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]