MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY
(director: Lewis Milestone; screenwriters: from the book by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff/Charles Lederer; cinematographer: Robert Surtees; editor: John McSweeney, Jr.; music: Bronislau Kaper; cast: Marlon Brando (Fletcher Christian), Trevor Howard (Capt. William Bligh), Richard Harris (John Mills), Hugh Griffith (Alexander Smith), Richard Haydn (William Brown), Tarita (Maimiti), Percy Herbert (Matthew Quintal), Duncan Lamont (John Williams), Chips Rafferty (Michael Byrne), Noel Purcell (William McCoy), Ashley Cowan (Samuel Mack), Eddie Byrne (John Fryer), Tim Seely (Ned Young); Runtime: 180; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Aaron Rosenberg; MGM; 1962)
“Its picture postcard scenery couldn’t hide how colorless the film felt at times.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This sweeping remake of the 1935 Oscar-winning version starring Clark Gable-Charles Laughton suffers in comparison for the following reasons: it’s overlong at 180 minutes, poorly paced, spends too much time on the unimportant Tahiti romantic interludes, and Marlon Brando’s affected foppish performance (with a bad Brit accent to boot) couldn’t match Gable’s spry performance. Charles Lederer, the last screenwriter still standing after a few were fired, adapted the Charles Nordhoff and James Hall novel about a mutiny on an 18th-century British naval vessel en route to the South Pacific. Lewis Milestone took over the helm after original director Carol Reed jumped ship. The results of the film disappointed everyone concerned with the production. Much of the blame is attributed to Brando’s delaying tactics, his collisions with both directors and other cast members, and need for pampering (he wanted the script changed in spots to get across his ideas about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’). When the petulant Brando, who at the time was on top of the Hollywood heap and most marketable, was not to blame, there was the matter of three deaths among the film’s crew, the Tahiti rainy season delaying the shoot for months, a key actress in the Tahiti scenes taking a powder and the full-scale replica of the Bounty, constructed for $750,0000 in Nova Scotia, arriving nearly two months late in Tahiti to cause even further delays for the seemingly jinxed film.
The HMS Bounty leaves Portsmouth, England in 1787. Its destination is to sail to Tahiti and take back the native breadfruit to Jamaica. Breadfruit is a new food to the Brits, one that the West Indies Company wishes to utilize for great profit. That is the reason first-time sailor William Brown (Richard Haydn), a Kew Gardens gardener, is considered to be the most important man aboard the ship. The captain is the self-made and ambitious William Bligh (Trevor Howard), who is commanding his first ship as captain and aims to impress the navy brass on this important mission by getting the plants to Jamaica on time. His first mate is a gentleman with connections and good breeding, Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando), who joined the navy as something to occupy his time and is considerably more lighthearted about his duties than the tyrannical captain.
The voyage is soon marred by a severe lashing of seaman Mills (Richard Harris) for a minor infraction, that is ordered by Bligh. The captain’s a fusspot, who only worries about pleasing the admiralty back home and considers the mission primary and the lives of the men to be secondary. Bligh believes fear motivates the men to perform their duties and states his philosophy that “Cruelty with a purpose is not cruelty.”
In Bligh’s rush to meet the timetable, he makes a bad decision to take a shortcut around Cape Horn in winter instead of the regular long way around the Cape of Good Hope. The Bounty can’t navigate through the strong winds and severe cold weather, and after weeks at sea the ship is tossed back to the same spot it started out from. In the process, one seaman died. Now having no choice but to go the long way, Bligh orders half-rations for the crew’s chow and also inflicts a series of sadistic punishments. Once in Tahiti, the breadfruit turns out to be dormant and this causes a five month delay.
On the trip to Jamaica, Bligh rations the water from the men and gives it instead to the valuable plants so that they could be kept alive. He also continues his floggings and the cruel punishment of keelhauling, which causes another death (the third). It leads to Christian siding with some of the rebels, who were caught deserting in Tahiti and are facing a court-martial back home. They are now leading the protests over the water rationing, when Christian disobeys Bligh and gives a sick crewman a ladle of water. When Bligh orders the arrest of the first mate, he attacks his captain and begins the mutiny. The 1935 version wisely followed Bligh’s staggering open boat voyage to the next port about 4,000 miles away and subsequent court-martial back home while almost totally ignoring Christian’s dilemma. This “Mutiny” does the reverse, so we follow a despairing Christian and his fellow mutineers as they arrive in Tahiti and then move on to the Pitcairn Island–meeting with tragic results.
The film had an estimated budget of $27 million. Its box-office failure nearly sunk MGM, and it sadly ended Milestone’s career. Though a visually beautiful picture, shot in the studio and on location in Tahiti, Pitcairn Island, and Bora, its picture postcard scenery couldn’t hide how colorless the film felt at times.
REVIEWED ON 7/22/2004 GRADE: B-