A rousing sea adventure embodying all the brilliance of classic Hollywood studio moviemaking
If you love sea adventures, the 1935 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” is the one to watch. Action-packed with conflict and humor, this is escapism at its Hollywood best. Considered a landmark upon its release, this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio epic became the highest grossing film of 1935, and its lasting appeal earned it the 86th spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won that year’s Best Picture statue. Never before or since have the high seas become so mercilessly fun.
“Mutiny on the Bounty” was based on the 1932 Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel based on an actual 1789 mutiny that occurred onboard the English ship the HMS Bounty. Two previous versions (a 1916 Australian/New Zealand silent film and a 1933 Australian film starring then unknown Errol Flynn) were previously made of this story, and two later versions (a 1962 Marlon Brando epic and a 1984 version starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins) followed, but this 1935 film is undoubtedly the best and most entertaining telling of the tale. While the story has become legendary, it’s not completely historically accurate, and for those interested, I’ll explain more about that in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING SECTION below (which will contain spoilers).
Set in Portsmouth, England in 1787, the film opens as a group of men led by “Fletcher Christian” enter a pub to forcibly recruit its male patrons into the King’s navy for a two year journey aboard the HMS Bounty. Their mission is to sail the uncharted South Seas to Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees and transport them to the West Indies as a food source for slaves. The ship is under the command of “Captain Bligh”, a ruthless and fearsome man with a penchant for flogging, and “Christian” is his reluctant ship's lieutenant. As the voyage continues, “Christian” finds it harder and harder to watch his mates be beaten and abused by “Bligh”, and mutiny eventually ensues – but that’s hardly the end to this classic.
In addition to being a spectacular film that stands the test of time, “Mutiny on the Bounty” is a dazzling example of the well-crafted, masterful entertainment that Hollywood studios were capable of producing by the mid 1930s. According to “The MGM Story” by John Douglas Eames, in 1935 worldwide movie attendance had reached 220 million tickets per week. Over 500 films were produced in Hollywood that year alone. There were eight major Hollywood studios, of which MGM was the largest and most profitable (in the world). “Mutiny on the Bounty” clearly displays the strengths of the studio system, in particular MGM. With hundreds of carpenters, painters, art directors and designers on staff and at their disposal, they were able to build two full-sized HMS Bounty vessels, an English port off the California coast, and film exotic locales in both California and Tahiti. With their vast wardrobe department and huge roster of actors, they could easily supply a bevy of supporting players, hundreds of extras, and the world’s hottest new star to lead them – all in full costumes, wigs, and make-up. MGM housed directors, cinematographers, musicians, composers, film editors, seamstresses, antiques, props, and just about everyone and everything needed to create a polished and satisfying look at life anywhere in the world in the late 1700s. The film methodically introduces us one by one to its colorful cast of characters, including the HMS Bounty, and a simple moment such as when the men lower the sails to begin their voyage turns it into a gloriously exciting explosion of pageantry and joy. This is the stuff that makes movies irresistible.
The film came about because of its director, Frank Lloyd. Enthralled with the story, he bought the rights to the 1932 novel and sold them to MGM with the caveat that he direct. Though uncredited, head of MGM production Irving Thalberg produced the film with the intention of making it the studio’s prestige film of 1935, and gave it an enormous budget of just under $2 million. With a desire for authenticity, Lloyd obtained copies of the original plans for the HMS Bounty. Under the supervision of MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons, three exact replicas of the ship were built (two full sized, and one to scale at ⅕ the size used for special effects). Lloyd also tracked down the Gieves Company, who made the real Captain Bligh’s uniform. They were still in business and had retained Bligh’s measurements. Actor Charles Laughton (playing "Bligh") requested they reproduce the uniform using the same material, and they did, which Laughton lost over fifty pounds to fit into. Some cast, crew, and over 100 tons of film equipment sailed with one of the newly built Bounty ships to Tahiti to film exteriors, backgrounds, villages, and scenes with Tahitians. Much of that footage became unusable, but some remains in the film (often as rear projection in scenes with the stars). A lot of the film was shot at Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, a haven for Hollywood folk. Actor James Cagney (a family friend of Lloyd) was sailing around the island between film contracts and jokingly asked to be an extra in the film for some cash. Donning sideburns and a mustache, Cagney did a day’s work as a shipmate extra, and David Niven, Dick Haymes, and Johnny Weissmuller were also reported as uncredited extras. Lloyd did a five-star job moving the story at a thrilling pace while with a captivating tone (even in harrowing moments). He earned a Best Director Academy Award nomination for his work (his fifth and final). Scottish born Frank Lloyd started his film career as an actor and writer in 1913, and began directing the following year. Directing over 130 films (the bulk of which were silent), he earned five Best Director Oscar nominations, winning two (one for 1929’s "The Divine Lady”, and a second for 1933’s “Cavalcade”, which also earned a Best Picture Oscar). He was married twice, the second time to screenwriter Virginia Kellogg. Frank Lloyd died in 1960 at the age of 74.
