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Mutiny on the Bounty(1935)
Midshipman Roger Byam joins Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian aboard the HMS Bounty for a voyage to Tahiti. Bligh proves to be a brutal tyrant and, after six pleasant months on Tahiti, Christian leads the crew to mutiny on the homeward voyage. Even though Byam takes no part in the mutiny, he must defend himself against charges that he supported Christian.
For more about Mutiny on the Bounty and the Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray release, see Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on November 19, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Dudley Digges, Herbert Mundin, Donald Crisp (I)
Director: Frank Lloyd
» See full cast & crew
Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray Review
Into a Tropical Heaven…After a Voyage of Hell!
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, November 19, 2010
Is it hopeful tie-in marketing or just coincidence that this week sees the Blu-ray debuts of two of the works for which English-American actor and one- time director Charles Laughton is most remembered? Either way, for fans of the portly, froggy-lipped performer, this week is a windfall. On Tuesday, Criterion put out a stunning new edition of Laughton's lone directorial effort, 1955's The Night of the Hunter, a haunting Southern Gothic chiller that went sadly unappreciated in its own time. (So much so, that Laughton would never direct again.) On the same day, Warner Bros released 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty, in which Laughton gave what is perhaps his most memorable acting performance, as the impossibly tyrannical Captain Bligh. Filled with looming shadows and threatened innocence, Hunter is the better film, but it's not fair to compare the two—one the standalone masterpiece of a one-time auteur, the other a big-budget studio production—and besides, we're here to talk about Mutiny on the Bounty, which has an entirely different set of cinematic charms. It's a grand, based-on-a-true-story adventure on the high seas, a voyage that takes us from a seedy English seaside pub to the white beaches of Tahiti and the lonely shores of Pitcairn Island.
We begin in 1787 with a press gang stampeding into the aforementioned pub and forcibly conscripting the male patrons into the Royal Navy. They're to join the crew of The Bounty, about to set sail to Tahiti on a mission to gather breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies as cheap food for slaves. We get our first taste of foreshadowing when one of the draftees, after hearing that the Bounty will be under the command of Captain Bligh (Laughton), tries to bolt out the door. Clearly, the cap'n has a reputation. Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), a gentleman from an officer-class family about to embark on his virgin oceanic deployment, hears about Bligh from his father: "Bligh? He's a seagoing disaster! His hair is ropeyarn, his teeth are marlinspikes!" We expect to see a hulking, demonically wild-haired Blackbeard with fangs, but when we finally meet Bligh, he's a squat, sad, diminutive man with an obvious Napoleon complex, a cruel disciplinarian who commands respect only through fear. His inferiority crisis begins to make sense when we learn he is a "self-made man," not a gentleman.
On the voyage out, Bligh, for the smallest offences, starves his men, beats them—once, having a dead man whipped, just to prove a point— and even resorts to the most dreaded maritime punishment: keelhauling. (For those of you not versed in antique naval disciplinary measures—what are you doing with your lives?—keelhauling is when you tie a rope to a sailor, toss him in the water, and then drag him under the vessel, from one side to the other. If done quickly, the barnacles on the hull will rip the victim to shreds; if done slowly, the poor guy will likely drown. Either way, not fun.) First Officer Fletcher Christian, played by Clark Gable, sans-mustache, is morally opposed to Bligh's cruel tactics, and for a while, he plays a passive-aggressive game of standing up for the men and then backing down right before Bligh has adequate cause to have him jailed or whipped or worse. And while Christian's new friend Byam wants to side with him, the seventh-generation sailor has been bred to obey orders at all cost. What we have, then, is a portrait of three men who each respond differently to ideas of loyalty and duty, leadership and subservience.
Unnecessary Spoiler Alert: In case you didn't figure it out already, inevitably, there is a Mutiny on the Bounty, led by Christian, who sets Bligh adrift in a dinghy with a skeleton crew of loyalists, and then sails the Bounty back to Tahiti, where the mutineers take native wives and chill out for a few years while Bligh plots his revenge. (This only brings us up to act two.) The sections of the film set in Polynesia display an attitude that's still typical today; namely, that the South Pacific is a place where white westerners can escape their society and return to a leisurely life communing with nature. (See The Beach, The Thin Red Line, or the thousands of European tourists flocking to Thailand every December.) There's a certain naïve, borderline mystical orientalism of false assumptions at work here—Look how simply the natives live! They're poor and happy!—and the film stops well short of showing what actually happened when the mutineers settled on the sparsely populated Pitcairn Island to avoid detection. Gable gives a speech promising a free utopia, but the reality is that the sailors quickly resorted to rape and murder, and this history of violence continues to haunt the island. The descendants of the Bounty's crew still live on Pitcairn, which is currently scandalized by an only-recently revealed culture of perpetuated incest and pedophilia.
