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Mutiny on the Bounty

Oscar traditionally has a thing for sweeping historical epics, and one of the early great ones is the best picture winner from 1935, Mutiny on the Bounty. If you don’t know the story of the HMS Bounty, you need to sue your high school’s history department.

The movie packs three great leading performances in one. Clark Gable, who shaved off his trademark mustache for historical accuracy, plays mutiny leader Fletcher Christian. Charles Laughton plays abusive captain William Bligh. Franchot Tone plays fictional midshipman Roger Byam, torn between the two. The odd thing is, as great as Tone and Laughton were, neither one had many big titles on his resume other than this one. Gable meanwhile stared in It Happened One Night, the best picture from 1934, and a few years later wound up in another best picture winner, some Civil War epic called Gone with the Wind. They didn’t call him "King of Hollywood" for nothing.

The real stars here are Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson, three writers who teamed up on the screenplay. In an era where most movies worked in black and white, where the villains were purely evil and the heroes purely good, the crew of the Bounty is a varitable gray scale. Christian is upset by Bligh’s treatment of the men, but the real impetus in his mutiny plot is the woman he fell in love with in Tahiti. Bligh for all his faults, and he is one mean son of a bitch, is ahead of his time in that he treats the Tahitian chief Hitihiti as an equal, not as some heathen that must be brushed aside and subjugated for the glory of the British Empire.

The most complex character is Byam. On the voyage in order to compile a Tahitian dictionary, he is punished by Bligh for a minor transgression and forced to climb the riggings and remain up there through a storm. Through this be befriends Christian, and like Christian, upon arrival in Tahiti falls in love with one of the locals. And yet when the idea of mutiny comes up and the prospect of returning to Tahiti becomes very real, his sense of honor to the Navy compels him to side with Bligh. To make matters even more complicated, when Bligh and those loyal to him are put off the ship, Byam is below deck and so ends up remaining on the Bounty with Christian and the rest of the mutineers. This is an accurate event historically, as there was only room on the lifeboat for 18 people, and that left several crew members who were loyal to Bligh on the ship when it returned to Tahiti.

After the mutiny, what sympathies we might have for Christian and Bligh go out the window altogether. The movie depicts Bligh as a Captain Ahab, whose white whale is Christian. His obsession with finding the mutinous dog, as he calls him, leads him to wrecking another ship on a coral reef. It is in this that the movie actually undersells Bligh’s preoccupation with seeing Christian hang. In real life, Bligh abandoned most of the survivors of the lifeboat in Jakarta, buying a ship of his own, and trawling the Pacific for any sign of the ship he lost.

Life wasn’t much easier for Christian. Knowing Bligh would come back to Tahiti to look for him, he took the Bounty, along with a handful of crew members and several Tahitian women, off on a journey to find an out of the way island where he would never be found. In the end, they arrive at Pitcairn Island, which has no natural port and was misplaced on maps at the time. What the movie doesn’t mention is how this turned out. The Tahitian women were treated as property on Pitcairn, and three of them were assigned to the six Tahitian men who went with the mutineers. Eventually, the wife of one of the mutineers died, and he demanded another woman, so one was taken from the Tahitian men. The Tahitians then rebelled and Christian was shot to death.

After the mutiny, Byam is the only one who comes off being sympathetic. Bligh wrongly believes Byam was one of the mutineers, and his friendship with Christian both before the mutiny seals his fate with the court-martial. However one of his wealthy friends steps in at the last moment to win a royal pardon. Not exactly the type of thing that sends a message that justice wins out in the end, but still.

Often, a historical epic wants us to see great cinematography and wonderful special effects and sit in amazement at the sheer scale and spectacle of the whole thing. Mutiny on the Bounty is different. Most of the action takes place on board the ship, and instead of sweeping vistas, we are treated to a Hollywood rarity, complex character development.

Other nominees that year included film versions of Les Miserables (in which Laughton played another complex villain, Javert) and Midsummer Night’s Dream with the rather curious casting of James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. The Shakespearean romantic comedy was not even Cagney’s best work of 1935, that being the Darryl F. Zanuck F. B. I. Crime drama G Men, which was overlooked for a nomination for the big prize. It doesn’t much matter of course. Mutiny on the Bounty was perfectly written and wonderfully acted, and there is little chance any movie would have beaten it that year.

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