Monday, September 28, 2009

Visions of Mutiny

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched all three film versions of the famous story of the mutiny aboard his King’s ship, Bounty. While each film stays within the same groundwork of the story, it’s fascinating to see how different each film is when it comes to telling the details. It’s also interesting to note the various qualities of these films and it might surprise you to learn which of these films works best and which is least interesting.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The first working of this story on film is the most famous, no doubt thanks to its casting of Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh and Clark Gable as ship’s mate Fletcher Christian. Winning the Best Picture Oscar (its only Oscar win, a rarity) also helps the image of this film.

Yet in reality, this is the least enthralling version of the three. The film moves along in a leisurely, straightforward manner, yet it never really becomes the exciting tale it should be. Perhaps this adventure on the high seas was rather moving back in the mid-1930s, but today it seems rather ordinary.

The biggest problem for me is the way the story is told. There are a few cruel punishments handed out by Bligh along the way, but they are not dramatized as well as they could be. Christian at one point tells the men aboard the ship that he is ready to take command, but as we've seen only brief segments of mistreatment of the crew, we wonder why. Thus when the actual mutiny occurs in the film, we’re not convinced.

Another curiosity is the way the scenes on Tahiti are filmed. Clearly in 1935, any sensuality had to be toned down, due to the production code in place in Hollywood at the time. Yet, Christian barely even touches his new love or kisses her. These scenes seem more like a diverson than an integral part of the story.

The trial of the sailors who were charged with mutiny is not documented in the other film versions, but here, it’s an intriguing sequence. Especially enthralling is the drama of Franchot Tone as Midshipman Roger Byam (arguably the best performance in a film with several good ones), as he is found guilty of his crime; he then delivers an impassioned speech about the cruelty of Bligh and how the mutiny was justifiable. If only the rest of the film had been as inspired as this scene.

The film was beautifully shot in black and white by Arthur Edeson, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers and the scenes of Bligh, maneuvering his way across the open seas after being cast adrift following the mutiny, are well done. But there’s not enough in this film to recommend it unless you need to learn the story in the first place. (Final note: on the DVD, there is an excellent short film about Pitcairn Island, the remote locale Christian found as home for himself and his fellow mutineers. The film deals with everyday life on the island in the mid-1930s, some 55 years after the mutiny. It’s an absorbing short work and it’s neat to see things such as a schoolroom and a church service on this little island as well as a marriage ceremony, We learn that due to in-breeding for so many years the inhabitants need to rigorously exercize to maintain their strength. It’s also neat to see how many of the citizens have the last name of Christian.)

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Twenty-seven years after MGM gave us the first version of this story, they mounted a lavish production starring Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian. Nothing was spared for this roadshow production, from the glorious musical score of Bronislau Kaper to the lush, deeply saturated color photography of Robert Surtees to the strikingly beautiful locales of the South Pacific.

Here, Howard is much more intense in his portrayal of Bligh than was Laughton. He smiles only once in the film and his punishments are documented with much more fervor on screen than in the first version. The scene where he has one of the sailors (John Mills, zealously played by a young Richard Harris) receive twenty-four lashes is appropriately brutal, as is another scene where he has a seaman key-holed (dragged underwater for a short time).

One of the reasons this version works far better than the first is the choice of directors. Lewis Milestone, who had directed such legendary films as All Quiet on The Western Front (1930) and Of Mice and Men (1939) was behind the camera for this version of Mutiny, while Frank Lloyd, a solid journeyman, was the director for the 1935 version. Quite simply, Milestone’s work towers above that of Lloyd’s; his visuals are much more interesting, while he also keeps tighter reins on the drama. This second version has a much more edgy feel to it, which I prefer over the leisurely manner of the original. Milestone also gives us more memorable scenes between Christian and Bligh.

The first half of this version is often excellent, especially with the sequence of the storms the ship must endure as it rounds Cape Horn at the tip of South America; we get a great feel for the dangers these sailors must have endured. The visuals in the South Pacific are especially lovely and the interplay between Christian and the island ruler’s daughter is nicely felt. There is also a very funny scene between Bligh and Christian as the captain tells Christian in a very roundabout way that he (Christian) must make love to the woman, so as not to upset the island ruler.

As for the mutiny sequence, this is handled well, especially as we’ve seen some brutal beatings handed out by Bligh. Certainly Howard’s ultraserious performance makes us hate this man even more, so when Christian does take the ship, we cheer him on.

