Saturday, November 6, 2010

1962 - Mutiny on the Bounty

I'm writing this in the few remaining hours of Daylight Savings in New York City. Tomorrow, the darkness creeps in an hour earlier. Subsequently, each day will see the sunset arrive sooner than the day before... Well, okay, that makes it sound far more foreboding than is necessary. Still, I'll be hotfooting it soon to the other side of the equator, where not only is the day getting longer, but warmer too. Kat and I have a visit home to Sydney planned for Christmas and New Year's. But more on that later...

Yesterday, I viewed the last in the shortlist for 1962's Best Picture crown...

Mutiny on the Bounty
Lewis Milestone
Charles Lederer
(based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall)
Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris, Hugh Griffith, Richard Haydn, Tarita, Percy Herbert
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

Based on a novel which was itself based on a true story, Mutiny on the Bounty is apparently not entirely accurate in its portrayal of the famous maritime feud. Nonetheless, the film is a remarkably successful application of the adage, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

In 1787, the British Royal Navy sends the H.M.S. Bounty and its captain, William Bligh (Howard), on an expedition to collect breadfruit from Tahiti. The captain's cruel and inconsiderate treatment of the crew hits a nerve with the ship's first mate Fletcher Christian (Brando), but he holds his tongue for the moment. After spending five months in Tahiti waiting for the new breadfruit crop to yield (and making the most of the island lifestyle, if you know what I mean), the crew take on board dozens more plants than they originally intended to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, there is not enough water on board to keep all the plants alive, so Bligh reduces the crew's rations. Problem solved. This, along with a few more heartless acts, slowly pushes Christian over the edge and, with the aid of some of the unhappier members of the crew, he orchestrates a mutiny. (I know. I've just given away a major plot twist. In my defense, though, it is in the title. Clearly, the producers of the Mel Gibson version knew better.)

There is never a dull moment in Mutiny on the Bounty, which is no mean feat for a three-hour movie. But it's not just because of the thrilling action scenes. A big part of the film's power comes from the intense psychological battle between the two main characters. Both men are loyal to their country but their ideas on how best to affirm their patriotism are polar opposites, as are their leadership techniques. Their disdain for each other is apparent due to several bitter yet contained exchanges. Indeed, the script is clever enough to keep their conflict simmering on low heat until the right moment, resulting in some utterly engaging drama. The witty and refined dialogue doesn't hurt either. For example, when asked about his feelings regarding the mutiny, Christian remarks that he does not regret his actions "except for a slight desire to be dead which I'm sure will pass."

The seductive nature of the love story between Christian and his Tahitian girlfriend, Maimiti (played by Tarita), seems slightly gratuitous, akin to the absurdity of Captain Kirk's alien conquests. Maimiti's father, who happens to be the tribal Chief (and is peculiarly portrayed as a giggling buffoon), delivers an ultimatum barring the Britons from taking any breadfruit unless Christian sleeps with his daughter. Still, the real Fletcher Christian ended up marrying Maimiti, plus Brando married Tarita, so stranger things have happened, I guess.

Marlon Brando is obscenely watchable as the head mutineer. Affecting a flawless British accent, his natural mannerisms and constant thought processes are nothing short of captivating. He is matched by Trevor Howard's strong turn as the stubbornly tyrannical William Bligh, expertly delivering his many biting lines. Also compelling is future Hogwarts principal Richard Harris as Seaman John Mills. And as glad as I am to see legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty in the cast, his broad Australian accent is more than a little inappropriate for the time period. British settlement of the land down under did not occur until 1788.

The other Australian connection to the film is the fact that William Bligh eventually became the 4th Governor of my home state of New South Wales. His horrid luck with insubordination continued, however, when he was deposed in a military coup known as the Rum Rebellion. Clearly not meant to be a leader.


  1. With each year you cover, Matt, I do a little prep work on the nominees - which means that while avoiding actually reading specific reviews, I check to see how each film fared with the annual critics, associations and industry awards. The older the year covered, the fewer the awards. I put trust in my own opinions not to be influenced by the results (but I do know of and put some credence in the Pygmalion Effect or self-fulfilling prophesy). In the case of 1962, Mutiny on the Bounty was clearly the least embraced of the nominees. With my formula, the points from high to low without naming other films were 619, 582, 557, 530 and Mutiny's 396. I had seen the film only in its theatrical release, never really feeling like watching it again before the viewing for your blog.

