Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Release Date: November 8th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Frank Lloyd Actors: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Donald Crisp, Eddie Quillan, Herbert Mundin, Dudley Digges, Henry Stephenson, Francis Lister, Movita, Mamo, Percy Waram
n December of 1787, H.M.S. Bounty lay in Portsmouth harbor in England, on the eve of departure for Tahiti in the uncharted waters of the Great South Sea. Its mission was to procure breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies as cheap food for slaves. But it wouldn’t succeed, thanks to a famous mutiny, inspired by the harshness of 18th century British sea laws and a lack of respect between the officers and crew (and, here, quite a bit of fictional embellishment).
Working for the King’s Navy, Leftenant Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) barges into a pub to conscript six miserable men into a two year stint aboard the Bounty, tearing husbands and fathers from their wives and children. Thomas Ellison (Eddie Quillan) is one such youth, who would rather be flogged than stuck aboard a ship for 24 months … or perhaps doomed never to return home at all. Meanwhile, midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), an effervescent man from a proud, wealthy family, eagerly awaits his task on the very same ship, which involves creating a dictionary of the Tahitian language. A gathering of other salty tars soon climbs aboard the vessel, including a pair of sniveling officers (Dougas Walton as Stewart and Vernon Downing as Hayward); disgruntled thief-turned-seaman Burkitt (Donald Crisp); the ship’s surgeon Bacchus (Dudley Digges), a slurring drunkard; and the bumbling deck-swabber Smith (Herbert Mundin). But the most significant is the captain, Bligh (Charles Laughton), a corrupt, sadistic, merciless man, so strictly bound by the rules (through which he arbitrarily governs) that he carries out the flogging of a man even after it’s announced that the prisoner has died.
“Discipline’s the thing!” Bligh hopes to whip the men into shape through fear (and regular lashings and keelhaulings), but being stuck in a claustrophobic wooden box through rough seas for 10,000 miles is enough to drive anyone into a frenzied rebellion. As the titular mutiny looms, the film takes its time to document various mistreatments, misadventures, and misfortunes. Even landfall is burdened with hard labor and unequal shore leave hours. Unfortunately, there’s an overabundance of repetition to the plot, particularly as Bligh continues to order various tortures against his crew, and Christian struggles to hold his tongue while the captain’s unjust commands are executed.
Laughton would be widely praised for his performance (and, indeed, it’s an iconic role), but the character is a one-note entity. Likewise, Christian and Byam are largely interchangeable heroes, concerned with righteousness and the wellbeing of others, ultimately devoid of the change that a more complex persona might adopt. From the start, they’re against Bligh’s methods, so they don’t have far to go when it comes to mutiny. Had they been designed to respect and uphold British laws wholeheartedly at the start, it might have been a more poignant, challenging stretch to see them relinquish the rules for some semblance of justice. Even when Byam pushes back against the usurpation, it’s not convincing. Christian and Byam also gain romantic counterparts (Tahitian girls Maimiti and Tehani), though these additions don’t alter their personalities or behaviors; they’re still unwaveringly upright and perpetually battling Bligh’s cruelty.
As a result of the redundant imagery, the momentous nature of the actual seizure – swashbuckling as it may be – doesn’t hold any surprises or much suspense. Nevertheless, the scene of comeuppance is thoroughly entertaining. The story proceeds to cover Bligh’s miraculous deliverance, as well as the mutineers’ island getaway, though the further endeavors of Bligh only serve to infuriate, especially as the men faithful to the King’s Navy are rewarded with duplicated acts of despotism. In the end, the journey feels epic, aided by an easy contrivance that keeps the picture moderately upbeat, but the historical impact of the Bounty’s plight is glossed over by words rather than satisfying action against the visualized villain at the helm.
– Mike Massie