Dec. 9, 2008
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Grade: 94/100

Director: Frank Lloyd
Stars: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone

What it's about. Set circa 1788 to 1792. A historical drama based on the famous British Navy mutiny. Bligh (Charles Laughton) is the captain of the Bounty, a ship bound for tropical paradise Tahiti. The mission is to stow breadfruit trees as cargo, and deliver them to the Carribean Islands, where they can be planted and feed slaves.

Bligh is a master sailor, but also believes in strict discipline to the point of cruelty. His first mate, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), sympathizes with the flogged and deprived crew. The conflict between the two determined and temperamental men gradually intensifies. Caught in the middle is Byam (Franchot Tone), a studious and good-natured midshipman.

The Bounty reaches Tahiti, where the crew are warmly received by friendly natives. Tone and Gable take lovers during the months that the ship is repaired and supplied for the return trip to England. The contrast between glorious Tahiti and the privations of the Bounty, along with the malicious discipline of Bligh, causes Fletcher to side with mutineer sailors. Bligh and his loyalists are put in a rowboat with meager provisions. Tone is not allowed to join Bligh, who despite weeks of water and food rationing gets his rowboat and loyalists to a friendly shore.

Meanwhile, Gable, Tone, and the Bounty return to Tahiti. Eventually, Bligh returns with another ship. The Bounty flees to the safety of an uncharted island, leaving Tone behind to argue his innocence to Bligh. Instead, he is taken prisoner and shipped to England for a court martial.

How others will see it. Mutiny on the Bounty was one of the biggest MGM productions to date. Fortunately for the studio, it was successful, with critics and (more importantly) at the box office. It is the only film to receive three nominations for Best Actor: Gable, Laughton, and Tone. The three actors predictably split the vote, allowing the only other nominee (Victor McLaglen) to win. Mutiny on the Bounty won just one Oscar, but it was for the biggest prize of all, Best Picture.

The film served as a prototype for two future big budget remakes: a 1962 version with Marlon Brando as mutineer Christian, and a 1984 film with Mel Gibson in the same role. Both are good films, but neither holds a candle to the 1935 version.

The publicity department of MGM did their best to promote the film as a romance, to entice a female audience. But despite the few shots of Gable and Tone with idyllic brunette natives, this is an adventure film made for men. Who ought to enjoy it immensely.

How I felt about it. The three major characters have different philosophies of command. Bligh believes that men work best under the threat of punishment. Christian espouses that sailors will toil without the lash, because, after all, they're Englishmen. Tone wonders why we all can't get along. He seeks to obey the law, whether or not it is fair. Yet he is ashamed of the severe actions of his fellow British officers.

All three major versions (1935, 1962, 1984) imply that Fletcher Christian was in the right to mutiny against an unjust captain. This is obvious by their casting. Christian is played by A list heroic actors, and Bligh is a villain aside from steadfast command on the rowboat.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) is notable as the most important film (by far) in the career of director/producer Frank Lloyd. The seldom discussed Lloyd apparently earned his Bounty assignment by winning Best Director for Cavalcade, a 1933 romantic drama cast with 'B' actors.