Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sideboob And Campy Special Effects Cannot Save Mutiny On The Bounty

The Good: Moments of performance, Moments of character
The Bad: Plot is overdrawn, Characters are unlikable, Special effects are terrible, Casting is problematic, Bonus features
The Basics: A disappointing, long black and white film, Mutiny On The Bounty has character and storytelling gaps that follow a thematic point never made in the movie.

It is a rare thing these days when I sit down to watch a film and I know almost no one in it. Yet when I sat down to take in the 1935 version of Mutiny On The Bounty, there was only one actor outside Clark Gable I recognized. That actor was Ian Wolfe, best known to me as Mr. Atoz from the penultimate episode of Star Trek, "All Our Yesterdays" (click here for my review!)! I came to Mutiny On The Bounty excited; this was one of the few Best Picture winners my wife was excited about watching with me. As it turns out, she was a big fan of the book. Until about fifteen minutes in, it remained one of her favorite books, but she seemed especially disenchanted with the film.

For my part, I've never read the book, so I did not come to the movie with any expectations, but I found the film tiresome shortly after my partner did. The fundamental problem with Mutiny On The Bounty is not that the title gives away the most important plot point, but rather that the opening scrawl repeats the significant plot point and also provides the entire resolution to the film. In the simplest possible terms, the "Foreword" placed at the opening of the movie states the effect of the actions of the movie, much like a character recap does in some movies (i.e. "James left behind his life of crime and became a lawyer before he was shot in a drug store robbery in '63"). As a result, the two hours of Mutiny On The Bounty becomes an academic exercise without any real surprises. Rather insultingly, the film takes an hour and a half before the actual mutiny occurs!

In the late 1700s, Britain is maintaining its power at sea by impressing criminals and common citizens they find in bars. A young husband is compelled to join the crew of the HMS Bounty and leave his wife and infant son behind. Aboard the Bounty, Christian Fletcher is acting as first officer to Captain William Bligh, a man he has never served with. Fletcher takes Byam, the son of a long line of naval officers, under his wing and the Bounty sets off for Tahiti to get breadfruit trees. Along the way, Bligh makes enemies of almost all of the enlisted seamen as he maintains discipline through the brutality of lashings whenever the slightest infractions occur.

Fletcher, suspecting Bligh of stealing supplies and resenting the mistreatment of the men who are compelled to be there anyway, becomes the target of Bligh's wrath for having compassion for the men. When Bligh fails to break Fletcher and the rations are cut again and the beatings continue mercilessly, Fletcher decides to prevent the men from murdering Bligh and they take over the Bounty. Setting Bligh and his loyalists (most of them, anyway) adrift, Fletcher takes the reluctant Byam and the Bounty back to Tahiti to try to make a life for himself and the rest of the men.

Mutiny On The Bounty has its fatal flaws in revealing too much too early and then making the audience wait far too long for it. While there are dates special effects that are just horrible - the keelhauling that occurs is so bad as to be laughable - they are more forgivable than the problems with casting. Byam, played by Franchot Tone, looks so similar to the two midshipmen he shares a room with that they are almost impossible to tell apart and the scenes where they are all three together result in a lot of confusion. It does not help that not only do all three have similar faces, they are dressed in the same outfits and have almost identical haircuts as well! Clark Gable and Charles Laughton (Bligh) are distinctive casting, but most of the others have at least one other person they may easily be mistaken for, even the seamen with many lines!

The story of Mutiny On The Bounty might be translated well to film, but this is not the ideal translation of it. Far too often, the audience sits and has to ask, "Why are all of these supposedly good people putting up with all this?" While there's no Nuremburg judgment to get the enlisted men to resist tyranny on their own at the point that this movie was made (though there are some very nice socialist sentiments slyly inserted into the film where the Tahitians reject capitalism!), why Fletcher takes so long to reach his breaking point is not made clear. Arguably, it is because on Tahiti he falls in love and cannot stand the brutality any longer, but why he even gets on the boat again is not made clear.

Similarly, how Bligh has so many men loyal to him when he treats so many of them so poorly is not adequately explained in the film. Throughout the first three quarters of the film, Bligh utilizes fear and torment exclusively as his tools to maintain order and discipline. Yet, when cast adrift by the mutineers, Bligh suddenly becomes determined to save his crew and the weird change of heart rings false, save for the moments he becomes obsessive about seeing Christian punished.

To that end, this version of Mutiny On The Bounty also has some terrible gaps in storytelling. For example, when Bligh hunts for Fletcher after recovering Byam from Tahiti, he runs his small ship aground on a reef. Literally the next scene has the alleged mutineers Bligh recovered on trial in England with no mention even of what happened in between or how the bunch survived! This is just bad storytelling and Mutiny On The Bounty has holes like that in the story, though they cover some of them with mentions of large amounts of time passing, most notably on Tahiti.

As well, what makes no sense is the "how" of the final verdict, which we learn in the first minute of the film. We are told that there is a new understanding brought about between officers and seamen as a result of the actions in Mutiny On The Bounty and in the penultimate scene we are again TOLD this. The problem is, we are never shown it. We see brutality - on the order of Bligh having a dead man whipped to illustrate just how serious he is about maintaining order and a man being keelhauled because he wanted water for his raw knees - but we are not privy to seeing the effects of this other than the terror and the mutiny. How either of these things leads to a new understanding or what that new understanding truly is is never actually shown. This is not to say I wasn't paying attention; Byam gives a great speech where he pleads for a change in the way seamen are motivated, but it comes out contrary to Bligh and with a rejection of Fletcher's tactics. Movies that simply tell us the moral without showing them are not a great use of the medium.

What Mutiny On The Bounty has in its favor is generally wonderful acting. Director Frank Lloyd gets wonderful performances out of Franchot Tone, most of the actors playing seamen, and, of course, Clark Gable. Gable is charismatic without relying on the twinkling-eyed charm he had in Gone With The Wind. Instead, here he stands as a likable, good-natured man with a straight spine and a sense of willpower which permeates his being. He delivers almost all of his lines with a quiet rationality that reads as true and ethical. In fact, the only problems with his performance come when he tries to be emotive in an over-the-top way. The scenes where Gable has to yell seem almost as out of place as the jig scene on Tahiti.

Arguably the most consistent acting comes from Charles Laughton's performance. The perpetually-frowning Bligh is a good role for Laughton, who has a cold stare that he uses perfectly to embody the character. He plays dour well and he is instantly unlikable as Bligh.

On DVD, Mutiny On The Bounty comes with very few DVD bonus features. The original movie's trailer and the 1962 remake are featured, as is the producer of the film accepting the Best Picture Oscar (which is a rarity to see on DVDs!). There is also a featurette on Pitcarin Island, but it is pretty dull. While the print looks excellent (it was clearly cleaned up for the DVD release) there was not much else put into making the DVD special.

Just because something is old or is based on great source material does not mean it translates well or endures. The 1935 version of Mutiny On The Bounty is not just dated, it is sloppy in many ways. Whether or not there is a better version out there, this version may be safely skipped.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, by clicking here! Please check it out!]

For other movies preoccupied with journeys, please check out my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Bounty Hunter
Land Of The Lost


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here to reach a full list!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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