“But there’s another story, Captain Bligh, of ten cocoanuts and two cheeses. A story of a man who robbed his seamen, cursed them, flogged them, not to punish but to break their spirit. A story of greed and tyranny, and of anger against it, of what it cost”.
Clarke Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind is one of those iconic performances that will live on forever. Clarke Gable in It Happened One Night is one I only saw for the first time a few years ago, but it immediately proved to me that his work in Gone With the Wind was no fluke. He is one watchable, charismatic, charming son of a bitch. Which is why I thought it was time I saw a bit more of his work, starting with Mutiny on the Bounty.
“In December, 1787, HMS Bounty lay in Portsmouth harbour on the eve of departure for Tahiti in the uncharted waters of the Great South Sea. The Bounty’s mission was to procure breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies as cheap food for slaves. Neither ship nor breadfruit reached the West Indies. Mutiny prevented it. Mutiny against the abuse of the harsh eighteenth century sea law. But this mutiny, famous in history and legend, helped bring about a new discipline based upon mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain’s sea power is maintained as security for all who pass upon the seas”.
So reads the forward in the opening credits of Mutiny on the Bounty. Once at sea, the key crew aboard the ship is made up by the ruthless, monstrous Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), the empathetic, handsome and all around good guy Fletcher Christian (Clarke Gable), and the wide eyed, idealistic Byam (Franchot Tone), taking his first ever sea journey and learning a few tough lessons about life.
Also aboard the Bounty is a collection of clichés and single dimensions. Some there for comic relief, some there for heart string pulling drama, some there purely just be targets of Bligh’s tyranny. But that single dimension is more than enough, it helps expedite things and quickly get to their function as comic relief, heart sting pulling drama or target of Bligh’s tyranny. These guys aren’t there to be interesting characters, they’re there to make Laughton, Gale and Tone’s characters more interesting.
For a movie just shy of 80 years old, it’s surprisingly modern in its style. The acting is pure 30s hammery (in all the best ways), but the camera work, editing and pacing are much more lively than I ever would have expected from a movie this old. It’s over two hours long, but the story is more than big enough to justify the length. And director Frank Loyd keeps it moving fast enough that it never feels over long, laboured or bloated.
Where the age of Mutiny on the Bounty does become evident however, is once they reach Tahiti. The racial sensitivity on display here isn’t exactly up to 2014 standards. The Tahitians are broad, cartoon like “natives”, there to make the white guys look superior, smarter and more evolved. Even Christian and Byam’s admiration for the simple, uncomplicated way of life of the islanders comes across as more condescending than respectful.
All of that, plus the fact that these dudes, who we’re supposed to relate to and see as the heroes of the film, spend the entire movie complaining about the poor conditions and in humane treatment on a boat. A boat that’s sole mission is to source cheap food for slaves. If this story was told today, there’d be some sort of comment on the irony of these virtual, sea bound slaves, on a mission to perpetuate actual, literal slavery. But in 1935, they were happy to gloss over that bit.