Starring as “Captain Bligh”, Charles Laughton creates one of cinema’s immortal villains. With his commanding voice and presence, this sadistic, no-nonsense captain instills fear and anger wherever he goes. There’s a matter-of-factness to his tyranny, seen immediately, as he gives a man orders to carry out the film’s first flogging. “Bligh” requested “Christian” as his chief officer, having sailed together on two previous occasions. As “Christian” offers advice to “Bligh” about going easy on the men, “Bligh” retorts, “I’ve a way of my own with seamen. They respect but one law – the law of fear. And it would be well for my officers to remember that”. A moment later, as “Bligh” explains why he requested “Christian” for the voyage, their dialogue slyly sets up the conflict between the two men:
“Bligh”: “I like having a gentleman as my subordinate, being a self-made man”.
“Christian”: “And I admire you for that Sir”.
“Bligh”: “And for very little else?”
To which “Christian” changes the subject.
From that point on “Bligh” never looks at “Christian” in the same way. Laughton’s brilliance and depth of talent overflow in the scene (and all throughout the film), and his multi-faceted performance makes this monstrous captain real and believable. “Bligh” almost exhibits charm when he first greets Island Chief “Hitihiti”, and briefly shows a kinder side when on the smaller boat after the mutiny. It's no wonder Laughton gained a reputation for being one of the greatest actors of his generation. He earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for “Mutiny on the Bounty”, which is perhaps his most iconic role. He got on famously with director Lloyd, and the two both worked again on 1943’s “Forever and a Day”. Laughton did not fair as well with his co-star Gable, reportedly because Gable was homophobic, and though married to actress Elsa Lanchester, Laughton was openly gay. I wrote more about Charles Laughton’s life and career in my post for the one film he directed, “The Night of the Hunter”. Please check it out for more on this super creative man.
Clark Gable is thoroughly enjoyable as “Fletcher Christian”, the ship’s compassionate lieutenant who declares mutiny. With an inherent likability and charisma, Gable makes “Christian” completely sympathetic and charming, frequently adding humor into the mix. Even the way he enters and coerces the men in the pub at the film’s start is somehow endearing. It could be argued that Gable is more movie star than actor, though he always brings a definite power and believability to the screen, and exceedingly so in this film. Like all major movie stars, Gable was protective of his screen persona and was somewhat insecure about this role. He reluctantly shaved off what he considered his lucky trademark mustache (facial hair wasn’t allowed in the British Navy in the late 1700s), and had concerns about what a pigtail and knee britches would do to his he-man image. It’s also been said that he was worried Laughton might steal the show. Gable’s apprehension was in vain, as he gives what is largely recognized as one of his best performances and earned his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination for the role (he won the award the year before for the classic “It Happened One Night” ). Fluctuating between tough-guy roles and romantic leads with a captivating boyish quality, his appeal was wide. Gable became the epitome of masculinity and the ideal man of the 1930s – someone women wanted to be with and men wanted to be. Gable was the #2 box-office star in the world at the time (second only to Will Rogers), and “Mutiny on the Bounty” helped catapult him into legendary status, nicknamed The King of early Hollywood, and this film came at the start of his crown. He was a top-ten box-office star sixteen years between 1932 and 1955. He gained a third and final Best Actor Oscar nomination for his most revered and iconic role in 1939’s milestone, “Gone with the Wind”, along with immortality. I’ve previously written about Clark Gable in several posts - "It Happened One Night", "Gone With the Wind", "The Misfits", and in particular, "Red Dust” - where you can find out more about his life and career.
Franchot Tone plays “Ensign Byam”, the youthfully eager youngster onboard to make a dictionary of the Tahitian language. “Byam” is also “Christian’s” pupil in navigation and trigonometry, among other ship duties. Coming from seven generations of seamen who have never failed their duties, “Byam” finds himself caught between job loyalty to "Bligh", and loyalty to his friend “Christian”. In a way, “Byam” grows up during the course of the film, and Tone does an excellent job showing his progression. In great contrast to “Christian” and “Bligh”, Tone brings a playful cockiness and naïveté to “Byam”, epitomized in the scene when he swings the lantern with his two berth mates. Tone received a Best Actor Oscar nomination (his one and only) alongside Laughton and Gable – the only time to date that three actors from the same film were nominated in the same category (they all lost to Victor McLaglen in “The Informer”). This occurrence inspired the creation of Oscar's Best Supporting Actor/Supporting Actress categories the following year.
The highly well-bred Franchot Tone was the son of an industrial magnate and a prominent socialite. He took an interest in acting while studying at Cornell University (graduating with honors), and his career began in the theater. He was a founding member of New York’s famed Group Theater, and its first member to go to Hollywood. In 1932 he made his film debut in “The Wiser Sex”, starring Claudette Colbert. Offered a contract with MGM, he began to get desirable parts, and his second film appearance was in the 1933 Joan Crawford film, “Today We Live”. The two became a couple, and teamed for a total of seven films. He appeared opposite Jean Harlow in four films. By 1934 Tone was shifting between starring and co-starring roles, often playing sophisticated type gentlemen. Following “Mutiny on the Bounty” (also in 1935), he starred opposite Bette Davis in “Dangerous”, and she feel head over heels in love with the elegantly mannered Tone. He announced his wedding to Crawford while filming "Dangerous", and the already embittered Davis felt Crawford deliberately took him from her, cementing what became a legendary, life-long feud between the two actresses. Tone’s marriage to Crawford lasted three and a half years. A popular film actor, he worked steadily through the 1930s and 1940s while occasionally appearing in theater and on radio, moving primarily to television in the 1950s. Some of his other classic films include "Bombshell", "Dancing Lady", "The Bride Wore Red", "Five Graves to Cairo", "Advise & Consent", and "In Harm's Way". His final appearance was in "The High Commissioner" in 1968. He was married and divorced four times - all to actresses (first Crawford, followed by Jean Wallace, Barbara Payton and Dolores Dorn). Franchot Tone died in 1968 at the age of 63.
Eddie Quillan plays the young “Ellison”, forced to leave his wife and baby to board the Bounty, and he brings a kind and emotional quality on the ship. An actor who began in silent shorts, Quillan appeared in supporting roles in several classics of the 1930s and 1940s before being regulated to B-films, shorts, and then working almost exclusively in television starting in 1958. His other classic films include "The Grapes of Wrath", "Young Mr. Lincoln", "Girl Crazy", "Made for Each Other", and “Brigadoon”. He never married. Eddie Quillan died in 1990 at the age of 83.
If you’re watching the films on here, an actor I hope you recognize by now is Donald Crisp who plays “Burkitt”, the former thief who chose to be a shipmate on the Bounty rather than go to prison. As always, Crisp is thoroughly convincing, whether trying to catch a shark for a meal, or reacting to “Bligh’s” injustice. In a career spanning from 1908 until 1963 in over 150 performances, Crisp appears in many classics, including two already written about on this blog, “Red Dust” (also with Gable), and as the father of the “Morgan” family in “How Green Was My Valley”, for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. You can read more about him and his career in both those posts (just click on the titles).
Also of note is Spring Byington who plays “Mrs. Byam”, mother of “Byam”. With very little to do (she appears in one brief scene), Byington is able to give this regal woman a personality and make her seem like a human being. A prolific and enjoyable character actress, Byington is a welcomed face you will often see in classic films. After spending twenty odd years in theater companies, Spring Byington made it to Broadway in 1924, where she worked continuously until 1935. Her first film appearance was in a 1930 short, and her second was playing Katharine Hepburn’s mother, "Marmee March” in the classic 1933 version of “Little Women”. Her film career took off in 1935 (she appeared in eight films that year alone). Byington became famous starring as “Mrs. Jones” in the sixteen film B-movie series about the “Jones Family” (from 1936 to 1940). In 1938 she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only) for her deliciously scatterbrained performance as Jean Arthur's mother in Frank Capra's Best Picture Oscar winner, “You Can't Take It with You”. She appeared in approximately 120 films and TV shows, working primarily on television from the early 1950s onward. Some of her other classic films include "Jezebel", "Meet John Doe", "Heaven Can Wait", “Dodsworth", "The Enchanted Cottage", and "In the Good Old Summertime”. She was married and divorced once, was reported to be a lesbian, and had a long term relationship with actress Marjorie Main (which lasted until Byington's death). Spring Byington died in 1971 at the age of 84.
The last cast member I’ll mention is Movita Castaneda (also known simply as Movita) who plays “Tehani”, Tahitian love interest of “Byam”. A stunning American actress of Mexican descent, Movita began her film career as one of the featured “Carioca Singers” in the 1933 musical, “Flying Down to Rio” (the first film pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). Regulated to playing primarily exotic types in films through the mid 1950s (including many Westerns), she appeared in films such as "Dream Wife", "Fort Apache", "Wagon Master", and "The Girl from Rio”. Movita worked on TV sporadically beginning in the 1950s, ending with her recurring role as “Ana" in the 1980's TV series, "Knots Landing”. She is perhaps best known today for being the second wife of actor Marlon Brando (who funny enough starred as “Fletcher Christian” in the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty”). She had one previous marriage to actor/boxer Jack Doyle. Movita Castaneda died in 2015 at the age of 98.
In addition to winning a Best Picture Academy Award, its Best Director and three Best Actor nominations, “Mutiny on the Bounty” was also nominated for Best Screenplay (Jules Furthman, Talbot Jennings, and Carey Wilson), Best Film Editing (Margaret Booth, who I wrote about in the “Camille” post), and Best Score (Herbert Stothart).
This well-crafted film is so compelling, it kept the story of “Christian”, “Bligh” and the Bounty alive in zeitgeist. Just last year, my father (who has taken to building intricate models) purchased and built a model replica of the HMS Bounty – over 200 years after the real one sailed. If you are looking for first-class entertainment, this is a great choice. Enjoy “Mutiny on the Bounty”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
While “Mutiny on the Bounty” is based on real events, it's not completely historically accurate. There was a ship named the HMS Bounty with a captain named William Bligh and a first mate named Fletcher Christian. Its mission was to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies to feed the slaves, and a mutiny did take place onboard in 1789 headed by Christian. However, during the mutiny no one was killed. While Bligh was strict and stern, there were only two deaths recorded onboard the actual Bounty (one from a blood infection, and the other was the ship's doctor who died from alcohol poisoning). No deaths were known to be caused by flogging, and no men were unjustly put in chains. Bligh and many of his loyalists were set adrift in an overcrowded open boat, and being an expert seaman, Bligh managed to get them to the safety of Timor, traveling close to 4,000 miles without navigation charts. He himself did not search for Christian or attend the trial, but continued to captain other vessels. Midshipman “Byam” was based on a real person, one of several who were pardoned at the trial. The mutineers did reach Pitcairn Island in 1790 and started a colony (their descendants live there today), though some returned to Tahiti and were punished. Tensions between the mutineers the the Tahitians rose on Pitcairn, and in 1793, Christian and four other mutineers were murdered by Tahitians. The last surviving mutineer, John Adams, used the ship's Bible to teach the others the ways of Christianity and how to read and write, while keeping the island at peace. Adams was honored as the founder of the community on Pitcairn, and the island's capital, Adamstown, was named in his honor.