Anyway, adapted from an eponymous trilogy of novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall—who themselves took some liberties with the true events—Mutiny on the Bounty definitely plays fast and loose with historical accuracy. Among other discrepancies, Bligh wasn't quite the one-sided despot he's portrayed as here, and he never returned to Tahiti in some sort of vengeful search for Fletcher Christian. (The more- authentic but ultimately less successful 1984 remake, starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, portrays both Bligh and Christian in varying moral shades of gray.) These are dramatic additions that oversimplify the facts for the sake of narrative impact, but hey, it works. Laughton's Bligh is so unremittingly callous, so arrogant and insecure, that we really can't wait to see him get his comeuppance, and no matter how idealistic it may seem, we want Christian's utopia of self-governed men to come true.
This is big-budget escapism, after all, and as such, it totally succeeds. Mutiny on the Bounty won 1935's Academy Award for Best Picture, and even today it has a sweeping, epic tone that's pure old-school Hollywood. Director Frank Lloyd, no stranger to high seas escapades—he previously directed 1913's Captain Kidd, 1924's The Sea Hawk, and 1926's The Eagle of the Sea, amongst other briny adventures—made full use of his then-astronomical $2 million budget, whisking the audience away to on-location scenes shot in French Polynesia, where the production employed 2,500 native Tahitian extras. Yet, while the spectacle of the South Pacific scenery is indeed impressive, especially for its time, this is a character, not action-driven film, defined by the performances of its three leads. Franchot Tone is earnest and conflicted, painfully duty-bound. Clark Gable, even without his iconic mustache—which he reluctantly removed after learning Royal Navy sailors were required to be clean shaven—is suave and self-assured, a natural-born leader. And then, of course, there's Charles Laughton, deliciously despicable, one of the screen's great villains. Tone, Gable, and Laughton were each nominated that year for Best Actor in a Leading Role, the only time in Oscar history that three actors from the same film were given the nod.
Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray, Video Quality
Silent film is currently making a huge resurgence on Blu-ray, thanks to distributors like Kino—who, this month alone, released Metropolis and a Sherlock, Jr./Three Ages Buster Keaton double feature—but we've yet to see many films from the first decade of "talkies" grace the format. That'll change though, I'm sure, and if other films from the '30s are treated with as much restorative love and attention as 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty, then film collectors are in for a treat. Warner Bros has given the film a beautiful 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer that, minor age-related wear 'n' tear aside, looks spectacular. The studio has clearly spent the time and resources to go frame-by-frame through the film removing specks and other instances of print damage, and the result is an image that's very nearly pristine, with a rich, undisturbed grain structure. There are a few moments when brightness flickers, small vertical scratches slice through shots, and stain-like splotches mottle the picture, but these are fleeting and hardly distracting. Nor are there any apparent compression issues. What you will notice is the clarity of the now-75-year-old print, revealing the nuances of the naval costuming and the fine texture of the actors' faces. Any softness that is here—most apparent in the rear projection/matting shots—is a product of the original filming techniques. Furthermore, blacks are dense and whites are bright—though never overheated—giving the film a great sense of depth and presence.
Note: The images included here are in no way representative of this Blu-ray disc's picture quality. The actual image is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Rather than try to finagle a 5.1 mix out of the dated audio elements, Warner has wisely reproduced the film's original mono soundtrack with a lossless, single channel DTS-HD Master Audio presentation. The sound is fairly characteristic of its time—slightly tinny highs, not much low-end, dialogue that sounds occasionally, though not obtrusively, crackly—but it is what it is, and there's no cause for complaint. (No hisses, drop-outs, garbled voices, etc.) Herbert Stothart's score is appropriately sweeping, the sound effects have adequate heft, and the actors' lines are almost always intelligible. What more could you ask for?
Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Pitcairn Island Today (SD, 9:39)
Well, not today today. This is a newsreel/promo from the 1930s examining what life was like then for the islanders. If you were to make a documentary about Pitcairn Island today, it'd probably be about incest, rape, and violence. Just sayin'.
1936 Newsreel: Mutiny of the Bounty Wins 1935 Award (SD, 1:00)
A Hearst Metrotone newsreel with footage from the 1935 Academy Awards.
Includes theatrical trailers for both the 1935 film (SD, 3:14) and the 1962 Marlon Brando-starring remake (SD, 4:03).
The disc is housed in a classy 35-page digibook, complete with stills, production notes, vintage poster designs, on-set photos, and profiles of Frank Lloyd, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone.
Mutiny on the Bounty Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I'm a sucker for an Old Hollywood adventure on the high seas, and Mutiny on the Bounty is one of the better ones, featuring shot-on-location Tahitian scenery and captivating performances from Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, who is so effectively tyrannical here you'll want to reach inside the screen and strangle him. The Blu-ray release is unfortunately short on supplementary materials, but it boasts a fantastically restored high definition transfer, lossless audio, and comes housed in a sturdy—and informative!—digibook. Recommended.
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