Sunday, August 23, 2015

I'm Your Mutineer

Film: Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Format: DVDs (two of ‘em!) from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s a rough go when a movie shows up on two DVDs, because it’s a guarantee that it’s going to be a long one. A few minutes into the film, I was convinced it was going to be even longer: I heard Marlon Brando’s effete and nasal British accent. Three hours of Brando aping an Etonian. On the other hand, at least Mutiny on the Bounty is a big, ballsy adventure film featuring wooden ships and iron men. I’m a sucker for those.

This is the same basic story as the film that won Best Picture in 1935. A crew of men sail away from England and head to Tahiti. Their mission is to take a cargo of breadfruit trees to Jamaica with the hope of establishing the crop there to feed the slaves. The two most prominent and important personalities on deck are 1st Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) and the ship’s captain, William Bligh (Trevor Howard).

In a nutshell, Bligh is a formidable ship’s captain, but a martinet and a complete bastard. He favors severe, brutal punishments for minor infractions to keep the men in fear of him and thus keep them in line. We’re treated to an example right away when Seaman John Mills (Richard Harris) is accused of stealing two large wheels of cheese. Mills claims to have carried the cheese to Bligh’s cabin, and for that accusation gets 24 lashes. So, not only does Bligh steal 50 pounds of cheese for his own use, he has the man who got it for him punished, and cuts the crew’s cheese ration until the “loss” is made up.

Christian, on the other hand, is effete and wealthy, but he appears to genuinely care about the men under his command. The two butt heads on the journey, particularly when Bligh seems intent to sail to Tahiti the shorter but much more dangerous way by sailing around South America. Tensions run high and meat rations are cut until the ship finally reaches Tahiti. Alas, they have arrived too late to harvest the breadfruit trees, as there is a dormant period for the plants that prevents their transport. These means that the ship and crew must stay in Tahiti for five months waiting for the plants to be transportable.

Once we get to Tahiti, we get more evidence that this is an epic, because we spend an epic amount of time watching native girls dance. The men end up liking Tahiti quite a bit, particularly because the society is much freer about sex than England. Several of the men become attached to particular native girls, including Christian, who takes up with the local chief’s daughter, Maimiti (Tarita). But all good things come to an end, and eventually the breadfruit trees can be transplanted. The ship is loaded and the men head off to Jamaica. Three of the men attempt to desert, but are brought back by Christian. The men, including Mills and Edward Birkett (Gordon Jackson) are clapped in irons and held below decks.

The five-month delay causes a great deal of stress for Bligh, so he decides to compensate by doubling the cargo of breadfruit trees. They require a great deal of water, though, and the men are soon to the boiling point. After a couple of deaths, it’s Fletcher Christian who leads the mutiny, aided by the three men in the brig. Bligh and anyone still loyal to him are sent off in the longboat with provisions and the ability to navigate while the men on the ship sail back to Tahiti.

The biggest issue I have with this version of Mutiny on the Bounty is not the changes in the story—and there are a bunch—but the fact that it’s overlong by a solid hour. There’s a lot of not exactly padding but fluff here. I get the desire to create a spectacle for the movie-going public in 1962, but the middle section of the film comes across like a travelogue. With a solid trim, this becomes a much more appealing movie.

One thing the film does well, though, is escape the shadow of the 1935 version. I’ve watched that version, and really the only thing I remember about it is Charles Laughton, and mostly I remember that because Laughton is great. In its own way, this version of Mutiny on the Bounty is also great. It’s biggest problems are the very things that make it great. It’s grand and overblown and takes itself very seriously.

I don’t like that it mucks with the end. Mutiny on the Bounty is based on real events, real men named Bligh and Christian, and a real ship. As with the movie, the mutineers eventually end up on Pitcairn Island. In reality, they lived there for a couple of decades. There was no reason, other than Hollywood reasons, to make Fletcher Christian a more noble character than the reality, and no reason for the ending we’re given. In fact, the ending is in many ways the complete opposite of the 1935 version.

This isn’t a bad film, but it’s much too long. Because of this, I’m not sure it’s worth a second viewing. This is another film I’d love to have a crack at editing. Pare this down to two hours and it’s a potential classic instead of just a decent epic.

Why to watch Mutiny on the Bounty: It’s a true epic.
Why not to watch: It’s overblown and bloated.


  1. You hit the nail on the head about this one. It is beautiful to look at but that's only enjoyable for so long and then you start yelling at the screen "Do Something!!!"

    It came along during that roadshow cycle kicked off by This is Cinerama where everything had to have entrance music, intermission and exit music to show it was an Important Picture. That's fine if you're telling a pageant story along the lines of How the West Was Won that has enough going on to fill the time but this didn't.

    I prefer the '35 version and Gable's Christian to Brando's fussy actorly performance. Was Brando a better actor than Gable overall, yeah but sometimes he was too busy showing off his technique and performing for himself rather then the audience. This is one of those times. Howard does a good job as Bligh but Laughton's performance is unbeatable.

    1. It is certainly pretty. I'll give it that.

      You're right about the overture/entr'acte/postlude as well. I'll admit that I skipped through them. I'm always a little wary when a film starts with that color wash and the word "overture" because I know what's coming. Important Picture sums that up. There are a few that probably qualify, like say Lawrence of Arabia, but most have that come off as just puffery.

      Laughton really was the king of roles like Bligh.

  2. I enjoyed this, but wasn't blown away by it. Honestly, I can't remember what I thought of the runtime. It's been a while since I watched it.

    1. The version I watched, including the full musical beginning, middle, and end, ran just over three hours. Cut those and you're down to about 2:45, which is a good 45 minutes more than we need.

  3. I prefer the 1935 version, not just for Laughton, but also because Gable had a lot more charisma on screen than Brando, at least in this film. I agree with the other poster that said this was a period of time where Brando seemed to be more acting for himself rather than for the viewing audience.

    I honestly remember less about the 62 version than the 35 version. I do remember being curious about it because Brando became almost a native of Tahiti for the rest of his life.

    1. I really should rewatch the 1935 version. I remember liking it, but don't really remember much else from it.

      One of these days, I suppose...

  4. Since comparisons are a big part of the conversation here, I'll throw in my two cents for the 1984 version with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. The bloat there is in the music and how long some shots are held, but the story itself is pretty muscular and to the point. I've not seen the 62 version for more than thirty years, primarily because of what you have mentioned, but I watch the 35 version every year or two and the 84 version , I've seen five or six times. Here is a share for you if you like:

    1. I knew aabout the 1984 version but haven't seen it. I'll put it on the Letterboxd list, though, so I don't forget about it. Thanks for the recommendation.