Wednesday 27 February 2008

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Here's yet another version of the oft-filmed story of the mutiny on the Bounty, but a notable one. It's an epic version for sure, at three hours in length and in Panavision, with Lewis Milestone in the director's chair. He's someone I'd only heard of for a while as the man who made All Quiet on the Western Front, but I've been discovering lately that he was a highly versatile and very talented director. This was his last film. We have Marlon Brando, not as Captain Bligh but as Fletcher Christian, a rather foppish Christian at that coming on board with posh young ladies in tow. Bligh is Trevor Howard, tough but with deliberate intent to instil fear in his crew for the purpose of discipline. The third lead is Richard Harris, a common seaman who makes himself very obvious from moment one.

We kick off in Portsmouth in December of 1787 as the Bounty prepares for a long voyage to Tahiti to collect breadfruit to take to Jamaica to feed the slaves. The hope is that it would become a new cheap staple in a similar way to the potato, and there's a botanist included on the voyage from Kew Gardens to lend his expertise. Early on, Bligh calls him the most important man on board and he narrates our story. He also advises that breadfruit seems to have a dormant period, so eager to get there before this starts, Bligh chooses to go round Cape Horn instead of the Cape of Good Hope in order to stave five months off the voyage, leading to plenty of tension.

Brando is awesome. He starts out appearing to be horrendously overdone, certainly compared with Clark Gable's version in 1935, though with a better yet not entirely authentic English accent. However I'm discovering that that's a common problem with Brando performances as we get to grips with the approach he takes to his character. He soon establishes himself here as a firm and solid presence as a midpoint between Bligh and the crew. Bligh takes his orders very seriously and appears to see the concept of keeping speed and gaining distance more important than the lives of his men. Christian has a more concerned outlook and follows orders with a compassionate hand, giving himself a lot of room for flexibility.

Howard had an uphill struggle from moment one to match Charles Laughton's performance but he does a solid job. Brando though does better. He manages to stay honourable as an officer while keeping arrogant, obsequious and powerfully sarcastic as a man, and endows plenty of scenes depth just by being there. One in particular sees him merely waking up as Bligh talks to two crewmen and he turns it into a powerful scene without words until a final line of summation.

The visuals live up to the task. In fact they look as impressive in Panavision on a big screen TV as many modern films with a big budget for CGI, except of course there isn't any CGI involved here. The Bounty itself really becomes a major character of its own and the voyage round Cape Horn is truly intense. The scenes in Tahiti are, for Hollywood, incredibly believable because they're actually shot in Tahiti with real Tahitians speaking real Polynesian. One especially memorable scene has a long string of women blockading an entire bay while their men come towards them in canoes beating the sea to send the fish towards them to be corralled into spears and onto nets. This is the sort of thing that film and especially colour Panavision is for.

One of those Tahitians is Terita whose character Maimiti, the king's daughter, quickly becomes Fletcher Christian's love interest. She has amazingly flexible dancing hips even for a Tahitian and unsurprisingly soon became Brando's third wife. As if to suggest that he had some sort of obsession, his second wife was Movita who played the equivalent role in the 1935 version of the story and his son from his first wife was called Christian.

The last third or maybe two fifths of the film, after the intermission, doesn't quite hold up to what came before but it's still a powerful film. It's more accurate than the 1935 version, though there are still both major and minor discrepancies, especially at the end. Apparently the 1984 version, known as The Bounty is the definitive one as far as accuracy goes. It'll be hard to beat this one for visuals though, even though the ship thankfully survived its apparent burning and went on to appear in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and even Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie.

1 comment:

jimmie t. murakami said...

"I`VE BEEN LOOKING FOR A REASON TO TAKE YOU DOWN A PEG OR TWO, YOU POSTURING SNOB", yet another one of my all-time favorite lines. By the way, i`ve always thought that this film is one of the most ludicrously under-rated movies of all time.