrayed him and left him to die.

 

Mutiny on the Bounty is the only film in history to have three nominations for Best Actor with Gable, Laughton, and Franchot Tone all garnering nominations. However, none of them won. Because this movie had so many acting nominees, the Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards were introduced the next year. 1.

 

Directing

 

Earning a nomination for Best Director was director Frank Lloyd. Such as is the case for the rest of the film, I had low expectations for this movie after last week’s Cavalcade.

 

For the first half of the film, I had the same experience as with last week’s Lloyd movie. Mutiny on the Bounty begins with the same kind of comedy that I expected out of a Frank Lloyd movie. The story was light on actual emotion in exchange for cheesy comic relief.

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After the crew’s departure from Tahiti, however, the movie turns on a dime, moving from a cheesy escape to a gritty adventure movie and then a political thriller. It was during the second half of the movie where I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen.

 

The amazing thing about an adventure movie, or at least the way that Lloyd presents this particular one, is that the film can be serious and nuanced on one hand, but convey a sense of wonder at world travel. Adventure brings out dreams, sure, but also sets up the characters for betrayal when their dreams come crashing down. That’s what Mutiny on the Bounty told me. Christian’s decision to engineer a mutiny: the sea “resets” his moral compass and he can’t bear to let his companions be treated as such. 1.

 

Bonus Points

 

None.

 

Final Score: 7/10

 

Oscar Facts

Mutiny on the Bounty won the 8th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 5, 1936, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. It beat out Alice Adams, Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Misérables, Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap, and Top Hat for Best Picture. The film was nominated for eight awards and one just a single award for Best Picture. It is the last film to this point to win Best Picture and nothing else. Also, it is the only film to have three acting nominations in the same category (Best Actor). Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone did not win Best Actor.

 

Other winners that night included John Ford winning Best Director for The Informer, Victor McLaglen winning Best Actor for The Informer, and Bette Davis won Best Actress for Dangerous. The ceremony was hosted by Frank Capra.

 

Next Week

 

We just forward six decades next week with 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. After that, it’s All About Eve, Marty, Chicago, Going My Way, Spotlight, and 12 Years A Slave.

 

 

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