Bligh Hard

Am I punning on “blow-hard” or DIE HARD? I’m doing both! And nobody can stop me,  nyahahahaha!

Ahem. Regular Shadowplayer and font of generosity Randall William Cook sent us a copy of the 1962 MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, urging us to give it a shot. He’s right — it’s a pretty terrific film, undeserving of its lousy rep. But any consideration of the film’s good qualities must take into account the negative stuff accumulated around it, lest it founder on the shoals of skepticism, so here goes —

Reasons MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY has a bad rep —

1) It was an expensive flop.

2) It was a famously “troubled shoot”, losing its first director, Carol Reed, and acquiring another, even older one, Lewis Milestone. The set was plagued by bad-boy antics from star Brando, and word leaked out.

3) It’s not as much full-blooded fun as the original Laughton version, and the ending in particular is a downer (the epilogue, had it been included in the release, would have helped this). It’s still strange to see a flamboyant performance in the Fletcher Christian role and a restrained, realistic one (from Trevor Howard) in the Captain Bligh role.

4) It’s a three-hour epic, with a certain lumbering quality that often accompanies films of this size. Apart from an amazing tracking shot under the rigging as the Bounty sets off, there’s not much filmic energy to fill its sails.

Against all that, the film has a terrific, witty script by Charles Lederer, great support work from Richard Haydn and Richard Harris and a remarkable muted Hugh (“I play the role of a bearded Welshman”) Griffiths, and the stars are really remarkable. I think it probably helps if, like Fiona and I, you have somehow managed not to see the earlier version. Judged on its own merits and according to the goals it sets itself, the ’62 BOUNTY is an artistic success.

As Lederer writes him, Bligh could still be played as a lip-smacking sadist, but that’s not how Howard sees him. Bligh is obviously a deeply insecure man and a terrible captain, and his one resource is cruelty, so he uses it unsparingly. “Cruelty with a purpose isn’t cruelty,” he claims, and Howard chooses to interpret this as a perfectly sincere belief. The result is terrifying — the Laughton villain (whom I have seen clips of) is wonderfully colourful, and you don’t get that from Howard, who isn’t quite into his Rawlinson End phase yet — what you get instead is horrific conviction.

Brando is perhaps more problematic: his choice to play Mr. Christian as a somewhat ineffectual fop is clearly cued by the script, and seems perfectly legitimate. His English accent is very extreme, but quite accurate. The difficulty is that it’s not the kind of voice one expects to hear emerging from a man like Brando. Maybe his body language doesn’t quite match, I don’t know. So there’s a certain discomfort, which audiences are often inclined to react against and blame the performance, but I’m not sure that the discomfort isn’t appropriate. Christian has within him the possibility of heroism, but he holds back on it too long. Seeing he-man Brando imprisoned within this accent, these ludicrous clothes, sets up a slow simmer of unease that ultimately will explode.

There’s a very interesting take on class in the film, with Bligh resentful of his high-born second-in-command. He hates the guy so much, on first sight, that he simply can’t bring himself to listen attentively to anything his subordinate says, with fatal results. The scene where Bligh is finally rebuked by the high command (melting waxwork Henry Daniell), the argument given is that they made a mistake not recruiting a gentleman, which seems entirely beside the point. It’s hard to know if this is Lederer being snobbish, or ironic, or what, but it’s curiously fitting that the movie sours what should be a triumphant moment for justice — this is a film which does seem to wantonly deny us many of the expected pleasures of the first movie.

“Listen to me, you remarkable pig: you can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you’ve not quite turned me into a murderer.”

It’s all leading up to a desperately unhappy ending, with death and disaster for the mutineers. This is like Sidney Lumet’s THE HILL at sea, or Why Revolutions Fail. There’s a spectacular climax, with the ship burning and all, but what with Christian being horribly killed, there’s no joy in it. Brando always excelled at death scenes, though, so you still get showmanship, above and beyond the impressive special effects. The actor lay on a bed of ice to get good and uncomfortable for his big scene (simulating the numbness of the laudanum he’s been given), and the dialogue builds up an image of gruesome third-degree burns which we never see… but when we finally see Brando’s face (the rest of him concealed by a blanket), a bit of grit on his face and his hair slathered down, plus his expression, create a vivid and strange impression of disfigurement.

