The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

The story of Fletcher Christian's mutiny aboard the H.M.S Bounty against Captain William Bligh is one of the most famous historical stories that just about everyone knows in some form or another.  It is a story that translates well to film, including three well known flicks and a few other less highly regarded ones, with versions made in 1935, 1962, and 1984.  The 1935 version, appropriately titled Mutiny on the Bounty, is the one held in highest regard, even earning the Best Picture Oscar and a long list of nominations.

While I'm not doubting the movie for its entertainment value, it does suffer from a problem many movies from the 1930s have.  The movie studios were still making the transitition from silent to sound with many actors making the jump right from the stage to the big screen.  But before method acting developed in the 1950s, many roles came across as too theatrical, too over the top, as if the actors were playing to audiences who would have been sitting right in front of them.  Because of that, it can be hard to get a read on characters and what they're going through, especially in the case of 1935's Bounty.

Making his first sea voyage with an objective of writing a Tahitian dictionary, Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) boards the H.M.S. Bounty with romantic ideas of what the sea is like.  He bonds quickly with Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), the master's mate, and the two become fast friends.  The Bounty is sailing to Tahiti where they will pick up 1,000 breadfruits and deliver them to the West Indies.  The captain of the ship, William Bligh (Charles Laughton), rules his ship with an iron fist and quickly turns the crew against him with his gung-ho mentality.  Christian especially bristles at how Bligh runs the ship, and after successly acquiring the breadfruits, leads a mutiny, putting Bligh and some of the crew on a longboat on the open seas.

Having seen the other two versions, the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson takes, there was nothing that came as much of a surprise with the 1935 version.  The enjoyment of watching movies that deal with similar subjects is how they handle the stories differently.  History is built around facts, but it's funny how different those facts can be interpreted in the eyes of the beholder.  The actual mutiny is typically handled in the same way, but the build-up and repercussions tend to differ.

The Academy must really have loved the acting in 'Bounty' because Laughton, Gable, and Tone were all nominated for Best Actor...with none of them actually winning.  Laughton is a fine actor with a long list of impressive roles to his name, but his Bligh comes across as too cartoonishly evil.  Granted, the historical Bligh was not a pleasant character, but some human emotions would have been nice for the character.  Gable's Christian is a little better, the voice of the crew who can't understand the madness of their captain.  Tone's Byam is a smattering of many different members of the Bounty and is the wavering voter, the individual in the middle.  As an officer in the British navy, he should be loyal to his captain but what about his friendship with Fletcher?

Trying to figure out how to review 'Bounty,' the acting was a sticking point.  It isn't bad, far from it.  I've seen much worse in the way of 1930s over the top theatrical acting.  But at the same time, it's hard to say we actually get to know these characters.  They're more like cardboard cutouts spouting their lines.  Bligh is evil, Christian is good, and Byam is trying to find himself.  The hatred and friendship that develops is genuine, but it's easy to side with Christian's decision -- for me at least.  Bligh is a blatant liar who treats his men horrifically when it doesn't always call for it.  Of course, in all three versions I've sided with Christian's decision.  Guess I would have been a mutineer on Pitcairn Island.

As a historical movie, 'Bounty' is all about the spectacle of a high seas voyage.  While most of the acting on-board the Bounty was clearly done on a soundstage with an oceanic backdrop, there are actual shots of an 18th century ship sailing across the ocean, and not always in calm seas.  There are great shots of the crew preparing the ship for sailing high above in the masts as the expansive sails come flowing down.  And not really a surprise, but Tahiti sure looks nice.  Maybe not as nice as it did in Technicolor in the 1962 version, but it's hard to make paradise look bad.

So good and bad, I'm still recommending this movie.  For all its faults, 'Bounty' is still an entertaining adventure, especially if you're a fan of the history it is based in.  Maybe the acting is too much at times, but Gable is and always will be pretty cool onscreen.  There are flaws, and the ending does leave a fair share of subplots and storylines waving in the breeze, but worth a rent if nothing else.

Mutiny on the Bounty <----trailer (1935): ** 1/2 /****

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