MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)
From the second we drew this film, I just kept singing the Beastie Boys’ lyric – can you blame me? Had that sweet drum beat in my head too – isn’t that the Zeppelin sample? I digress.
Clark Gable plays Fletcher Christian, Acting Lieutenant on the Royal Navy vessel the HMS Bounty under captain Lieutenant William Bligh. The ship is sent on a mission to the South Pacific to retrieve breadfruit trees to take to the West Indies to serve as food for slaves there. The film depicts a hostile, abusive Captain in Bligh – who I grew to despise within minutes. He orders flogging for the sailors left and right, and one man early on is beaten to death. As the story progresses and the ship nears its destination of Tahiti, Christian’s disgust at his superior continues to grow.
I myself did notice an almost total lack of rhymin’ and stealin’. Had Netflix sent us the wrong disc? No, this is it; 1935’s highly romanticized retelling of a real incident in the Royal Navy.
The first half of the movie is a study in contrasts between Bligh, who exercises cruelty on the crew seemingly as an end in itself, and the compassionate and upstanding Christian, until the latter reaches his inevitable breaking point. On the moral fulcrum sits Midshipman Roger Byam, a protege of Christian who is compelled by duty to oppose the mutiny and is stung by the personal estrangement it brings about with his friend and mentor. The other character I found interesting is the character of Hithiti, leader of the Tahitians, who functions largely as a foil for the odious Bligh. Hithiti, based on the archetype (or perhaps stereotype) of the noble savage, personifies the welcoming atmosphere of Tahiti and is everything that the English captain is not. He is generous, kind and fatherly. Whereas Bligh deprives his crew of basic necessities in order to pad his own expense reports, Hithiti is unburdened by even the knowledge of money.
I had a feeling of dread when the ship first reaches the island, in large part because I was curious about how the issue of colonialism would be addressed in the film. Mouse had told me that this movie had historical basis, but that some liberties were taken. One, he told me, was that Bligh was actually not the monster he appeared to be on the screen. If anything, he might have been too lenient and set the stage for the rebellion against him. Ashore for a stint in Paradise, the sailors formed relationships with Tahitian women and weren’t particularly inclined to leave. This tale fascinated me, though I also wondered about the relationships they formed. I don’t suppose there is any way of knowing fully, but I hoped they were consensual and not predicated on coercion or violence of any kind. I find it a little hard to imagine there not being some complicated dynamics at play there, given the nature of colonizing efforts by white westerners throughout history. In our story, though, the relationships between the British sailors and Tahitian women are depicted as freely formed and joyful.
There is an inherent difficulty in assessing the level of consent versus coercion in sexual relationships from earlier historical periods, in that consent is a relatively modern concept. In times that had fundamentally different sexual politics and gender norms, it can be difficult to find any relationships absent of coercion by modern standards, even if only by that fact that there is an underlying power imbalance upon which the relationship is based. So it can be tricky to sign off on a relationship as consensual, or condemn another as coercive. I’m pretty ignorant of the norms of traditional Tahitian society, but I would suspect there is a similar quandary there as well. Anyhow, the film depicts the Tahitian women as being willing partners in their relationships with the English men, and as best I understand, that is how things played out in real life.
This film winner, along with previous year’s winner It Happened One Night constitute a good run at the Academy Awards for leading man Clark Gable. But I see something more than that. Taken together, you really see Golden Age Hollywood hitting its stride. With the wit and charm from It Happened One Night and the production values and scale of Bounty, there is really the feeling of something coming together here. The animatronic recitation of dialogue and the camera super glued to the soundstage floor associated with the early talkie era are a distant memory. And yes, at this point you also have a star who has endured as a genuine pop culture icon.
And then there is the inimitable Charles Laughton. His role as Bligh got him a Best Actor nomination; in fact three of the four actors nominated that year were from Mutiny On the Bounty. Gable may have had the looks, but I think Laughton steals the movie with this heel turn.
Mouse asked me after the film was over if I had liked it. I will be honest – I was pretty miserable for the first 45 minutes. This was due in large part to the scenes of torture, of a man being flogged to death, of sailors being tied to the mast in horrible weather conditions and almost losing their lives…those kinds of things are often more than I can take. However, once the ship gets to Tahiti, these scenes die down and the plot picks up. I did very much find myself on the edge of my seat from this point forward.
Not only that, but this film introduced me to the history of Pitcairn Island. It’s a truly fascinating story, made sadder and more disturbing when you look into it now and realize a number of men who live or lived on the island recently were engaged in sexual assault involving minors. This took me down the rabbit hole to read as much as I could about the island today and over the past few decades.
We mentioned Charles Laughton, but I’ll bet some of you are wondering “What about his wife? What was she doing that year?” Well, funny you should ask. 1935 was the year Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s missus, appeared as the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein. Generally considered the best film in the franchise and director James Whale’s masterpiece, it’s hard to say enough good things about Bride of Frankenstein. Now, I know movies like that didn’t win Academy awards back in those days. One of the standout entries in the horror film genre, it should really be called a ‘transcends genre film’. Mutiny on the Bounty is a classic and a strong case can be made for it, but it would have been cool to see some contemporary recognition of Bride, a suggestion that the film world of 1935 had some inkling of how important it would be. It took an effort of self control to resist flipping this blog into one long discussion of Bride of Frankenstein.
Several decades before the Bounty’s voyage, a philosophical essay contest was held to answer the softball question “Has the development of arts and science been morally beneficial?” While most entrants presumably filled in the blank “Yes, of course, because __”, the winner was a philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who surprisingly answered in the negative. No, Rousseau argued, the trappings of modern civilization only serve to corrupt man. The pre-modern people that Europeans had spent the previous few centuries making contact with were much closer to a moral ideal in his eyes. Mutiny on the Bounty plays like a Rousseau allegory, a quest story in which the heroes must fight to unfetter themselves of the chains of modern civilization to seek a more perfect existence, first on Tahiti, then on the primitive home of their own making at Pitcairn.
Contact me if you want to talk about Frankenstein.
Also nominated in 1935:
Broadway Melody of 1936
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Ruggles of Red Gap
Next film: WEST SIDE STORY (1961)