17 May 2009

Best Pictures: Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935

Directed by Frank Lloyd, Mutiny is a surprisingly compelling film that is remarkable for its tonal shifts. The first thirty minutes imply a jaunty nautical melodrama that later showcases cruelty unexpected in a film from this period. One minute a drunken peglegged surgeon is being hoisted aboard the ship to laughter and applause. The next minute Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) arrives only to have a corpse beaten with a cat of nine tails in front of his crew.

For most of the film, we see an ideological conflict in the form of Bligh and his first mate Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), who wants more humane treatment for the men. One of the best features of this film is when that conflict is muddied by the harsh actions of Christian during the mutiny, leading to the climax of the film when a departing Bligh delivers a powerful condemnation to the mutineers. The moment presents us with a villain who is heroic and a heroic rebel with no real plan and debatable leadership qualities.

Unfortunately, the climax comes about 45 minutes before the end of the film. Once Bligh and Christian are separated, the main conflict is gone. Christian wanders about Tahiti with the other mutineers, bedding a native girl who gives him a daughter. Indeed, between Bligh's cruelty and Christian's dalliances, we get a picture of sovereignty and imperialism run amok. Of course, the natives in the film are more than happy to accommodate their invaders, and the native women go weak at the knees whenever a shirtless white man walks by.

The film is well constructed, with some notable editing techniques reminiscent of that other great film less than a decade prior that also dealt with mutiny on a ship. There's also some good performances, with an interesting picture of British and American acting techniques at work in the film's central conflict. Laughton, in technical terms, acts circles around Gable, but there's no matching Gable's charisma and heroic qualities. Even when his character becomes less than noble, Gable makes Christian very enjoyable to watch.

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