BR: Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Label: Warner Home Video/ Region: All / Released: November 8, 2011
Genre: Historical Drama
Synopsis: Fletcher Christian moves from officer to reluctant hero in this lavish reworking of the famous Bounty saga.
Special Features: Alternate Prologue (4:11) and Epilogue (3:23) with text intro / 2006 featurette: “After the Cameras Stopped Rolling: The Journey of the Bounty” (24:17) / 4 vintage featurettes: “The Story of the H.M.S. Bounty (1961) (28:38) + “The Bounty’s Voyage to St. Petersburg” (24:58) + “The Bounty: Star Attraction at the New York World’s Fair” (1964) (6:39) + “H.M.S. Bounty Sails Again! Millions Cheer Famous Ship on Exciting Voyage” (8:05) / Theatrical Trailer
There was (and remains) nothing novel about MGM’s decision to dust off the script of their 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty film and attempt a revised version, augmented with Technicolor and widescreen cinematography, plus some tweaks to the storyline to present hero Fletcher Christian as a reluctant hero who becomes a martyr for the cause of human rights.
Charles Lederer’s new script (with uncredited rewrites and tweaks by a reported 5 additional writers) follows the novel’s standard plot points of a crew assembling for the launch of the H.M.S. Bounty en route to Tahiti for the gathering and delivery of breadfruit plants, which according to the new script, are ‘to feed the British Empire.’ (In reality, the Brits regarded the fruit as simple yet nourishing food that could also feed slaves during transit points, a topic ignored by the film’s screenwriters because it perhaps implied Christian may have supported the slave trade.)
During the voyage, 1st Lieutenant Christian becomes increasingly disturbed by Captain William Bligh’s cruel treatment of the crew, ranging from whippings, illegal keelhauling, and restricting an officer in the crow’s nest all night for slander.
Once the Bounty arrives in Tahiti, the onboard botanist, William Brown, realizes they must wait 5 months for the breadfruit saplings to sufficiently mature into transportable potted plants, forcing Bligh to watch the crew become accustomed to a horribly cozy lifestyle with bare-chested women, and co-mingle with a society where lovemaking is as natural as breathing air.
With their matured plants on board, the ship finally sails for Jamaica, but early into their voyage Christian’s disgust for Bligh’s latest cruelty reaches a boiling point, and he incites a mutiny, ultimately booting Bligh and his loyal crewmen into a skiff so they can sail to the nearest island. After wandering the seas, the mutineers stumble upon an erroneously charted land mass – Pitcairn Island – where they agree to settle.
Although the group find peace and livability, Christian eventually expresses misgivings about their decision to allow Bligh and his kind to sail the seas with impunity, and he suggests the men return to England, face justice, and use their experiences to improve the laws of seamanship in His Majesty’s Navy. Fearing they’ll face the hangman’s noose, the men set fire to the Bounty, and while Christian manages to save the precious sextant, he succumbs to his wounds and dies in the arms of his beloved, Princess Maimiti.
The Brando Factor
Regardless of whether it was Lederer or Brando’s choice to have a foppish Christian gradually ‘grow into an assertive man’ after encountering waves of Bligh’s injustices, Lederer’s martyr the arc for Christian is more dramatically enhanced with the new finale where the reluctant hero dies, but it also allowed Brando to indulge in little bits of silliness that initially presents the film’s hero as a bit of an idiot. In a comic adventure such as The Mark of Zorro (1940), the humour in seeing the hero pretend to be a fop is well-placed, but the newly revised Christian – a fairly banal man – doesn’t quite endear himself to audiences until the mutiny, which occurs after the intermission, in the film’s last hour.
Brando isn’t miscast as much as his interpretation of Christian is just odd; his mannerism and soft, almost fuddy-duddy British accent is quite similar to his rendition of the eponymous, corpulent character in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). In one scene, he emerges wearing a ridiculous night cap & giant-collared satin gown, which isn’t a far cry from his version of Moreau, in which he speaks a soft British accent, and sports a robe and ice bucket on his head. In the scene where a robed Christian closes the door to his cabin in Bligh’s face, one actually expects to see a small Fletcher Christian Mini-Me walk into the shot in the same nighttime attire.
