Friday, January 4, 2008

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Because it was so cold and snowy on New Year’s Day (belated Happy New Year everyone) my plans to go see “Sweeney Todd” became abandoned. I decided to stay in that day. Since I didn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. the night before, this seemed a fine idea to me.

Because I had the whole day ahead of me, I felt like immersing myself in something long, and wanted something that would work as an antidote to the weather outside. I decided to watch the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” that had been given to me as a gift earlier in the year but had not yet watched. Its three-hour running time and an ample supply of South Seas scenery made this the perfect candidate for viewing.

My friend Jim had given me a copy of this film because he’s a big fan of it and we’re both admirers of the Bronislau Kaper score, the Polish composer’s magnum opus. It’s a magnificent, towering score for a disappointing movie. There’s some absolutely marvelous things in it, but looming over it like a deranged relative is Marlon Brando’s wildly eccentric portrayal of Fletcher Christian. A lot of people think Brando is wonderful in it and I was hoping that time would have caught up with his performance, but for me he sinks the film.

Giant spectacles were in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s, giving moviegoers sights and sounds they could not experience on television. Wide screen and stereo sound augmented the big epics of the day. Because M-G-M had experienced a huge critical and popular success with “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1935 with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, it seemed to take advantage of the new technology in re-telling the famous story.

No need to relate that story here, except to say that Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) is suitably merciless and nasty, a captain who worked his way up through the ranks of the British Navy to captain his first ship, the Bounty. Brando plays first mate Fletcher Christian as an aristocratic, foppish dandy with an upper crust accent that, for me, does not come off.

A young Richard Harris is the leader of the rebellious crew members, and other familiar faces dot the crew, including Hugh Griffith (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for “Ben-Hur” (1959), Percy Herbert (“Mysterious Island” (1961) and Gordon Jackson (“The Great Escape” (1963).

The Bounty is on a mission to collect breadfruit plants from the island of Tahiti, where it is hoped it can be grown elsewhere and serve as a cheap food source for the world. The crew suffers under the cruelty of Captain Bligh, but all is forgiven when they reach the island paradise of Tahiti. The men forget their problems for the three months they are there, but upon returning to sea Bligh resumes his tyranny over the crew until the inevitable occurs.

Trevor Howard makes a suitably cruel Captain Bligh, but he’s no Charles Laughton. Laughton made such a strong impression on audiences that his performance was parodied and imitated in other movies, cartoons and short subjects. When most people think of Captain Bligh, they think of Charles Laughton.

One aspect of the 1962 version I felt was lacking was stressing Bligh’s superb seamanship after the mutiny occurs. Bligh and his crew members who elect to go with him are cast adrift in an open boat thousands of miles from the nearest port. Bligh has one scene where he vows to get them to a safe port. The next scene he is relating his tale to the Admiralty.

The 1935 version shows how torturous that 2,000 mile journey was, one of the great feats in navigation history. It’s one of my favorite sequences of the earlier version, and I’m sorry it was not included here.

Brando kills the film for me though (I should stress his performance has as many fans as it does detractors). Reportedly a holy terror on the set, to the point that Richard Harris and Trevor Howard refused to ever work with him again, Brando drove one director (Carol Reed) off the production halfway through, and so flabbergasted Reed’s replacement, the veteran director Lewis Milestone, that Milestone pretty much let Brando direct his own scenes, just to get the long problem-plagued production over with. This probably explains the scene where Christian interrupts a meeting wearing a nightshirt and cap, smoking a long pipe and talking in the most, how shall I say it, twerpiest and mincing high pitched voice imaginable. It’s Brando at his most eccentric, almost as cringe-inducing as his final scenes on Pitcairn Island.

However, there are wonderful compensations. The producers re-created an actual sailing ship of the era and it’s a thing of beauty to watch as it makes its way halfway across the world. The photography is splendid and the Tahitian locations are staggering in their beauty.

As I said earlier, the film boasts an incredible score by M-G-M staff composer Bronislau Kaper. The film underwent so many cuts that the film was scored and re-scored several times. The invaluable Film Score Monthly record label last year issued a 3-disc CD of the score and its various incarnations. Kaper recorded three different endings to the film, the one heard now (quieter and more melancholy), a more traditional big finish one and one for a prologue and epilogue that were eventually cut out of the film but shown on ABC-TV in the late 1960s for the film’s network television premiere.

My aforementioned friend Jim, who works in a recording studio, took the louder ending and dubbed it onto a separate disc of the film. I actually prefer the bigger ending to the quieter ending. All three are great, though, and it’s interesting to hear how Kaper achieves a different effect using the same thematic material.

Kaper was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score that year but lost to Maurice Jarre for “Lawrence of Arabia” The other score nominees that year were Elmer Bernstein for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Franz Waxman for “Taras Bulba” and Jerry Goldsmith for “Freud.” I look at that list and compared to what we hear today I want to weep.

My favorite version of the story remains the 1935 version. In 1984, there was a terrific version released with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh. I only saw it once, but remember it being quite good, with Bligh being more sympathetic than usually portrayed and the mutiny being caused by the effects of the hedonistic lifestyle on Tahiti as much as anything else. That version has a screenplay by Robert Bolt, whittled down from a two-part movie he worked on for years for director David Lean. Alas, we never had an opportunity to see a Lean-directed Bounty saga, but what a movie that would have been.

In 1933, a young Errol Flynn stepped before a movie camera for the first time to play Fletcher Christian in an Australian film called “In the Wake of the Bounty.” It’s a crude production, but an interesting one. It probably would be forgotten today if it weren’t for Flynn, who in real life was a distant relation to Fletcher Christian. As a boy Flynn used to play with one of his famous ancestor’s swords. Even before he became a world-famous movie star, Flynn chafed at authority. I’m sure he understood Fletcher Christian very well.

Rating for the 1962 “Mutiny on the Bounty”: Two and a half stars.

1 comment:

Dees Stribling said...

Haven't seen any of the movie versions of the story in many years now, but Laughton is the definitive movie Bligh, no doubt. The '84 version is probably the most historically accurate of the three, however, with the somewhat sympathetic Bligh. Some of the families of the mutineers back in England went to a lot of trouble to blacken Bligh's name -- successfully so, down the centuries. Still, Laughton is the one. There's room enough in the world for both history and stories made from history.