Friday, March 18, 2016

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

The following is a cautionary tale.

At first glance, Lewis Milestone's Mutiny on the Bounty (with a few sequences directed by Reed before he was ingloriously replaced) has plenty of elements in its favor to make it a good sea yarn: an intriguing cast (Brando! Trevor Howard! Richard Harris!), lovely on-location shooting in Tahiti, an awe-inspiring replica of the good ship Bounty , and of course the story of the mutiny itself, full of intrigue and bitter rivalries, all in glorious Technicolor and Ultra Panavision 70.

As I proceed with this review, I’m dreadfully tempted to compare the movie to not only the other films about the Bounty Mutiny (particularly the 1935 and 1984 iterations), but the real events that transpired in the late 18th century.

Then I recall that good art can be made from bastardizing history, and criticizing the film on that aspect seems beside the point.[1] 

Even the legendarily hectic shooting (courtesy of switching directors mid-filming, raised costs, lousy weather, and Brando’s shenanigans), which has overshadowed the movie itself, I find barely worth mentioning. Again, enough classics have been made under other strenuous circumstance (ie that year’s Lawrence of Arabia), that a troubled production isn’t much of an excuse when it comes to ultimate quality.

And unfortunately, despite its admirable attempt to amp up the tale with moral ambiguity and Technicolor spectacle, the result is an impressively dull three-hour movie.

How did this happen?

In retrospect, the warning sighs are obvious from the beginning, when we are first serenaded with expositional narration during the boarding of the HMS Bounty as it is docked in Portsmith. The provider of this voiceover, here and throughout, is horticulturalist William Brown (Richard Haydn), who joins the Bounty to assist in its mission of gathering Breadfruit from Tahiti and transporting them to the West Indies.

You might think, considering how he’s the narrator instead of, say, Brando or Howard or Harris, that he will play a major role in the film. You would be deceived. With the exception of describing the properties and proper care for breadfruit, voicing some objections to Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) regarding the treatment of the crew, and providing mostly redundant exposition, Brown the Horticulturalist is a character of little importance.[2]

Despite the many criticisms leveled against Bligh over the course of the film, Trevor Howard is one of the few things in this movie that I whole-heartedly enjoyed.  None could play sneering bastards like Howard, and his bewigged and condescending performance here is a captivating one.
            The same cannot be said Brando’s Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, a boor if there ever was one. From the moment he gets on board, to his martyr-like death at the end, his silly British accent dissipates any hope that he will be taken seriously.

            Thank God for Bligh, and his condescending, misanthropic ways. I did find him to be a particularly captivating villain because, not in spite of, his pure rottenness. Already harboring a distain towards seamen in general, refereeing to them as “half-witted” and “wife-beating,” he takes a particularly venomous dislike towards the very foppish Christian, seeing him as a “career snob.” Little surprise, then, that the captain hashes ration cuttings along with disciplinary whippings, much to the chagrin of the crew, Christian included.

            This chagrin is vocalized. A lot. That’s not to say there are no epic set pieces. There are: a big storm scene that climaxes with the crushing of crewmember under a giant barrel, seemingly hundreds of canoes paddled out to great the Bounty as it arrives in Tahiti, a big fishing party, the very mutiny itself, and ending with the ship set aflame.

But these last for such long stretches, particularly the scenes on Tahiti, which feel more appropriate for a travelogue. Despite being quite a sight, they go on for so long, and accomplish so little narratively or visually, that what thrills there are quickly descend into yawns, despite the glorious color (the sunrises and sets are particular knockouts) and impressively wide cinemascope.

This format was not the kindest format for odd angles or close-ups; its strengths could be fully taken advantage of in framing and arrangements within the frame to create visual communication of scope. But what we have here is Cinemascope cinematography at its most dull: lots of standing or sitting, “clothes line” style, with plenty of talking, and set pieces that go on far too long, filmed in unmoving static takes.

It isn’t until we reach the actual mutiny itself, brought on by criminally limiting water rations to serve the plants that the film picks up a bit of the pace. The confrontation between Bligh and Christian becomes genuinely intense, as Bligh’s calm pride conflicts with Christian barely concealed rage. And it’s Bligh who prevents the mutiny itself from feeling victorious—as he’s being loaded onto the ship, he takes pleasure in the small victory of Christian’s now ruined honor and career.

Of course, that quickly descends into monotony again once Bligh is sent off along with other non-mutineers in a dingy, and that's nearly the last we see of Trevor Howard.