In many ways this would make a fine, if rather long, double-bill with THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU. Both movies have Brando, shipwrecks and islands, and are remakes of Laughton films. Both films lost a director early on (one scene in BOUNTY has Brando noticeably wearing a different nose, so must have been part of the original Carol Reed shoot) and continued with an aging veteran acting largely as traffic cop. And both films take a gloomy view of what happens when you depose a dictator — you get score-settling, fractiousness and social disintegration. If history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, MOREAU is the farce version.

Buy BOUNTY, UK:  Mutiny On The Bounty (1962 Special Edition). [DVD]

Buy BOUNTY BluRay USA:  Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) [Blu-ray]

11 Responses to “Bligh Hard”

  1. And then there’s the epilogue. Brando fell in love with Tahiti, married a Tahitian woman, moved there fathered children and in his later years encouraged Johnny Depp to do likewise. IOW in iconographic terms Mutiny on the Bounty is a film that still isn’t over.

  2. Brando’s performance, with its outward, mannered quality, looks to have been an influence on Depp too, and I don’t mean any of that as a knock, just an observation. One foot’s in character psychology, the other in caricature.

  3. He married his Tahitian co-star in the film. They had children. It was a disaster. Mental health problems, alcoholism, drug abuse then murder destroyed his family.

  4. Just how much of a caricature is Brando’s Christian? As you say, his accent is “extreme but accurate” (he was use it again 6 or 7 years later when he played Sir William Walker in Queimada) and the foppishness falls by the wayside once the mutiny gets underway. I think it’s a very believable, and at times, witty performance.

    Brando took a lot of the blame for problems on the shoot that were not of his making. It’s true that he was furious when Carol Reed was fired and the footage he’d shot scrapped, and Brando probably didn’t co-operate with Milestone as he should, but there were lots of other reasons why the film became so costly that were nothing to do with him.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see you discussing a film that I think is long overdue a reappraisal. But please don’t ask me to see The Island of Doctor Moreau again! Even as a Brando completist I’m still trying to erase the memory of a first viewing.

  5. Moreau sees him using his Mr Christian voice again, but looking and sounding more like Dick Emery’s naughty vicar.

    A double bill of Pontecorvo’s Queimada! and Alex Cox’s Walker might be instructive. For someone.

    Apparently Brando deliberately sought out Trevor Howard to work with again to disprove the idea that he’d been unbearable on Bounty. TH was happy to oblige: he was going to be drunk the whole time anyway, I guess, so why be fussy?

    I don’t actually know much about the Bounty shoot. I know Brando was obstreperous on Quiemada! too, but to hear him tell it, he had good reason.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Milestone could have directed the ’35 version!…I’ve only seen bit and pieces of this film over the years and have to agree,the ending struck me as depressing…I’ve enjoyed seeing the later The Bounty from the 80’s a time or 2..or 3…

  7. The 80s Bounty is much fairer to Bligh, I believe. But there’s something about the unfair version that’s a more evocative story, I think.

    If you get the chance to see the film on DVD, watch the prologue before the movie and the epilogue after, I do think they enhance the experience considerably. Haydn is excellent here.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    The sequel to the original novel MEN AGAINST THE SEA (sic?) delivers a more positive view of Bligh presenting him as the man who got the non-mutineers to safety. Perhaps the sequel influenced Howard’s performance in this film?

  9. Well, Howard’s performance isn’t nearly as sympathetic as Anthony Hopkins’ – in fact, Bligh’s intransigence here causes him to lead his men not towards the nearest safe haven but towards a more distant port from which an attack on the Bounty can be directed. He’s completely unredeemed, he’s just less perverse than Laughton.

  10. My partner says that the real Bligh’s expert navigational skills have gone down in the annals of seafaring history. What he achieved in getting a number of men to safety in a very small boat with minimal equipment was astonishing.

  11. The assumption made in both the first two films that the guys in the boat will be OK is obviously phony then. Which reflects even more badly on the mutineers, who could have dropped them off at an island, as they did with a few leftover non-mutineers.

    Bligh certainly got a bum deal from the movies, although it must be said that mutinies followed him around throughout his career. Maybe he just lacked authority? Maybe he was just a bit annoying? Supposedly he resorted to punishments for his men less often than was normal, which is certainly the opposite of his cinematic rep.

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