Top 100 Movie Review: No. 090 – Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ranked 090 on the IMDB Top 100 Movies. Watched March 2019.

Cast: Charles Laughton (William Bligh), Clark Gable (Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (Roger Byam), Herbert Mundin (Smith), Eddie Quillan (Ellison), Dudley Digges (Bacchus), Donald Crisp (Burkitt)
Director: Frank Lloyd
My rating: 8 / 10

In Portsmouth Harbour, England, in December of 1787, preparations are made to sail the H.M.S. Bounty to Tahiti to obtained breadfruit trees and send them to the West Indies. Before sailing, a press gang headed by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) forces several men to join the ship for the two-year voyage.

Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), a descendent of a long line of decorated naval officers, is made a midshipman on the Bounty. During this journey Byam is often caught between First officer Christian and Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Before leaving port Bligh orders his crew to witness a “flogging through the fleet,” a brutal form of punishment in which court-martialed seamen are flogged in view of every ship in the fleet. Bligh orders this punishment to be complete despite the seamen already being dead as Bligh believes in the “law of fear,” and tolerates no dissent among his crew.

Once at sea, Byam is severly punished by Bligh after he and another seaman are caught engaging in a minor fistfight, and is ordered to stand perched on top of the masthead during a fierce storm. Christian tries to end Byam’s cruel punishment by bringing him down, when Bligh learns of this he immediately sends him back.

During this difficult journey we witness other hardships imposed by Bligh including short changing the ship’s food in order to divert money for his future retirement. Bligh at one point orders Christian to sign a log book in front of the crew to hide Bligh’s crime. They almost come to blows but the arrival at Tahiti resolves the situation for now. However Bligh punishes Christian for being a “mutinous dog” by not granting shore leave at least not until later when the island chief Hitihiti insists that Christian join his friend Byam who was staying with Hitihiti to join the local language.

While on shore leave Christian falls in love with Maimiti, and before he leaves Tahiti, he instructs Byam to tell her that he will come back for her someday. At sea once again, Bligh orders the flogging of four seamen who attempted to desert and insists that the ship’s ailing surgeon witness the punishment. The brutality proves too much for the beloved physician, and he collapses and dies. Christian blames Bligh for the doctor’s death and decides to put an end to Bligh’s ruthless tyranny by leading the crew in a mutiny.

Christian takes over control of the ship by forcing Bligh and his allies into the ship’s launch and casting as many people as possible on a small boat with provisions despite many of the mutinous crew wanting to kill Bligh. However Byam and some other seamen who were loyal to Bligh are forced to join Christian when he returns to Tahiti after they promise to not make trouble.

Bligh somehow against the odds manages to navigate rough seas and survive. He takes control of the Pandora and returns to Tahiti. Christian leaves Byam and several others between when he escapes as they didn’t mutiny or want to return home. After the Pandora lands in Tahiti Bligh arrests Byam and the others for mutiny, despite their sworn loyalty to him. Determined to find Christian and see him “hanging from a yardarm,” Bligh navigates the Pandora into heavy seas and breaks the ship on a reef. Bligh, Byam and other survivors are rescued and then taken to England and court-martialled and found guilty. During the trial Byam speaks of Bligh’s cruel, dehumanising conduct aboard Bounty. Meanwhile Christian has sailed the Bounty to Pitcairn Island, where he sets the ship ablaze and settles his men to begin life anew.

Five years pass and Byam, who has been convicted of high treason, receives a pardon when the King learns of Bligh’s cruel disciplinary practices. Byam is soon restored to the Royal Navy, and is assigned to its flagship, which is set to fight the French in the battle of Trafalgar and “sweep the seas for England.” The Royal Navy changes how it treats seamen as a result of these incident in order to have a crew who want to serve and be treated fairly. This is the dawn of Britannica ruling the sea.

What’s to Like
The epic nature of the journey, the emotional conflict, the stunning beauty of the scenes.

What’s not to Like
At times they play Bligh as one dimensional in order to make Christian the hero of the story, not covering why the navy operated this way and in fact punishment during this journey was normal. The film made up several scenes to highlight cruelty even more.

Loosely based on the true story of the famous 1787 mutiny aboard the British ship HMS Bounty this film highlights the brutal conditions of serving on a naval ship at the time and the complex operations of a ship and the interplay between loyalty, the chain of command, and friendship. The class system in many ways is highlighted here as well between the officers and the seamen. Even the court martial highlights this with the regular crew executed but the fictional Byam (but based on a real person) gets to live when pardoned years later.

At several points during the film the crew wants to mutiny but Christian resists. However after the paradise in Tahiti and continuing to be pushed by Bligh he has had enough and mutinies. Christian gets to live many years to live in paradise, marrying a local and fathering a child. Christian has broken all the rules but doesn’t kill Bligh like he could have and the film gives he a lot of justification.

Bligh is played as sadistic captain but you can understand the need to keep a strong grip on the crew during hard voyages. Saving his reduced crew when cast off at sea he is shown as being a master of navigation.

Byam is the character in the middle and I found myself more drawn to his role than the two main leads. He tries to keep matters calm and play the middle in this fight between the captain and first officer. He doesn’t support the mutiny however he doesn’t fight against he when returned to Tahiti. A conflicted character.

There is a reason this real life event was been made into films many times starting in the 1920s. This is despite the difficulty shooting a sea based film. We are drawn to the conflict of loyalty and duty that must occur when choosing to mutiny and the many factors that influence how one decides which side to take.

A great black and white film which was thoroughly enjoyable.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Clark Gable) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charles Laughton) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Franchot Tone) – nominee
  • Best Director (Frank Lloyd) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay (Jules Furthman, Talbot Jennings and Carey Wilson) – nominee
  • Best Film Editing (Margaret Booth) – nominee
  • Best Music, Score (Nat W. Finston) – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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