- Director: Frank Lloyd
- Writers: Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson, based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Dudley Digges, Donald Crisp, Movita, Mamo, and Henry Stephenson
- Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#86), 1 Oscar (Best Picture), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Frank Lloyd, Best Actor – Clark Gable, Best Actor – Charles Laughton, Best Actor – Franchot Tone, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV
While watching Mutiny on the Bounty I found myself checking frequently to see how much time was left in the movie, which is never a good sign. Even worse, I found myself, every time, shocked by how much time was left. I don’t even think it’s a bad movie, really. It’s actually surprisingly undated-feeling for a relatively early sound movie from 1935. But wow, did it never, ever grab me. Its relatively late attempts to create moral relativism by humanizing its great villain, Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), mostly fall flat. And this movie’s weird attempt to scrape out some purpose or moral to proceedings by claiming that this mutiny somehow “precipitated a new understanding between officers and sailors” in the British navy is not only ineffectual but, from a historical perspective, complete nonsense. If you love this version of Mutiny on the Bounty, even if it’s just for the amount of screen time Clark Gable spends shirtless, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong, but boy is it not for me.
This movie is based on an actual historical voyage to the South Pacific undertaken by a British Navy ship in 1789 and 1790. The events that occurred on the voyage were indeed much more dramatic than anyone could have anticipated when the ship set out (its mission was to gather Breadfruit plants from Tahiti for the purpose of transplanting them to the West Indies as food for slaves), and have since served as the basis of at least five separate movies. This movie, starring Laughton as the Captain who abuses his men at every turn and Gable as Fletcher Christian, the Lieutenant who is eventually pushed too far and leads a mutiny, was the runaway hit of 1935, won the Best Picture Oscar, and was acclaimed the greatest movie ever made by more than one critic at the time. Nobody thinks this today, not least because 85 years’ worth of movies have happened since, and though it made it onto the 1997 AFI list of the Top 100 American movies it subsequently dropped off the more recent version of that list. It has since been directly remade twice, once in 1962 with Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian (the final movie directed by Lewis Milestone), and again in 1984 with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.
If you are looking for an accurate depiction of the events involving the HMS Bounty, be aware that this ain’t it, nor does it claim to be (this is a movie based on a novel that is itself loosely based on historical events, for better or worse). I’m told that the 1984 movie, which I have never seen but apparently treats Bligh’s character with substantially more sympathy, is probably the most historically-accurate of the bunch. The ending is pretty close to what actually happened, however: after spending about a year on Tahiti and taking Tahitian women as wives, the mutineers, led by Christian, fled the British Navy on the Bounty and eventually landed on barren, isolated Pitcairn Island. As depicted in the final scene of this movie, they then burned the Bounty and formed their own society. Even today, Pitcairn Island is an independent “British Overseas Territory” with a population of 44, the smallest (by population) separate national unit in the world. That population is, to this day, mostly descended from the original mutineers and their Tahitian brides, though they are at least somewhat less cut off from the rest of the world in this era of air travel and the internet.
The rest of the crew is filled out with various great character actors of this era, and on their own terms the performances in this movie are pretty great. Franchot Tone, a French–Canadian actor mostly forgotten today but a big Hollywood star in his heyday (he was even married to Joan Crawford at one point), plays the young Midshipman Byam, a scion of an old seafaring family who starts out thrilled to go on his first voyage and ends up nearly being executed for mutiny. I, like many modern viewers likely would be, found myself more bemused than anything at the choice to not have either Gable or Tone even attempt any kind of British accent, despite the fact that everyone else in the movie has one and they are playing characters from 1700s England. It’s pretty common today to hear about one American actor or another’s English accent not being up to snuff, but the backlash that would come from a big Hollywood star not even attempting one while supposedly playing an English person would be truly spectacular. Gable’s character is repeatedly said to come from Cumberland, in the far Northwest of England, and in real life likely had a pretty thick accent, but this movie cares not.
Mutiny on the Bounty remains probably the best known film of the director Frank Lloyd, who was one of the most successful studio directors of his time and directed over 80 movies in a long career that actually pre-dated the existence of Hollywood as a thing. He was born in Scotland and I’m sure knew what someone from Cumberland sounded like, but I digress. He won two Best Director Oscars in his career, but not for this movie, which remains the most recent winner of the Best Picture Oscar to not win any other awards. Part of the reason for this was that Laughton, Gable, and Tone were all nominated together in the Best Actor category, a record that remains unbroken. They apparently split the vote and the award went to Victor McLaglen in The Informer. This circumstance led directly to the creation of the new Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories the next year. You do still see multiple nominees in the same category from the same movie occasionally however, including a confounding circumstance in the current Oscar nominations where Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah. One of them’s got to be the lead, right?
Anyway, I think I felt while watching Mutiny on the Bounty not so different than my spouse feels while in the room with a lot of these movies, which is that I spent most of the movie wondering when it was going to end. That this feels like more my problem than the movie’s mostly serves to make this write up less interesting. I do want to mention that this is the first movie we’ve featured on this site to involve the English actor Donald Crisp (he plays one of the secondary mutineers), who appeared in at least 400 films that we know of. The discrepancy is because his film career started so early that it’s hard to keep track. He literally played Ulysses S. Grant in The Birth of a Nation. It has been claimed that he was in more commercial movies than any other human in history. Having emigrated to the US in 1906 after serving in the Boer War, he was never a huge star but did have many supporting roles in memorable films. He won his own Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1942 for his role in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. He also directed 70 movies, almost as many as Frank Lloyd, including films starring Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, but unlike Lloyd he said he found sound directing much less interesting and went back to acting around 1930.