    All this wordy preamble it to point out that surprisingly, I found the film very entertaining, absorbing and frankly I liked it more than the 1935 version that won Best Picture. The film is quite spectacular, with a script full of wit and insight. Like The Longest Day, Mutiny on the Bounty used three directors, however unlike The Longest Day, it wasn't by design. Sir Carol Reed was the director of hire, and he took it until the Tahiti sequences where he was forced to leave after bad weather stalled the production for months. Old school director (and two time Academy Award winner) Lewis Milestone took over and became the director of credit. He and Brando did not see eye to eye, which isn't surprising considering Brando's reputation, and Brando himself took over the duties during his death scene and ending. Seeing how interminable those scenes were, indicates that Brando should have left well enough alone.

    Despite these shifts in the helm (sort of a mutiny on Mutiny on the Bounty), the film moves along splendidly, with fine action scenes and character development. I'm glad to read of your positive comments toward Brando's interpretation and accent. I agree wholeheartedly, and feel his dandified aristocrat was not only more interesting than the straight heroic approach from Clark Gable in the original, but more accurate to the actual story. I think most of the divisiveness of the film concerned Brando's performance. As a matter of fact, last night Turner Classic movies showed this film as part of its Essential Series, and there was a difference of opinion between hosts Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin, with Osborne faulting Brando and Baldwin applauding him. Trevor Howard was excellent as well. Perhaps not as flamboyantly villainous as Charles Laughton, but he captured the stubbornness and shortsightedness of someone trying to rise above his level of incompetence.

    As to the technical side, the film looked great. The recreation of the Bounty lent much to the production design. I regret not going to see the ship when it was docked at the 1963 New York World's Fair. All in all, I wouldn't separate it from the other nominees in 1962 nearly as much as the general consensus.

  2. Ah, I see now. Is this formula why you are so good at predicting the winners come Oscar time? :)

    It's interesting you mention the Pygmalian effect. I also find it difficult to avoid the influence that a film's place in popular culture can assert. In fact, I'll be talking a bit about that in my upcoming verdict.

    I haven't yet seen the 1935 version (one of the very few Best Picture winners I've never seen) so I'm looking forward to making comparisons when that comes around. (Plus, I added The Bounty to my Netflix queue since it's been a VERY long time since I've seen that.)

    And yep, I thought Brando was brilliant. At first, he did sound a bit prissy (and with the obvious ADR in that opening scene, I honestly wondered for a brief moment whether Brando's performance had been dubbed by an actual British actor) but once you become familiar with the sound of his voice, the performance seems impeccable.

  3. When predicting the Oscars from the 1960s through the 1980s, a little library research went a long way to giving me the edge. Today, with the Internet, just reading MCN's Guru's of Gold, Awards Daily, In Contention or Gold Derby pretty much assures you of getting 80% right. Still, even with all those predictors, it can be tough. Last year's The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar debate went right to the end. I've always maintained that the biggest challenge was guessing the nominees rather than the winners.

    I hope I won't have to eat my words when we get to 1935. I last saw that year's Mutiny on the Bounty about 8 years ago, and it was good, so we'll have to see.

    I guess Brando was satisfied with his accent for Mutiny on the Bounty; he pretty much reprised it when he played Jorel in Superman.

    As to my secret formula, all it really is, is a compilation of scores from IMDB, AMG, TV Guide, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic (if available), Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin. Most of the time there is consensus among these indicators, although occasionally there's an aberration. For example, Ebert only gave To Kill a Mockingbird 2 out of 4 stars. He made some valid points, but I didn't agree with all of them (I read his review after I watched the movie again)

  4. Stick to the 1935 version. Much better.

    (I voted for 1986.)

  5. I went to Port Orford in Oregon back in 1993. The farthest you can go in mainland USA. There I heard from locals that the film version of the 'Bounty' was moored up there for quite a while as the the crew were all being seasick. Don't know if some filming was done along the Oregon coast. Cheers. Jay