Mutiny on the Bounty

Released:  1935

Cast:  Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Movita, Mamo

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture

Oscar Nominations:  Best Director (Frank Lloyd), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actor (Charles Laughton), Best Actor (Franchot Tone), Best Writing, Screenplay (Jules Furthman, Talbot Jennings, Carey Wilson), Best Music, Scoring (Nat W. Finston, Herbert Stothart), Best Film Editing (Margaret Booth)

SUMMARY:  In 1787, the HMS Bounty leaves England on a journey to get breadfruit trees from the island of Tahiti, which will take two years.  Shortly before the ship sails, a group of men are press-ganged into the crew by the ship’s lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable).  Despite this action, Christian quickly proves to be a compassionate and understanding man, even arranging for one of the press-ganged men to see his family once more before the voyage.  The ship’s captain, William Bligh (Charles Laughton) is a different story:  he believes in harsh discipline, and frequently has his men flogged or otherwise punished for even slight infractions.  In addition to the new crew members, there is also a new midshipman on board – Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), who is following in his family’s seven-generation naval tradition.  Byam and Christian quickly become friends.  However, the relationship between Christian and Bligh grows worse the longer they are together.  On the way to Tahiti, Christian grows more and more disapproving of Bligh’s methods, and begins to challenge the captain openly.  Bligh refuses to back down, and when the ship reaches Tahiti, he orders Christian to stay aboard the ship, rather than enjoying shore leave like the others.  Byam is the first ashore, so that he can work on a dictionary of the Tahitian language.  Though Bligh wants Byam to return to the ship each night, the island chief insists that Byam stay with him, as a personal guest.  This chief, Hitihiti, already knows Bligh, and after several days manages to arrange for shore leave for Christian.  Christian has barely stepped foot on the island when he is ordered back to the ship, but he ignores the order (telling the messenger to tell Bligh that Christian could not be found) and spends the day with Byam and two local women.  That evening, Christian heads back to the ship, but tells one of the women, Maimiti (Mamo) that he will return.

Upon their return to sea, the good moods brought on by Tahiti quickly vanish, as Bligh’s tyranny continues.  When he learns that the breadfruit trees need more fresh water than the ship can provide, Bligh decides to cut the water ration of the sailors to keep the plants healthy.  Bligh is also blamed for the death of the ship’s surgeon, who is beloved by the men.  For Christian, the final straw comes when he finds several men shackled in irons (and without water) below decks:  he decides to join a group of seamen who want to mutiny.  This group seizes the ship, and put Bligh, most of the officers, and the loyal sailors into a lifeboat outfitted with supplies.  During the fight for the ship, Byam decides that his loyalty must be to his captain, and tries to attack the mutineers.  He is knocked out, and only comes to as the lifeboat is leaving.  He tries to get on it, but Christian claims there is no room:  Byam is then locked up with a few other loyal sailors who would not fit in the boat (severing his friendship with Christian).  After sending of Bligh and his men, Christian turns the ship around and heads back to Tahiti.  Meanwhile, rather than dying at sea, Bligh has managed to navigate his tiny boat back to land, and eventually makes his way back into the British navy.  After returning to Tahiti, the remaining crew of the Bounty make a life among the locals.  Christian marries Maimiti and has a baby; over Christmas, Byam decides to put aside his anger towards Christian, and the two become friends again.  Not long after, a ship is spotted approaching the island.  Byam is excited, as it means he will get to go home, but Christian and most of the other men decide to flee with their new families; they immediately leave on the Bounty.  Byam and the others are picked up by the new ship – only to find that it is captained by Bligh, who has come looking for Christian.  Believing that the few remaining men from the Bounty know where Christian is, Bligh has them imprisoned for the rest of the journey (which is extensive).  When they finally returned to England, all of the men (including Byam) are court-martialed for mutiny.  They are all declared guilty, but Byam gives a rousing speech about how the mutiny was warranted because of Bligh’s cruelty.  Before the death sentence is carried out, a powerful friend of Byam’s intervenes and secures a pardon:  Byam is allowed to resume his naval career.  In the meantime, Christian and the men have found Pitcairn Island, and decided to live there.  To keep themselves from being found again, the men crash the Bounty onto the rocks, then burn the ship.

MY TAKE:  This movie reminds me a little of The Swiss Family Robinson, particularly once the mutineers have gone back to Tahiti – Bligh’s return is reminiscent of the pirate attack.  As desired, the injustice of the situation on the Bounty outraged me.  While Bligh was usually justified in his punishment, I frequently thought they were too harsh.  I’m surprised he didn’t expect or see the mutiny coming, because he kept catching the men saying nasty things about him.  Leadership is a fine line to tread:  you have to be in charge, and enforce your power, but if you are too harsh, those under you will remove you from power.  Clearly, Bligh stepped over that line (in the movie; the film was based on a novelization of the account, which takes some liberties with how cruel Bligh really was).  At first, I couldn’t understand Byam’s attitude, because he obviously despised Bligh.  However, after thinking about it for a while, it made more sense:  his loyalty was to the navy, regardless of how one captain acted.  The fact that Bligh and most of the loyal men made it back to civilization makes it clear that Bligh actually was an incredible seaman – he was just a lousy captain from a public relations standpoint.  I was incensed that Byam was put on trial for mutiny, and then that he was convicted.  However, I also didn’t like that he was the only one to receive the pardon.  I had a lot of conflicting feelings about the ending of the movie.  You many notice that Clark Gable doesn’t have a mustache in this movie:  although it was his trademark, British sailors in that time period had to be clean-shaven, so he actually had to shave it off.  Another two fun facts:  this is the third and last movie to win Best Picture and no other Oscars (the first two were The Broadway Melody and Grand Hotel), and it’s the only film ever to have three Best Actor nominations (none of which won, which I’m pretty sure is a statistical anomaly).

RATING:  Great adventure movie.

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