09 May 2009

Thoughts on the Bounty

Tonight's essential on Turner Classics Movie -- also known as the greatest TV station in the world, ever -- was the original Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). A helluva picture.

I've read about the real mutiny and I can tell you that the film is wildly inaccurate. I can add to that statement these two words: so what.

Sometimes sticking to the facts of a story are important and other times they're not. With a rollicking adventure film from the heart of Hollywood's Golden Age, it isn't such a big deal. In the case of a film like Milk (2008) about a man and incidents fresh in many people's memory, its critical. Once something has faded deep into history, accuracy is less important. One also tends to be more forgiving of older films.

Be that as it may the film is damn good one. Essentials co host and TCM God Robert Osborne quite correctly gave kudos to the set designers, special effects crew and cinema photographers for creating a superbly realistic looking film. Without benefit of a single computer. While modern audiences quite naturally marvel at today's special effects it is all the more remarkable what was done 70 plus years ago. In Bounty the scenes of the ship in storms were particularly effective.

All three stars were nominated for Best Actor, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone. Laughton is recognized as one of our greatest actors so his nomination is no surprise. His performance as Captain Bligh is stylized, eccentric and wonderful without going over the top. What's surprising is the strength of Gable's and Tone's performances. Gable in particular is remembered more as a star than as an actor. It may seem he mugged his way through a lot of films but that's because he had a film persona that worked. He gave excellent performances in many movies from the menacing chauffeur in Night Nurse (1931) to the has been cowboy in The Misfits (1961) with Mutiny and others in between.

Gable could do emotion and was fine as the passionate, principled and temperamental Fletcher Christian. Tone was a revelation too. More familiar to audiences as the tippling raconteur in such films as Midnight Mary (1933), he gave depth to the role of the midshipman Byam, caught between the towering figures of Blight and Christian.

The story itself is a powerful one. Shipboard mutinies are surprisingly rare. They of course could have deadly consequences to the disposed or the mutineers or even both. In the case of the Bounty there was a clash of two intractable wills, compelling theater in and of itself. When the fate of so many crewmen are in the balance the story veritably writes itself.

Issues of loyalty, fealty to crown and contract and conflicting views of common human decency further complicate and fascinate. In truth the movie is harsh to Bligh who was not nearly so demonic as he's made out to be. Fortunately they gave deserved credit to Bligh for his incredible feat of successfully navigating his boat to safety once cast adrift after the mutiny.

Frank Lloyd directed and if you just said"who?" I understand perfectly. He didn't have a whole lot else of significance to his credit but sure did a terrific job here.

The essentials intros and wrap ups by Osborne and co host Alec Baldwin are not to be missed. As a veteran actor and good storyteller Baldwin brings a unique perspective. Plus, like Osborne he absolutely loves movies and loves talking about them.

An entertaining evening. If you want the real story of the Bounty this is not it. What a film like this can do is inspire people to read the real story. Good books on the mutiny abound and if you've no time or inclination for that you can always check out the Internet. I hear its got a lot of stuff on it. some of it is even factual.


Gloria said...

"so what"


Richard, I often see hostile comments about this 1935 version of the mutiny because "it's not what happened", So to the people stating that I'd like to point that the film wasn't "sold" as the historical account, but as an adaptation of the Nordhoff-Hall novel inspired by those events. Also, as for other, supposedly "more accurate" films... How can we tell for certain? The events happened long ago and many died without leaving their version of the facts. Historical accounts are not as much "what happened" but "what was left on record".

Of course, the real Bligh never was in the "Pandora" chasing mutineers, as he was actually on a second breadfruit mission: anyway, his appearance in the decks of the Pandora in the 1935 film makes for one helluva dramatic moment!

Being a big Laughton fan, I also prefer his Bligh, which incidentally, it's closer to the historical one than most think... Bligh had bushy eyebrows, was in his thirties during that time, and, not being a gentleman born, had to struggle his way up to become an officer, something Laughton's Bligh openly complains about.

Laughton's Bligh, in spite of being a poor Human Resources manager (as the historical Bligh was), was one hell of a sailor (as the historical Bligh was), which is well showcased in the 1935 film. By contrast, in the sixties film, Bligh seems a ridiculous idiot who couldn't tell a ship from a barrow, and we never see Bligh's travel to Timor... Apparently, so we could have plenty of romantic footage of Brando Christian wooing Tahiti girls.

The sixties crew laughs at Trevor Howard's Bligh... I can't possibly imagine the 1935 crew aven imagining the possibility of laughing at Laughton's Bligh.

Kate Gabrielle said...

I watched part of this last night while it was on and (I'm so ashamed to say this!) I don't think I've ever seen the whole movie in one sitting. Last night I came in around 1 hour into the film, and then left about 15 minutes before it was over. (I HAD to, I didn't WANT to!)

Like you, I am more impressed with Clark Gable & Franchot Tone with each viewing-- they really knew how to act. I loved the part when Gable apologized for hitting Tone, and Tone said "that's not what hurt the most", etc.

Before I write a comment as long as your actual post -- I'll just summarize-- great post, great film. :)