Without planning to, we watched MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY with friends Stuart and Marvelous Mary. At first the film came on kind of dumb, and it’s not above being ridiculous at regular intervals, but it also has a degree of sophistication and cunning in the way it navigates the historical facts — departing from them fairly freely at times, to be sure. It’s nowhere near as nuanced as the remake, which Fiona and I enjoyed, but then neither film is as ambiguous and cloudy as the historical facts.
The scenario, in which that old hand at tales of sadism and the psychological bizarre, Jules Furthman (check his many credits for Sternberg) took part, in some ways wants us to see Bligh (a wonderfully constipated Charles Laughton) as a thief and lout, promoted beyond his station and outclassed in every sense by the gentlemen around him. That is indeed one of the easiest narratives to carve from the complicated true story. But early, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, grinning a lot), says that Bligh’s status as a self-made man is the one thing he admires about him. So the filmmakers actually want to stifle that unamerican idea.
As Mary pointed out, the casting of Gable, an American, against Laughton, an Englishman, actually makes the story a parable about the founding of America. Everything about Gable’s unwavering screen persona erases the character he’s playing (whereas Brando embraced the character and the public didn’t embrace him), so that this becomes a parable of throwing off snooty British domination. All the arguments about food, culminating in Laughton’s hilarious “It’s your watch, so I must count the coconuts,” echo the Boston tea party and the disputes on taxation.
But if we follow this line of reasoning, Pitcairn Island, eventual home of the mutineers, must equal America, and that would mean that America was founded on abduction, rape, murder and brutality. Which I’m sure MGM did not intend us to infer.
The scenario cunningly supplies Franchot Tone to provide Gable with bromance and suggest a Third Way between outright rebellion and lip-smacking tyranny. Tone does not rebel, denounces Bligh back in England, and is ultimately spared the gallows and restored to active duty — but the movie doesn’t bother to say what happened to his fellow condemned men. Presumably they wound up decorating that particularly high yardarm Bligh so wanted to see them dangle from. (Surely a yardarm of merely average height would have done the job just as well, and been more convenient?)
Movita. Sounds like a high-fibre bran breakfast, but is actually far more pleasant. As noted previously, Brando married the leading lady of the 30s MUTINY and the leading lady of the 60s MUTINY. Probably a method thing.
The other obvious reading here is the gay one, and not just because of Laughton’s casting. The bromance stuff is strikingly suggestive — topless Gable and Tone are sunning themselves, and Gable places a banana on Tone’s chest, before pealing and eating one himself. Then they’re hastily joined by girlfriends in case we get the
right wrong idea. Bligh alone shows no interest in native totty, never even sharing the screen with a woman. So perhaps Bligh is driven by thwarted passion. It’s a reading that certainly couldn’t work in the remake, but seems fairly apropos here.
Buy British: Mutiny On The Bounty  [DVD]
Buy American: Mutiny on the Bounty (Gable-Laughton)
Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray Book] (Gable-Laughton)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Brando-Howard)
Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray] (Brando-Howard)