Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Frank Lloyd)



Ostensibly directed by a certain Frank Lloyd (then-recent Oscar winner for Fox’s horrible Cavalcade), MGM’s democratic 1935 film of Mutiny on the Bounty is basically the work of obsessive populist Irving Thalberg, and it carries all the hallmarks of a classic Thalberg production: huge, extremely entertaining, beautiful to look at, and cold around the heart. It has to be understood that, after a flourish of ingenuity in the late silent and early sound periods, Thalberg made movies for instant gratification, for a momentary escape, rarely in the interest of something so permanent as art. The flipside of this is that he also ensured that any trace of personality was carefully extracted from the films Metro released during the latter part of his tenure, and under his influence long afterward. His devotion to the cause was enough to, in the end, kill him.

The story of Mutiny on the Bounty has been told over and over again, of ruthless, resourceful, brilliant Captain Bligh and his dictatorship at sea. Bligh is portrayed here by Charles Laughton with aplomb and verve in a performance that single-handedly makes the film essential viewing. Laughton seems to burst out of the frame not out of hamminess but out of a frighteningly singular devotion to the character. He forms merely 75% of the movie’s pie graph, otherwise occupied by Clark Gable, who wisely underplays to ideal effect in complementing Laughton’s larger-than-life persona. It’s a treat to watch these two; both are fine leading men who play their roles like character actors. Each film they made was a sharpening of a single celluloid personality. That, oddly, makes their work stand out in its believability, and the trust they gain with the audience.

Mostly, the performances are just a means to an end in an MGM drama, and with Mutiny on the Bounty one cannot ignore a certain creepy autonomy, as if the entire movie were the work of crafty robots. Whoever directed and edited the picture, Laughton or Thalberg or Louis B. Mayer, did a brilliant job; it’s an immaculate model of 1930s Hollywood storytelling. Anonymous or not, this is technically just about the highest form of well-oiled-machine cinema there is. The problem is that without some sort of lifeblood or vitality, all the energy and excitement must inevitably come to nothing.

That it does. Apparently no one was at the wheel for the latter half of the picture. First of all, we don’t need nearly as much of the Tahiti diversion as we get. Second, the less time spent away from Capt. Bligh, the better, but no such luck; long stretches go by without Laughton, the true auteur of the picture. The boys’ trip to Tahiti for sun and sin is just the first and biggest example of obscene padding. Franchot Tone’s very existence in the film — the essence of a hollow character — is the second. Meanwhile, there’s an odd sense in which Mutiny on the Bounty has in fact played down the strangeness and largeness of the events on which it’s based: the most remarkable element of the true story is Bligh’s death-defying journey with a small crew on a tiny boat to the West Indies; the screen time devoted to this is riveting, but there’s precious little of it, as though the studio can’t wait to get back to the scantily clad men and women of the Tahiti scenes. And Gable gives every ounce of his energy to Fletcher Christian, a fascinating man who met a somewhat mysterious end in real life, but the film by the end is playing him as an empty and desperately boring idealist, though the surprising sense of masculine bisexuality in Gable’s performance is a welcome distraction.

The point at which Mutiny truly falls apart is at its unfocused climax, which veers off course from the rest of the picture by abandoning the organic story arc as the personal quest of Laughton’s character at any cost. By recasting its ambiguous, sprawling story as a simple good/evil parable at the end, Mutiny sells itself short. And that’s a shame, because at its best, the film is startlingly vivid: the mutiny sequence and Laughton’s embodiment of his obsessive quest to find Fletcher Christian afterward are stunning. But the finale is missing both the thrill and the darkness that would have made the film an indisputable classic. What’s most frustrating about something like this is that with nothing more than a pair of scissors, one could craft an exquisite movie from all this material. What we have instead is 130-odd minutes, roughly half of them top-notch.


[Originally posted elsewhere in 2007.]

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