Monday, March 12, 2012

Jordyn Does the Best Picture Winners: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

In 1787, the HMS Bounty, a ship in the British Royal Navy, sets sail for Tahiti to gather breadfruit pods to be sent to West Indies as cheap food for slaves. The virile and handsome Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) serves as master's mate to Lieutenant William Bligh (Charles Laughton), the perpetually scowling captain. Also aboard is Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) a friendly man with aspirations to make an English-Tahitian dictionary. En route to Tahiti, Captain Bligh proves to be cruel and abusive tyrant; he accuses his men of theft, works them past exhaustion, and punishes them severely, sometimes fatally, for insubordination. Eventually the Bounty lands in Tahiti where Christian falls in love with a young native woman (Mamo Clark). After five months of living on an island paradise, the Bounty heads back to England. One final act of tyranny by Bligh leads Christian and eighteen other men to the titular mutiny.

It's very likely that you have some notion of this epic true story because it has been adapted for the screen no less than five times. This particular version is based on the 1932 novel Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall. What you might not realize--as I didn't until there was ten minutes left in my most recent viewing--is that BP #8 is the first in a long line of winners "based on true events". It's amazing how far we got into this before it happened considering the stiffie Oscar gets for biopics these days. But there you go.

The trouble with a "true story" is the audience has a pretty good chance of knowing what happens and finds watching a cinematic version a waste of their time. I remember this being a common joke floating around on late 90's sitcoms. When faced with the prospect of seeing Titanic, some snarker would quip "But I already know how it ends!!" [canned laughter]. So yes, even if the film-goer knows nothing of history, he at least knows there will be mutiny aboard the Bounty because it's in the freakin' title.

A film like Mutiny on the Bounty is more about the how and why versus the what. Why was a 22-year-old man driven to commit mutiny against captain and crown? How in the hell did he succeed? The film presents a theory. What we must remember about this particular telling of The Legend of the Bounty is that it's based on a novel written some 150 years after the fact instead of being based the true events themselves. To make it work as a story one man must be made the shining hero and one the dastardly villain.

There aren't many more dastardly villains that Charles Laughton's Captain Bligh. The character even makes "AFI's 100 Years....100 Heroes and Villains" list as bad guy #19. I hate these lists, but that's beside the point. Here Bligh is represented as a Grade A sadistic, control freak asshole with not one sympathetic characteristic. He is greedy, under handed and, my apologies to Charles Laughton, completely unpleasant to look at. Those thick, frowning lips just give me the heebie-jeebies. Bligh is not a villain we are meant to sympathize with or even a villain are suppose to "love to hate"; we are just meant to HATE him. Bligh is a genius with navigation as we see when he and his loyal men are cast adrift. But there is more to being a good captain than knowing how to steer a boat.

On the other side we have Fletcher Christian whom Clark Gable makes dead sexy. Cocksure and headstrong, cockstrong and headsure, Fletcher Christian is a MAN. Fluttery pirate shirts and tri-corn hats...sigh. Okay. Let's get serious. In the context of this film, Christian is the hero, the one who declares independence on a despotic dickhead. But what makes the story/novel/film so interesting is not everyone aboard the Bounty agreed with the mutiny. In fact 22 men sided with Bligh while only 18 sided with Christian. 4 men loyal to Bligh were forced to stay aboard the Bounty and head back to Tahiti.

One of these men was Peter Heywood who, for some reason, is given the new name of Roger Byam in the novel and film. Franchot Tone's character represents the middle ground; a man who completely disagrees with Bligh's cruelty but cannot bring himself to betray his captain, his navy or his country. To make matters worse, Byam was friends with Christian which implicates him when he eventually returns to England as is court-martialed as a mutineer. Both Heywood and Byam were pardoned by King George III.

The more I research the real mutiny on the Bounty for this stupid little entry, the more disillusioned about this film I become. When it comes right down to it, it's just a story of he said-he said. Since the mutineers stayed in Tahiti, there wasn't any direct testimony from them. Bligh really could have been a miserable cur but it's also possible 18 men were simply tired rampant buggery and wanted to live on beautiful tropical island with girls who cover their ta-tas with floppy necklaces of flowers. So who the fuck knows.

So Mutiny on the Bounty is also the first in a long line of historically inaccurate Best Picture winners. I don't think it's as bad as Braveheart (can't wait!) but...if you want a more accurate/in color/modern/sympathetic-towards-Bligh version check out 1984's The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. My mom likes it. Or if you want something faster and a little more low-brow, The Simpsons did a parody in the episode "The Wettest Stories Ever Told".

...and that's all I have to say about that.

Impressions circa 2004
Positive. Clark Gable in a pirate shirt...yes, please!

Other Nominations and Wins
(bold represents win)
  • Best Director - Frank Lloyd 
  • Best Actor - Clark Gable 
  • Best Actor - Charles Laughton 
  • Best Actor - Franchot Tone 
  • Best Adapted Screenplay 
  • Best Score 
  • Best Film Editing 

1935 Best Picture Nominees
(bold represents films I have seen...followed by my opinion in 10 words or less.)
  • Alice Adams 
  • Broadway Melody of 1936 
  • Captain Blood 
  • David Copperfield 
  • The Informer 
  • Les Miserables 
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer - It sure took place in India, didn't it?
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream 
  • Naughty Marietta 
  • Ruggles of Red Gap 
  • Top Hat 

What I Learned From...Mutiny on the Bounty
It never pays to be loyal to a tyrant.

No comments: