Mutiny on the Bounty (review)

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Two Guys Before the Mast

It’s well over two hours long, it’s full of inappropriate accents, and it was filmed almost entirely on the ocean. No, it’s not the latest Kevin Costner epic — it’s Mutiny on the Bounty, a thrilling classic that remains surprisingly modern.

Based on the famous 1787 mutiny, Bounty follows the ill-fated ship from its launch in England through its long journey to the South Seas in search of breadfruit trees. Harsh British law allowed unwilling men to be pressed into sea service, and the Bounty’s already disgruntled crew is pushed to the edge by its sadistic captain, Bligh (Charles Laughton), who would flog a man after he was already dead and would cut a sailor to half rations if he didn’t like the crewman’s face. Eventually even Bligh’s formerly loyal officers Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, who doesn’t alter his American accent one iota despite the fact that his character is from Cumberland) and Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) grow disgusted with him and lead a mutiny. Christian sets Bligh and his few loyalists adrift in the middle of the Pacific, thirty-five hundred miles from any safe port of call, and sails the Bounty for the paradise of Tahiti.

The vague homoerotic overtones (surely unintentional) that had been bouncing between Christian and Byam on Bligh’s Bounty blossom with their freedom on Tahiti into, well, less vague overtones. Byam spends him time writing a Tahitian dictionary and both he and Christian take up with pretty, willing native girls, yet they seem to have eyes mostly for each other. With all those buff, smooth (nary a hairy chest or armpit in sight), half-naked sailors skinny-dipping off the lovely beaches, is it any wonder a guy might fall in love with one of them?

Homoeroticism aside, Mutiny on the Bounty’s influence on film shows up in contemporary maritime stories like The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide, and the slave uprising in Amistad is directly descended from Bounty’s electrifying mutiny scene. Bounty was — and is — Hollywood at its best.

Oscars Outstanding Production 1935
AFI 100 (1998 list): #86

unforgettable movie moment:
Bligh’s starving sailors catch a shark with their rations — a hunk of horse meat — as bait.

previous Best Picture:
1934: It Happened One Night
next Best Picture:
1936: The Great Ziegfeld

previous AFI 100 film:
85: Duck Soup
next AFI 100 film:
87: Frankenstein

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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