Dir. Frank Lloyd. Starring Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone
The mutiny on the Bounty is a fairly exciting scene, as far as these things go, filled with rapid cuts and people swinging swords and punching each other in tight spaces. A ship that had been mildly claustrophobic before becomes airless, as the men loyal to Bligh (or at least more scared of hanging than they are scared of their shipmates) put up a token resistance. Bligh (Laughton) is dragged out of his cabin and up to the deck, where one particularly benighted sailor, Ellison (Eddie Quillan) taunts him with a bayonet. Not long after, Christian (Gable), Bligh’s erstwhile first mate and erstwhile first mate and apologist, stares down from the deck of the Bounty, not precisely taunting Bligh but clearly lording the situation over him. Laughton is probably at his best in this scene, just tremendously disdainful of the mutiny even as he’s being passively executed. Bligh swears that he will see each and every one of the mutineers “hanging from the highest yardarm,” and to his credit, he gives himself the chance. I hoped very much that the movie would take Christian’s perspective here, for the leader of the most iconic mutiny in naval history never did find out what happened to William Bligh. (The Bounty has the most iconic mutiny; the Potemkin can satisfy itself by having the better movie made about it.) We viewers know that Bligh did more or less what he set out to do; the story of Bligh’s harrowing and brilliant voyage of 4,000 miles would make an endurance movie worthy of Steve McQueen. (They can even call it Hunger 2.)
But Mutiny on the Bounty trips up badly at this point: it shows us, in a few minutes, some of that voyage, and from there the movie badly loses its focus. What had been a story of Christian and Byam (Tone), a pair of charismatic, highborn best friends forged on an ocean voyage of two years, turns into a revenge fantasy. The moral dilemma they face – intercede for the common crewmen in the face of a despot, or do one’s duty to the Navy and, by proxy, the Crown – is given over to a three-pronged thesis in three spheres. Byam, who had been knocked unconscious when the mutineers took the ship, reaps the benefits of a sojourn in Tahiti with the mutineers but makes the mistake of returning for duty when a British ship arrives. It is captained by Bligh, who is understandably loath to believe that Byam and his fellow midshipman weren’t mutineers when they weren’t on a twenty-foot-long boat with him for a couple months, and Byam is imprisoned. His story is not like Bligh’s, who is the upstairs to Byam’s downstairs in the final act, and who fades away as Byam’s peril is foregrounded; Laughton isn’t used well here, making faces typically given to grumpy schoolmasters or frumpy nobles. Christian, for his part, is on the other end of the world, having taken the Bounty away from Tahiti in the knowledge that he and his men (and their Tahitian families) can never be safe as long as the British know where to look for them. Wearing a bandana for the piratical connotation, holding this crew together more by force of personality than by discipline, he leads them to Pitcairn Island, optimistically pointing out the possibility of a world where no man has to be a slave to another man’s cruelty. It is not lost on the men that they have traded a lifetime of paradise for a lifetime of subsistence; as bad as the Bounty was, they had less than a year to go in service.
The movie makes Bligh the dry beriberi of villains, barking loudly but never screaming, dangerous without being unhinged, and intent on reducing his targets to the status of weak, sniveling wretches through repeated exposure. Christian is a spirited sailor, and by his own admission would not shy away from the expression of discipline onboard. But he objects to the way Bligh has it dished out, three-quarters torture and one-quarter sadism; Christian argues that punishment should not be used to make men crawl. I was a little surprised when the film gave Bligh a fairly quiet boarding, given the buildup the film had indulged in. But it pays off when a man who struck his captain is sent to the Bounty for his turn with the cat o’ nine tails, shuttled on a little boat from ship to ship in the harbor. Bligh’s hatchet man goes down with the whip but reports the sailor in question is dead, killed by his own hand, as it were, which is of course the point of this exercise. But Bligh shocks everyone, even Christian, even the master-at-arms who will whip just about everyone by the midway point of the film, by commanding that the whipping be carried out anyway. It’s the first of many for the crew, who discover that their captain is even worse than the reputation he holds in those English pubs susceptible to press gangs. Men who catch a shark with their ration are loath to share it with the ship’s clerk, who gets smacked with a shark filet and who gets those men smacked pretty hard. Another man is keelhauled, which doesn’t goes about as well for him as you’d expect. The ship’s drunken doctor, “Bacchus” (Dudley Digges), is ill when Bligh calls him on deck; in his effort to come up to witness a punishment, he collapses and dies.
Officers and gentlemen are largely exempt from Bligh’s pique, at least in the physical sense, but no one is totally exempt. Christian is to be kept aboard the Bounty during its entire stay in Tahiti, and is only allowed shore leave when a sympathetic chief (essential to Bligh’s moneymaking venture) makes it clear he wants Christian to get off the boat for a minute. Byam makes a mistake and pays for it by being sent into the crow’s nest for several hours, hanging on even in the middle of a tempest. Sprinkled in throughout are scenes where Bligh and Christian clash. In their first conversation, Bligh makes it clear that he expects his orders followed, and he also makes it clear that he resents Christian’s somewhat aristocratic background. Christian brings Byam down from the post, only to have Bligh order the midshipman back up. Later on Bligh calls Christian mutinous, belittles him frequently, and generally ignores his opinions about how best to rule the crew. They live in the last years when insulting the wrong guy might mean you paid for it with your life; Christian only makes Bligh pay for it with his ship.
Ironically, given the way the movie accidentally drops anchor in William Bligh’s turmoil, it’s the pace of the film that gives Mutiny on the Bounty its interest. The movie dances from perspective to perspective, character to character, moment to moment with dexterity. Shots of legs marching to a dive on the wharf lend them appropriate menace, even if it turns out two of them belong to Clark Gable. The movie puts the Bounty in harbor with other, larger ships to make sure we recognize the relative smallness of their breadfruit expedition as well as the closeness of the ship. There are incidents which occur when the ship is barely begun its voyage, but other incidents, aided with the presence of a map, mark the beatings and violence of the Bounty’s Tahitian voyage, making them like bullet points on a long list of cruelty. Tahiti, for its part, is left alone for what feels like an incredibly long time. Even if it is given an aside from time to time—there’s a memorable scene where Bligh’s answer to the thirsty breadfruit saplings is to reduce the men’s water ration—Tahiti really becomes a sort of paradise on earth. The women are kind and beautiful, and the men are friendly and helpful, but it’s the women who particularly captivate Christian and Byam. Compared to the hordes which covered the Bounty in Portsmouth, the canoes striding up to meet the Bounty in Tahiti are elegant and pleasingly organized. (Mutiny on the Bounty, let it be said plainly, indulges in Orientalism as much as any other ’30s movie. Reduced standards of dress, an increased connection between the natural world and the people of the island, women who are purely sex objects and who are silent besides, it’s all there.) The movie, as it builds toward the mutiny as the breadfruits are packed into the hold, takes on an appropriately menacing tone. We know, either from history or from common sense, that the long stay in Tahiti coupled with Bligh’s unpopularity is a toxic combination. Using each event as a transition, Mutiny on the Bounty is fabulous entertainment for at least the first half of the trip.