Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director: Frank Lloyd
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone

Honors:
Academy Award for best Picture
#86 on AFI's Top 100 (1998)

Clark Gable and Charles Laughton’s names highlight the most successful feature of 1935 in the screen adaptation of the events on HMS Bounty in the late eighteenth century as crewmen took over the ship from their cruel captain. This MGM feature Mutiny on the Bounty inspired by the 1932 novelization simulating the events of the real life mutiny and would be the one of the highest praised films out of Hollywood that year, as well as the highest grossing at the box office and awarded the best feature. This two hour adventure picture takes audiences to the far points of the world, to the exotic island of Tahiti, home to primitive inhabitants, and concludes in mutiny that disputes how overbearing a captain and his officers can be over their subordinates. It was a film of adventure, morals, and the battle between duty and rights. In the end it is a picture that manifests some of the very best filmmaking of the mid 1930s.

Mutiny on the Bounty is a historically inspired adventure picture recounting fictitious events on the English ship Bounty as the abusive and cruel captain’s actions towards his crew lead to a great mutiny, forever changing the lives of all involved. While on voyage to Tahiti for the Royal Navy, Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) proves to a be a harsh leader that directs with an iron first, insisting on manifesting brutal punishments, wrongful accusations towards crewmembers, and complete lack of proper care for his men for the sake of accomplishing his mission in the name of the crown. Two of the officers, the well seasoned Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) and new, young Midshipman Byam (Franchot Tone), watch as the crew, and eventually themselves, are wrongfully mistreated by this dictator of a captain sympathizing with the men as some suffer and even die from complete lack of compassion, to the point of downright anger. It is Christian that rises up to lead the revolt that sends Bligh adrift on a small boat thousands of miles from the nearest port with a gathering of his few supporters while he and the mutinous crew take the Bounty. Christian holds on to Byam, despite attempts to stop the mutiny, as the Bounty resets its coarse back to Tahiti knowing full well the price they put on their heads by taking the English vesel.

Years pass as Bligh finds his way to Royal port and on a ship back to Tahiti to punish the men that rose against him. Christian sets the Bounty on a new course to a new deserted island in the South Pacific where he and his men start new lives away from English rule. Byam however stays behind to return to England and his family only to be convicted for the mutiny by Bligh. Howver, in the end Byam stands up to describe in court the reasons for the mutiny at the hands of the cruel ways of Bligh, eventually leading to Byam’s pardoned, returning to the waters as member of the English Navy.

Like many pictures of its era, Mutiny on the Bounty spends much of its time on character building and a fraction of the time on the actual plot for which the film was to be revolve around. From the beginning we see how brutal it can be as part of the Royal Navy, from unwillingly be dragged aboard missions that rip men from their families for years, to the absolute controlling power given to the captain, even if the captain does his actions with little to no care for his own crewmen.  The story builds on the pitiless rule of Captain Bligh as we wait to see when Christian and the men will crack from the tyrannical rule. It is not until the final third or perhaps quarter of the film that the mutiny occurs. From their things move very fast as Bligh finds his way to England then back to Tahiti, Christian’s run from Bligh, and Byam’s capture, trial and return to service. The time flies through these final minutes, but keeps focused on the actions of Chistian and Byam as Bligh closes in on them. Therefore the true story is not about the men that rise up, but Bligh himself as a man that serves his country, but at times is completely heartless towards those he is responsible for to make his achievements stand out to his superiors. It is a story that would have resonated in the heads of people of the Depression era audiences, wishing to stand up against those with power and wealth, thinking little of those that do the dirty work. This perhaps would have been paralleled in the minds of audiences at the time to their own lives.

The two time Academy Award winning director Frank Lloyd would steer the wheel of the ship that was this production. His credits as a highly respected filmmaker made him a fine choice to lead the way in MGM’s most expensive production to date, at a budget of over $2 million. His camera use was not overly dramatic, but rather in a more establishing manner, capturing as much of the images around the actors. This perhaps gave audiences rare views of life at sea, or on a remote island that most would never see in their own lives. However he does grab many shots of the actors facial features to portray the emotions on their faces in unspoken means, telling you Bligh is aware of what his is doing, and how upset everyone else, including Christian, from Bligh’s doings. By capturing the superb acting of the film three stars, Gable, Laughton, and Tone, all of whom garnered Academy Award nominations as best actor, Lloyd too would be given a nomination for his directing. A challenging shoot that was placed in the hands of Lloyd would no doubt be worthy of such an honor, despite losing to John Ford’s dark drama The Informer.

Tone and Gable
Both Gable and Laughton were top actors of the era during production of the film, both proud possessors of their own little gold statues to prove it. Gable was perhaps the best known actor in all of Hollywood. He would shave is trademark mustache for the picture to keep with historical accuracy that sailors were clean shaven for the Royal Navy, despite the numerous historical inaccuracies that pepper the picture about the actual history of the events. Laughton was perhaps the most respected actor for putting himself in roles see as mostly ugly and unsympathetic, but turning out marvelous performances. Franchot Tone would be somewhat the newcomer to the elite in the year 1935, being in a number of highly praised pictures. His youthful exuberance, clashes with his older co-stars, but he easily turns his character quickly into an old soul, seeing far more misery than a normal young man, making for a splendid performance as Byam. As stated above, all three would be nominated as best actor for their work in this film, an accomplishment not equaled by any other picture to date (2012). However all three would not win the Oscar, another award lost out to The Informer by the acting of Victor McLaglen’s dramatic performance.

The picture was a difficult one, shot out at sea up and down the California coastline and the deep and South Pacific. Lloyd’s own friend James Cagney formerly of Warner Bros. fame as a famous tough guy, would even work on the picture as an unaccredited extra. As an avid sailor Cagney piloted a ship for distant shots for his directing friend and was a background extra as an onboard sailor at times, to help make a few dollars while he was disputing his contract with Warner Brothers.

Gable with Laughton
Mutiny on the Bounty would hit audiences with a full head of steam. After being the strongest draw at theaters for the year, the film would enter award season a strong favorite at the Oscars, nominated for six categories. It would lose out to the surprise hit film of the year The Informer in the categories of best actor, best director, best screenplay, and best score. The film would see a nomination for best editing, but despite all the missed honors Mutiny on the Bounty would walk away as Best Picture, making it the last picture to win the category without wining any other awards. The film’s legacy in motion picture quality would live on when in 1997 the American Film Institute would name the picture #86 on the list of all time best films in American history, however would fall off the list AFI present a decade later. Aside from accolades the film would transcend the screen creating a look for which Laughton would be long remembered for as Captain Bligh. For years to come impersonations of Laughton was seen in the manner of his Bligh character, most notably in Warner Bros. cartoons, including an impersonation by Bugs Bunny.

The story of Mutiny on the Bounty was one that had been told before in a silent version produced in 1917 and even as resent as an Australian picture in 1933, starring a little known actor by the name of Errol Flynn, whom would hit Hollywood in late 1935. Two noteworthy remakes of the tale would grace screens since the time of this classic piece of cinema, a 1962 epic length Technicolor production starring Marlon Brando that flopped at the box office, and a 1984 with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins as Christian and Bligh.

Above all the other this film still stands above all adaptions of the Bounty, and above the many pictures of 1935. It is a film that sits well with the passage of time and remains very watchable many decades after its initial release. Making a timeless movie is a difficult feat, but here with a picture that takes place on choppy waters we receive one that is considered a classic. Mutiny on the Bounty will always be worth watching.

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