Mutiny on the Bounty
Directed by Frank Lloyd
Starring: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Movita
Mutiny won Best Picture at the 8th Academy Awards and is the only film to score three best actor nominations. Since many in the Academy wanted to award both Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, the vote was split and the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories were created as a result. The American Film Institute ranked Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian as the 86th best hero and Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh as the 18th best villain of all time.
Once again, the TCM hub on Max recommended me a gap in my film knowledge. While there are a few Best Picture winners that are out-and-out terrible (The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimmaron), anyone serious about film should make an effort to see each one.
Separately, my grandma has been in poor health, and Clark Gable is her favorite actor. I watched this one thinking of her.
British sailors in the 1700’s were often pressed into service, unceremoniously lumped in with criminals and debtors, and forced to man a ship with no knowledge of their destination. Such a roundup happened in 1787, and these poor souls were made to sail to Tahiti under the command of Captain Bligh. Bligh is notorious for his cruel micromanagement, demanding perfection at minimum and horrific punishment for infractions.
Bligh’s first mate, Fletcher Christian, is aghast at Bligh’s methods, but has no leverage since Bligh is mainly punishing criminals. Tensions mount once the men of The Bounty reach Tahiti, where the locals treat the sailors humanely. On the return voyage, Christian sees Bligh starving the sailors and officers to death. The first mate reaches his breaking point, puts Bligh and his loyalists on a lifeboat, then sails everyone back to Tahiti. Can these justified mutineers form a new life here? Or will their past actions come back to haunt them?
As the credits rolled, my gut reaction was yes. Then, I read about the historical events upon which the movie is based. Though I grant biopics a wide berth (history and characters don’t always line up with the plot beats necessary for film), I was fascinated and disappointed by what the film left out.
The 1935 film ends with Christian and his men escaping to the naturally inaccessible island of Pitcairn. In real life, Bligh couldn’t follow them there, and the island remained hidden for 20 years. Then, American seal hunters discovered Pitcairn and a startling truth: while the women and children had built a thriving community, The Bounty mutineers and the Tahitian men had become paranoid and murdered each other! Only one mutineer remained alive, and his account was corroborated by Christian’s children. Since the mutineers were all dead, the Americans offered passage without fear of reprisal from Britain. The inhabitants of the island left for Australia, New Zealand, and The United States, while the last mutineer remained the sole resident of Pitcairn Island.
So cool, right? Unfortunately, Hollywood may have considered that half of the story unsavory, especially since Gable’s character would’ve been murdered. It also would’ve bloated the movie’s length and reduced Captain Bligh’s part. In today’s streaming world, though, telling both halves of the story could make for an enthralling limited series.
As it stands, the 1935 film remains a solid, if narrow, dramatization of the infamous historical event.
Only cinephiles should climb aboard. The film is coming up on 90 years old, so the performances and filmmaking may seem quaint and old-fashioned to current audiences. That said, the artistic innovations Mutiny on the Bounty attempted can still be appreciated. I found a graphic keelhauling scene both eye-popping and stomach churning—impressive after just having watched The Northman. As with many studio films of the ‘30s, Mutiny on the Bounty has towering, wondrous sets and hundreds of extras, none of which can be found in movies today. While the spectacle of Mutiny doesn’t hold up to modern CGI bonanzas, the scale, craftsmanship, and drama in this film make its Best Picture win obvious for its time.
Another “of its time” aspect is the Tahitian casting. While many of the extras and even one of the female supporting roles were played by actual Pacific Islanders, the chief looks hilariously Anglo-Saxon. His bad spray tan in conjunction with his snow-white mustache make him one monocle short of playing Colonel Mustard in a tropical-themed Clue. While, thankfully, today’s moviegoers are removed from that type of whitewashing (right? RIGHT?), Movita’s character, Tehani, is another story.
A Mexican American, Movita often played “island girls” in studio pictures from the ‘30s to the ‘50s. Not only did this practice steal roles from already starved people of color, the process itself was humiliating, as the island girl archetype had similar characterization and dialogue, no matter the setting. How do I know this? Because Rita Moreno described the process repeatedly during her promotion tour for West Side Story (2021). According to Moreno, her heritage and culture didn’t matter, much less the heritage and culture of the person she was playing. While this practice has, thankfully, been minimized, whitewashing in Western cinema still occasionally rears its head. Ghost in the Shell was only five years ago.
While Mutiny certainly handles the issue better than many of its contemporaries, viewers should be aware before hitting play.