After that however, the film gets a bit sloppy. For example, we see Bligh telling his small crew on the lifeboat that they must endure a challenging voyage on the open seas to an island some 4000 miles away. But the next time we see Bligh after that, he is in England, hearing from the admiralty that he has been absolved of any wrong doing (though he is reprimanded for his cruel nature). What happened to the arduous journey? Did the producers decide that the film at three hours’ length was already long enough and thus decide not to show this trek? Whatever the reason, it’s a puzzling omission.

There’s also a problem with Brando’s performance in this film. It’s fine for much of the journey, as he gives one of his brooding, introspective turns, but after the mutiny, he seems disinterested. He becomes more introspective, which is what the character calls for, but by then, you can only take so much of his mumbling. The ending tends to drag on and the film has lost some of its passion.

Overall, I do recommend this version, as it has some very strong scenes combined with excellent production values (a replica of the Bounty was built for the film). It also gives us a look into the tortured soul of Fletcher Christian after the mutiny, a subject that was not dealt with in much detail in the original. The ending of this film, by the way, is much different than the 1935 version, as a few crew members burn the ship once they are on Pitcairn Island. Shocked by this, Christian tries to save the ship, but is fatally harmed by serious burns aboard the vessel. It’s interesting to see this interpretation, as the original told us that Christian himself was the one who suggested burning the ship.

The Bounty (1984) Although this is the least-known film version of this tale, for my money, this is the best. Directed by Roger Donaldson (Cadillac Man, Thirteen Days), this features an excellent cast highlighted by Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, Mel Gibson as Christian, Daniel Day-Lewis as John Fryer (second in command) and a young Liam Neeson as one of the rebellious seaman.

It’s important to note that the screenplay for this version was not based on the famous Nordhoff and Hall book, but instead on Richard Hough’s book, Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian (Hough shares screenwriting credit for the film with veteran scripter Robert Bolt). This book offers an interesting take on this story, that Bligh and Christian were friends and had sailed before. Early in the film, there is a scene where Bligh asks Christian if he would like to accompany him on this journey to Tahiti and back and Christian eagerly accepts. There is a light edge to this scene; clearly the two are quite comfortable being in each other’s company.

I love everything that Hopkins has done in his career and I am quite impressed with his work here as well. His Bligh is a thoughtful man, one who is stern, but not brutal in his punishment. He is able to admit his mistakes, as when he addresses his crew after an attempt to sail around Cape Horn through weeks of horrible weather. Hopkins is a human being here, not a stereotypical madman as Howard potrayed Bligh in the 1962 version. Each performance is admirable, but Hopkins’ (and the screenplay’s) take on Bligh’s humanity adds a splendid angle to this story.

This is a very fine performance by Gibson as well, especially during the sequence when he takes over the ship. He must wrestle with his feelings for Bligh and the raw emotions of the sailors aboard who have reached the breaking point. He screams at Bligh as he is ready to set him adrift, “I am in HELL!” When Bligh argues with him, he replies, “I will run you through and then I will kill myself after.” These are highly charged moments and Gibson is excellent as he realizes the consequences of his deeds. He is also very effective after the mutiny, expressing his doubts about the future, while having to deal with the frustrations of his crew.

The scenes on the island are well done, especially when Gibson meets the king’s daughter Mauatua (Teviate Vernette). A beautiful woman, she is the most sensual of the island women in any of these film versions and boy, are the scenes between Gibson and her worth watching! The women in this film are topless throughout, which comes across as naturally as it can (no pun intended) without cheap thrills. Roger Ebert in his original review of this film, called this “National Geographic nudity”, meaning that as this was south of the equator, it was legitimate. I love it!

Positive notes also for the scenes of Bligh and his loyal crew aboard their lifeboat as they sail across the open sea. We feel their agony and hopeless feelings, as it appears they will not survive. These scenes show us the true leadership of Bligh and the loyalty of his men who are strained almost beyond the breaking point.

Vangelis, who wrote the famous Chariots of Fire score a few years earlier, composed the music for this film. While he did not write a famous theme as in that earlier work, his synthesizer-driven score is quite successful, generally in short cues accompanying images of the ships at sea. This is a low-key score, but one that is effectively moody.

The ending of the film is well done; we witness Bligh receiving the judgment of the British admiralty that he has been exonerated for his part in the mutiny and then see Christian watching the Bounty burn, ensuring that his fellow sailors and he will never leave the island. It’s a quiet, thoughtful moment and we as the audience wonder who the victor in this struggle really was.

So this version gets my vote as the best. The first is straightforward, but lacks excitement, while the second film, though flawed, gets my vote as the most ambitious. It’s easily the most impressive production, but it’s also the most thrilling. Perhaps if it had more of the humanity of the third version, it could have been great.