Mutiny on the Bounty: Battling Bligh


1935 was a great year in Hollywood, so perhaps there’s no wonder that Mutiny on the Bounty only ended up winning one of the Oscars. But it wasn’t just any Oscar, but the most important one. It’s hard to think of an equally riveting adventure from the 1930s, a story that offered thrills, a fierce competition of nerves and romantic sights from faraway places, all delivered by a director who had already won Oscars for the magnificent historical soap opera Cavalcade (1933).

This story also takes place in the past and has become the stuff of legend… even if it is far from a trustworthy history lesson.

England, 1787. A crew is rounded up for the Bounty, a ship headed for a two-year voyage to the Pacific Ocean to acquire breadfruit plants and bring them to the West Indies as food for British slaves. The Bounty will be captained by William Bligh (Charles Laughton), a man who enjoys one of the worst reputations in the British navy. Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) is willing to give the man a chance, even if Bligh’s cruelty is evident already before they leave port. When it turns out that a man in chains who was going to get flogged has died in Bligh’s custody, the captain orders the corpse to be flogged anyway; the crew watches the bizarre procedure in disbelief. Out at sea, the relationship between Bligh and his crew gets increasingly worse and Christian is unhappy about the lack of justice and worried about Bligh’s mental instability. They’re all headed for a breaking point…

Strengthening a myth
The story about the famous mutiny on the Bounty has become fairly black-and-white over the years and this movie does its share in strengthening the myth. Both Bligh and Christian were more complex in real life; the former was eventually promoted to rear admiral and served as Governor of New South Wales, and the latter took Tahitian slaves some time after the mutiny, which is not something we learn in this film. But it is nevertheless an irresistible adventure. Technically speaking, Frank Lloyd and the Oscar-nominated editor Margaret Booth keep the story moving fast and the locations are convincing enough; there’s second-unit photography from Tahiti, but scenes were also shot in California’s Channel Islands and out in the Pacific.

Tension runs high on the Bounty as the power struggle becomes an emergency; the claustrophobic setting of the ship is well captured, but we also never doubt the fact that we are far out at sea. There’s nothing about this movie that feels cheap. When the Bounty reaches Tahiti, the romantic atmosphere brings a relief to all the testosterone on the ship… but Bligh’s sadism is never far away. The movie is far from over once the mutiny happens; that opens a third chapter where we learn what happens to Christian and his merry mutineers, and follow Bligh on his frenzied chase after those who wronged him. Even the trial near the end against Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), a midshipman who has to choose between duty and friendship, holds one’s attention.

Gable and Laughton are perfectly cast, the former as a typical hero, but with heart and a sense of humor. His journey from straight-laced navy man to freewheeling mutineer is amusing to watch. Laughton is very effective as the thoroughly evil Bligh and he finds many ways to illustrate the man’s weakness. It’s a performance that has inspired, perhaps most obviously Humphrey Bogart as Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954).

The film cost a fortune to make; after all, that’s a life-size replica of the Bounty they’re sailing. There was also reportedly a lot of tension on set between Laughton and Gable, which Lloyd thought only added to the drama of the film. It all paid off – in terms of money and quality.

Mutiny on the Bounty 1935-U.S. 132 min. B/W. Produced by Frank Lloyd, Irving Thalberg. Directed by Frank Lloyd. Screenplay: Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson. Book: Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Music: Herbert Stothart. Editing: Margaret Booth. Cast: Charles Laughton (William Bligh), Clark Gable (Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (Roger Byam), Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Dudley Digges… Donald Crisp.

Trivia: Wallace Beery was allegedly considered for a part; James Cagney has a cameo (as a favor to Lloyd) and David Niven a bit part. Remade as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Bounty (1984).

Oscar: Best Picture.



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