Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) Review

(3.5 STARS)

“Mutiny on the Bounty,” Academy Award winner for Best Picture all the way back in 1935, is surprisingly powerful stuff, not because it’s filmed in black and white, but because everything else about it is black and white. There are no shades of gray – no three-dimensionality among its principal characters. Two are dashing heroes, while the other is a dastardly villain. In many instances, this makes for unremarkable cinema (other times, it can make for something downright dreadful). But here, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Had the film stuck closer to the historical and made the circumstances surrounding the mutiny a bit more complicated, I’m not sure it would’ve worked as well as it did. So while some will complain about the film’s lack of subtlety, I applaud it.

The film takes place in the late 18th century and follows the H.M.S. Bounty on its two-year journey to Tahiti in search of breadfruit plants which will make for cheap nourishment for Britain’s slaves in the West Indies. The ship is lead by two very different men. Its captain is Mr. Bligh (Charles Laughton). He is hated by nearly everyone on board for his extreme forms of punishment which often lead to the unnecessary deaths of many crew members. His rival is Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) who has garnered the respect of the crew but has little formal power. Caught in between the two is Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), who despises Bligh and his brutal forms of punishment but doesn’t take his disdain of Bligh nearly as far as Christian does.

Christian and Bligh begin the journey cordially enough, but things threaten to boil over just before arriving at Tahiti. After a momentum-killing, albeit necessary, excursion with the locals, the Bounty departs, and the disagreement between the two men picks up just where it left off, with Christian on the brink of rebellion.

The suspense built up in the first half is tremendous, but the film nearly loses its grip on you during the Tahiti sequences. I didn’t care much about the half-baked romances with the locals, and the lack of confrontation between Christian and Bligh leaves you begging for the ship to depart again. That’s where the film succeeds, and anything else is just a frustrating diversion.

Still, the interaction between the three men is so interesting and fun to watch that any missteps in the film’s middle third are almost completely forgiven. Bligh’s pure evil and Christian’s pure goodness clash magnificently. Their constant close proximity aboard the ship only enhances their contempt for one another. It has to be one of cinema’s epic personal battles, and I couldn’t have enjoyed watching it more.

The acting only helps make the conflict more compelling. Charles Laughton is despicable at Bligh. He wears this sneer on his face that, by the end of the film, will make your blood boil. Clark Gable plays his typical heroic role. As in “Gone with the Wind,” he’s incredibly charismatic, and despite occasionally laying it on pretty thick, Christian is still someone you will root for. Both men were nominated for Academy Awards, as was Franchot Tone, who gives quite a good portrayal as the honorable, but somewhat naïve Byam. There hadn’t been a separate category for Supporting Actor prior to 1935, but since the actors seemingly cancelled one another out and none took home the award, the Supporting category was added the next year.

Director Frank Lloyd does a great job balancing excitement with the more somber dramatic moments. I wouldn’t say the film contained action, but some parts are quite thrilling, especially the mutiny itself. He also manages the technical aspects quite well. For its time, the editing, visuals, and sound are all very good.

“Mutiny on the Bounty,” the book, has gone through a number of screen adaptations, but none is as revered as the 1935 version. For its sensational depiction of what men are capable of when pushed to the brink, the film has earned its status as a classic.

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