            From then on, we’re mostly stuck with Christen, who in this telling, is uncomfortable with his role as mutineer,. He becomes tormented with the thought of Blight catching them. That is, until he finds a sort of peace, far too late, by deciding that instead of running away from the British Navy, he and the crew should go directly to them, and put themselves on trial. Obviously, some of mutineers don’t like the idea of being court marshaled, so they set fire to the ship, and Brando dies trying to save a nautical instrument, a move that comes off more as stupid than heroic, though clearly it’s supposed to be seen as the latter.

Which is a pity, because the movie does flirt with adding ambiguity[3]. to an oft-told tale, while not quite going all the way.

While the crew’s longing for Tahiti encourages their del-factor leader (Richard Harris) to fan Christian’s discontent, Bligh’s inhuman treatment of the crew, which results in three fatalities, provides enough justification to make their actions less superficial and more sympathetic; making it a matter of rights, not vacation time. But the abuses held against them are shown on screen so briefly, and their own grumbles so repetitious, that any stakes are swept away by the audience dozing.

Bligh’s single-minded obsession with completing his transport mission and enforcing his will gives him a motivation, which makes him more understandable, though not sympathetic.

Only in a few scenes do we see Bligh stripped of his precious authority, and therefore, his threat: when he is forced into dancing with the Tahitians, and when he, with much embarrassment, orders Christian to court the Chief’s daughter: both of these actions are excused in his eyes, as being essential to being in the good graces of the Tahitians, so that the breadfruit can be gathered. Bligh does what he feels to be right for the sake of the mission and the crowd, no matter the brutality and humiliation. That he puts the mission first makes him, in Christian’s eyes near the end, a superior seaman.

Christian, on the other hand, also desires to do the right, or more accurately, the honorable, thing. He follows his captain’s orders, only pursues the chief’s daughter with Blight’s “blessing”, and starts to the mutiny when he intercedes in an inhuman torture. However, he isn’t comfortable with the mutiny in general, and his downfall comes when he mistakenly assumes that the mutineers share his sense of honor, and will willingly go to England to stand trail and be held accountable for their actions, simultaneously drawing attention to the brutality that drove them to this action.

And Christian, far from being a gung-ho leader of the mutiny, only takes that drastic step after Bligh promises him a court marshal after Christian strikes him in retaliation of the Captain’s kick. Soon Christian is uncomfortable with the responsibility of his criminal actions, even if they are justified by Bligh’s cruelty. Heck, even Christian’s death is blamed on Bligh’s influence.

Ultimately the morality remains black and white film; Blyth’s a villainous brute (even if he is acting within naval regulations) the mutiny is shown as being justified  (which, in real life, it wasn’t), and Brando, though not embracing of it, certainly acts the hero: protesting brutality, wanting to do the right thing, and getting the girl and martyr’s death while he’s at it.

And that conflict could be really compelling! A man who’s initially at odds with his superior officer, and then in addition to that, ends up out of favor with the men under him.

But even this simple premise undermined by the the minimal investment drawn from Brando’s  dull as dirt performance; perhaps the silly accent was intentional, to further draw attention to the alienation and inherent snobbery his has, but dear lord, surely that could have been conveyed with a little more charisma? At least enough for the Chief daughter’s infatuation with him to be comprehensible?

Taken together, the result is a boring slog: boring in nearly every way: acting, visuals, dialogue, music (the later which is a perfect analogy for the rest of the film: rousing for the first 20 seconds, a slog the rest of the way), etc. Anything that could have possibly made this tale compelling was thinned out.

Not helping was my familiarity with not only the previously mentioned ’35 version, but the 80s version as well. The most grounded in history of all the movie interpretations, it takes what did make the 60s version bearable (Bligh, the color cinematography the attempt at psychological complexity) and puts it in a much more compelling package.

Instead, what we have here is an ok looking film that’s not interesting as a character piece, nor as an epic. Instead, it just sort of sits there, like a toy boat in a stagnant pond. Or a fancy model ship in a studio tank, whatever the budget is.

My advise—if you want a compelling exciting yarn, watch Bounty ’35; a complex clash of personalities and temperaments, the ’84 version; if neither sounds like your cup of tea, this one I guess. Just make sure you get some coffee first.

[1] Those interested in the facts, however, can do no wrong in checking out Caroline Alexander’s excellent account of the true events leading up and following the infamous mutiny.
[2] His narration, despite having a limited role in the proceedings, is more comprehensible after finding out that he was featured in a framing device that took place years later, regaling the events of the film. Thankfully, this was discarded, though you can find it on the DVD.
[3] It certainly attempts slightly more complexity than the superior ’35 version, which I’m a big fan of: historically inaccurate, yet genuinely rousing, with compelling performances and super cinematography that make it a studio-era dynamo.

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