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The Best Picture Winners: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

23 Sep

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


I shouldn’t like Mutiny on the Bounty as much as I do.  I have no real reason to like it.  It’s basically the wildly fictionalized retelling of Fletcher Christian’s 1797 takeover of the HMS Bounty from the tyrannical Captain Bligh – a meeting of two minds, you might say.  One mind bound to the safety and morale of his men, the other bound to the letter of the law.  But who wants to watch that?  Who wants to watch a movie about a mentally unbalanced captain dolling out insane, and unspeakably cruel, punishments to his men?  Well . . . me, it turns out.

I’ve seen Mutiny on the Bounty many times and while it’s a large epic, its inward story is rather simple-minded.  Yet, looking outward from the story, I find that it’s a perfect allegory for anyone who has ever found themselves under the thumb of an unreasoning and immobile supervisor who pleasures themselves by pushing and belittling those underlings in his or her charge.  Bligh, is a perfect stand-in for all those who stand above us without ever reasoning the human element.

In that, the movie really belongs the Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh.  With his paranoid eyes, his ratty brow and an almost ordinary manner of dispatching floggings, Laughton created a villain for the ages. Bligh lords over the crew of The Bounty with an iron fist.  Short of stature, short of conscience, prone to punish for minor crimes, we see him as a man capable of battling the ocean but is completely ignorant of the human condition.  Everything that he brings to the role contributes to the effect.  He has the jowly face a pouty lower lip of an angry child.  He has a gate that makes up for an imposing height.  His hat, his coat, his costume remind us of Napoleon.

I admit I have my problems with the film (too many, actually) but I can’t deny Laughton for his performance, it is all in his eyes.  When Christian confronts him there is a buried insecurity in Bligh, a paranoia that runs into his bones.  He knows that if he is too lenient on his crew that they will take advantage but if he rules with an iron fist they will keep their place.

Before the ship sets sail we question Bligh’s sanity – he orders the flogging of a dead man just to keep the letter of the law.  At sea, when a crewman asks for water for his sore knees, Bligh casts him overboard.  When a hunk of cheese goes missing, he punishes three men by forcing them to work on their knees.

Christian rouses the men to rise against their tyrannical master and take command of the ship.  In the most famous moment, as Bligh and his loyal followers are about to be cast out to sea in a small boat he makes a famous proclamation to the revolting crew: “Casting me adrift thirty-five hundred miles from a port of call! You’re sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you’re wrong, Christian. I’ll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I’ll live to see you — all of you — hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet!”

Fletcher Christian tells him “I’ll take my chances against the law – You’ll take yours against the sea.” We are reasonably conditioned, like Christian, to believe that no man and his crew could survive against the open seas in a small boat. But we are startled to find that the most frightening aspect of Bligh is that he is really smarter than we think.  Left for dead on the rough seas in a small boat with little to eat and little to drink, it is assumed that he and the crew will perish but Christian has overlooked his skills as a seaman.  An expert navigator, Bligh guides the small boat on a 3600 mile journey to safety, the to coast of Timor in the East Dutch Indies while The Bounty turns toward the isolated safety of Tahiti.

Other movies have taught us that Bligh will get his comeuppance, but what we miss is that there’s a reason that Bligh is in command and the movie reveals that when he and his crew are set adrift.  Bligh, ever the master seaman, makes a 3600 mile journey in a tiny boat to Timor in the West Indies.  Bearded, exhausted, he proclaims that “We’ve beaten the sea itself”.

The performance would become Laughton’s legacy but for Laughton himself he felt that he gave better performances elsewhere. He didn’t disown the role but he felt that it didn’t fill the capacity of what he could do.  Yet, I couldn’t deny him the performance, it is a brilliant, tricky performance, one at which a seemingly one-dimensional character outsmarts even those of us who think we have him figured out.

Where I think the movie comes apart is at the very end.  Bligh returns to England for the court martial hearing of one of his first officers, but while we wait for him to get his comeuppance, it comes in the form of a minor talking-to and disapproval from the court.  That’s it!?!  All this tyranny and Bligh only gets the stink eye?  I fault the movie but not the performance.  Laughton plays a villain for the ages, the movie . . . not so much.

 

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