Portsmouth, 1787. Ship’s Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) press-gangs a pub-load of unwilling men aboard The Bounty, heading on a two-year voyage to Tahiti in search of breadfruit. At the ship’s helm is Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), one of the cruellest men to ever sail the seas in the name of the King’s navy, and he more than lives up to his reputation. After Christian and the crew can take no more of Bligh’s cruelty they mutiny and take over the ship, but their problems do not end there.
Despite this being only the second film I’ve seen him in, Charles Laughton is rapidly becoming one of my favourite classic cinema villains, after his stellar work in Jamaica Inn and the utterly depraved and horrendous acts he performs in Mutiny, Laughton is so ludicrously vile that it becomes entertaining to hate him. His Capt. Bligh has no qualms about doling out the strictest and most unfair punishments for the slightest infringements. A man is given two dozen lashes for not speaking up when someone else knocks something over. Another is flogged for being late to see the captain, despite the tardiness being the fault of a fellow officer who owns up to the misdemeanour, only to be put in charge of the crewman’s flogging. Hell, we’re introduced to the Captain when he insists on a man being given two dozen lashes in front of the rest of the crew, despite that man already being dead! You know you’ve got a real boo-hiss villain on your hands when there’s an entire montage devoted to the painful and at times fatal injustices he orders on a somewhat regular basis.
Fortunately his counterpoint is Clark Gable, for whom this is also my second film after It Happened One Night. Here Gable is the epitome of charming and likeability, whilst maintaining an air of nobility worthy of his rank. It takes a lot before his Mr. Christian breaks down, and we’re with him the whole way. The rest of the crew is filled with other terrific characters and actors, with Franchot Tone’s Byam receiving the most focus as the young nobleman being sent out by his father to create a Tahitian dictionary. Byam is torn between his family’s maritime history and values and his own personal friendship with Christian, causing the young midshipman to become caught in the middle of the mutiny, in the uneasy position of having to remain on board the ship but without the captain he has been loyal to all along.
The plot – which is based on real events that would go on to change maritime law – took many turns I wasn’t quite expecting and, despite being well over two hours long, never dragged and retained my attention throughout. At times I became a bit lost with the sheer quantity of characters aboard the ship, some of whom seemed to disappear (what happened to Herbert Mundin’s Smith?) but the pure force behind the three leads is more than enough to make this unmissable. In fact, this is the only film to ever receive three nominees for Best Actor at the Oscars, none of whom won (Victor McLaglen took the statue for his work in The Informer), which prompted the academy to create the Best Supporting Actor award.
The film serves as both an informative account of British maritime life back in the 18th century (although some of the details of events, such as the extents of Bligh’s cruelty, were exaggerated for dramatic effect) as well as an entertaining and rousing tale of men standing up for what they believe in, even if the costs are perhaps more than they initially bargained for. This is another film I’d probably never have watched were it not for the 1001 List, and I’m very glad that I’ve seen it now.
Choose Film 9/10