Witney Seibold has been watching and reviewing every single film to have won the Oscar for Best Picture, in chronological order. The eighth film to win this award goes to Mutiny on the Bounty.
Only two years previous, director Frank Lloyd made the stiff Cavalcade, which I may have to start referring to as one of the worst films to have won Best Picture (although The Greatest Show on Earth, Gladiator, and Crash typically hold that dubious reputation in the critical community). Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the now-famous 1932 novel, feels like it came from an entirely different aesthetic ethos. Mutiny on the Bounty is bold, brash, and adventurous. Its tragedy feels more natural and less stagey than that of some of the previous Best Picture winners. The characters are far more complex and relatable, and, the acting is… well Charles Laughton is in this film as Captain Bligh, and seeing one of the greatest heavies in cinema history play one of 20th century literature’s most notable villains is rapturous. Mutiny on the Bounty is the first of the Best Picture winners that feels like it came from a more recognizably modern cinematic idiom. Previously, the films had felt decidedly of a previous generation. Cinema, it seems, is evolving into something that we still have today.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, Mutiny on the Bounty tells the true story of the titular British ship, and its hard-nosed, rule-obsessed Captain Bligh (Laughton). Bligh is humorless, cold, and stern. How stern? He orders one of the crewmen to be lashed before they even leave port. He tolerates nothing, and controls his crew with harsh discipline and complete intolerance. The ship is manned by partly by actual British naval officers, but mostly by forcibly enlisted men, largely comprised of criminals and prisoners, allowed to swap military service for jail time. Bligh, however, proves to be harsher than any prison guard, regularly whipping his men and denying them food when supplies run low; in one telling scene, a group of sailors decide to use their tiny portion of bread as bait to catch a decent dinner. The one man who seems brave enough to confront Bligh is officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), a smart, gentler leading man, who becomes increasingly outraged at Bligh’s evil treatment of the crew.
The Bounty is on a two-year mission to Tahiti to pick up a cargo of breadfruit for use as a cheap food source for slaves back in Europe (the film takes place in 1789). The voyage over is hard, but the time spend in Tahiti with the natives, fostering the fruit and frolicking in the tropical paradise relaxes the crew. Indeed, Christian finds that he is falling in love with one of the native girls, which everyone seems to accept. As soon as the crew is ready to head back, Bligh begins denying them water rations immediately. Eventually Christian has had enough, and enlists a few of the other men to mutiny. Bligh is put off the Bounty in a small ship with a few loyal companions, left to die in the South Pacific while Christian and his men go back to live in Tahiti.
Bligh, however, not to be stopped, ends up tracking the men down a year later, after Christian has married his Tahitian sweetheart, and the men have kind of made a home there. Bligh apprehends some of the mutineers and takes them back to England for trial. Christian, meanwhile, takes the Bounty to a remote island to hide out.
This is a ripping yarn, an old-timey sea adventure. There something about maritime life that taps into vague inter-generational boyhood adventure fantasies, so films that accurately depict 18th-century maritime habits (complete with real ships!) are always an exhilarating sight. I think the use of actual ships and the shooting on real tropical locations helped the filmmakers just naturally elevate the material; they had the benefit of geographical and historical verisimilitude on their side by dint of the setting alone.
But Mutiny on the Bounty is not entirely an adventure at its heart. In many ways, this film is a tragedy, replete with all the classical implications of that word. It’s about a flawed man (Bligh) whose tragic character weaknesses bring him punishment at the hands of his crew, vindication from his superiors, and eventual damnation from the acid tongues of the men he condemned. Mutiny on the Bounty is about what happens when one cleaves to the rules too closely, ignoring the humanity around them… and also how greed and ambition can be couched in loyalty and strictness. Bligh seems to be in the right throughout most of the film… at least on paper. Just because he can toe the company line perfectly doesn’t mean he’s not a total jerkwad.
Mutiny on the Bounty is fun, dark, great-looking, has some excellent acting, and is readily accessible to any modern-day teens.
Join me next week for The Great Ziegfeld.