There are three major motion pictures about the mutiny onboard the HMS Bounty off Tahiti in 1789. A fourth and much less famous Australian-made film, called In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), has a place in film history as the first to feature Errol Flynn (as Fletcher Christian) on the big screen. It is also notable for its use of the earlier technique of incorporating ethnographic footage into the drama. See Movies About Polynesia.
Each of the three subsequent and far more substantial treatments of the mutiny built on the work of its predecessor by adding complexity to the role of Fletcher Christian. Clark Gable brought more meat to Flynn’s movie hero image in 1935; Marlon Brando delivered a heavy dose of aristocratic parody to the role in 1962; and Mel Gibson contributed contemporary character flaws in 1984. For the first stage of this evolving website, I will provide a review of the 1935 version as a platform for further discussion.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
It opens in 1787 with the Bounty setting sail from England to Tahiti. This is a highly regarded film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. All three principle actors were nominated for Best Actor and cancelled out each other’s votes. The producer insisted on shooting in authentic locations, and with full-sized replica ships. Much of the second unit shooting was done in Tahiti. Charles Laughton and Clark Gable head the cast. Franchot Tone was the third nominee.
Based on the Nordhoff and Hall Bounty Trilogy, this first outing was considered far superior to the 1962 Brando treatment of the same work. The opening scenes revolve around the efforts of a very dapper but never unmanly Gable to recruit a reluctant crew for a voyage to the South Seas. They will pick up a cargo of breadfruit plants to feed slaves in the West Indies. There is a scene in an aristocratic English home, establishing the sense of adventure felt by a young man of privilege (Franchot Tone playing Mr. Byam) who has the opportunity to sail around the world. He will compile a dictionary on the Tahitian language.
Once they are under way, a good deal of footage is given to establishing the absolute authority of the captain, expressed in brutal and arbitrary punishments. What is most striking in this portion of the film is the disparity between the aristocratic officers and the common seamen, who are treated as little more than slaves. It is a decade after the Revolution in America, but Britain maintains its position as the epitome of Civilization through the application of brutal repression. Things are just coming to a boiling point between Bligh and Mr. Christian when Tahiti is sighted. It is not so dramatic in black and white. Bligh has been here before, sailing under Capt. Cook. He informs the local chief that Cook is dead. They will stay here several months for maintenance and taking on cargo. There are many alluring vignettes of Polynesian life, including music and dancing. The idyllic interlude on the island is designed to demonstrate the contrast between the harsh repressions of the ship and the life of the “simple and kind” Tahitians. Fletcher is denied shore leave at first, but the chief intervenes and he goes ashore to fall in love with the chief’s uninhibited granddaughter.
When the ship departs, Bligh re-establishes discipline with a vengeance. Fletcher has tasted paradise, and now cannot abide Bligh. Still, he is not the first among the crew to raise talk of mutiny. Finally, he is pushed beyond the breaking point and leads the insurrection. The egalitarian impulses of the men are aroused, and the treatment of the aristocrats is gleeful and brutal. Bligh is defiant to the last. Fletcher takes a high tone, but it is clear his true agenda is to return to Tahiti and the girl he loves. The film follows Bligh and his loyal crew members on their terrible journey across the Pacific until they are successful in making landfall. Estimates of the distance these men traveled in a rowboat are in the range of the 3,000 to 4,000 miles.
The mutineers, meanwhile, are enjoying the fruits of the island, and it is all they had hoped. A ship is sighted on the horizon and the Bounty makes a run for it. A few non-mutinous men stay behind in hopes of returning to England. The ship is the Pandora, and Bligh is in command (historically inaccurate). He claps the men in irons and treats them cruelly. Bligh sets off in obsessed pursuit of the mutineers. Both ships are pushed to their limits. A storm breaks up the Pandora and once again Bligh is in command of a lifeboat, with his prisoners. The scene shifts to an admiralty trial in London. Bligh is called to testify, though he is not on trial. Tone and the others are condemned to death and Tone gives an impassioned speech against the tyranny of Bligh. In the penultimate sequence, the mutineers come upon Pitcairn Island and run the Bounty onto the rocks, and then they burn it. Tone gets a last minute pardon from the King as testament to better relations between British naval officers and crews. We see him reporting for duty on a new ship. The End.
Mutiny on the Bounty serves very well as a metaphor for the rising tide of independence on both land and sea at the end of the 18th century, the time of the American and French revolutions. The Bounty functions as a ship of state, England in microcosm, and Captain Bligh is the surrogate King. Though Fletcher Christian was an officer in the King’s Navy, Clark Gable brought a common touch to the role that was necessary for the drama to work.
Marlon Brando played Christian as an aristocratic fop, and completely undercut the film. It was counter-metaphorical, if I may coin a phrase. Here is Brando posing in the gap between Gable and Gibson. Note that his foppish characterization is studiously avoided in the trailer. The best thing about the Brando movie is the full-color scenery.
Mel Gibson brought his trademark conflicted persona to the part and teamed with Anthony Hopkins to bring a new level of complexity to the relationship of the captain and the mutineer.