The best performance and character interpretation in the ’62 film is Trevor Howard, because his Bligh is less pompous and cartoonish than Charles Laughton’s broad 1935 interpretation. Howard seemed to realize a caricature was no good in a film that espoused to present a humanistic drama – namely the need to revise the navy’s behaviour code, and its enforcement & practice by what ought to be gentlemen – so while he does walk funny and barks orders, Howard’s Bligh is a credible, stern taskmaster who was given the Bounty command based on prior career successes with James Cook; it’s just that none of his peers felt the need to voice concerns over prior methods.
Richard Harris is also fine as loyal seaman & mutineer John Mills, and Richard Haydn excels as botanist Brown who juggles disgust for Bligh’s methods with his royal duty in growing and supporting breadfruit plants for their inevitable voyage to England. Veteran character actor Henry Daniell (The Egyptian [M]) also has a small role as one of the judges who scolds Bligh at his post-mutiny tribunal, and Antoinette Bower (The Invaders, The Starlost ) appears as an upscale hottie to whom Christian bids adieu from Portsmouth.
Perhaps the chief problem with the Bounty tale is the dramatic license in Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s novel, giving screenwriters a full green light to to play with the material and fudge facts for a more cinematically dramatic film; the tactic works in the ’62 film, but it is ludicrous to have Christian to survive past the end credits in the ‘35 version, and then die in the ’62 film due to a ‘rogue’ boat fire.
Luckily Brando and Harris – the film’s weakest characters – are supported by a fine cast of British actors, and the decision to film their scenes on an fully functional reconstruction of the Bounty pays off much in the way directors Peter Weir and Fraser Hestion were able to extract rich atmosphere through the use of real ships in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and Treasure Island [M] (1988), respectively. There’s never any doubt the men are trapped on a ship in the middle of the ocean, and MGM’s special effects department also pulled off some spectacular model effects when Bligh attempts to take the Bounty around Cape Horn, with disastrous results.
Flaws aside, Bounty is a classical epic with a slower character arcs that permit more scenes of characters struggling with guilt and various moral issues, and Lewis Milestone’s experience directing large sequences involving masses of actors and extras pays off in the Bounty’s arrival in Tahiti – one of the most dynamic widescreen sequences ever conceived. Ace cinematographer Robert Surtees exploits the wide curves of sandy beaches and tall cliffs, and the film’s colour palette really exploits the serenity of the tropics and the elaborate dance and feast rituals where Christian meets the chief’s dancing daughter Maimiti, played by pretty but generally stiff actress Tarita, whom Brando eventually wed.
Bronislau Kaper’s epic score is one of his best, presenting the right balance of majesty, moral horror, and exotica without delving into clichés (kitschy Entr’Acte music excepted). His multi-thematic score hits all the right marks without grating repetition, and his love theme is harmonically exquisite, perfectly encapsulating the romance between two unlikely figures whom in this version, do not get to live happily ever after.
Mutiny on the Bounty actually made its HD debut via the defunct HD-DVD format, and Warner Home Video’s BR ports over the same sparkling Ultra Panavision 70 transfer with dynamic stereophonic sound. The BR’s colours also feature rich green and turquoise, and the Tahitian welcome fete glows with a brilliant array of purple, pink, and red. Transferred from a 70mm print, the details are sharp, and the 5.1 sound mix is more enveloping than panned sound effects, which draws attention more towards the music than sound design. Kaper’s score is particularly dynamic when the orchestra swells, and a major highlight is the heavy percussion and brass which booms from the speakers when the Bounty is swarmed by Tahitian boats when she reaches the island for the first time.
Depth of field and colour richness are particularly profound in Ultra Panavision 70, and there are some elegantly conceived shots that allow materials to snake across the frame, such as the tossing of the breadfruit trees from the Bounty’s rear into the ocean, creating a zigzag flotilla of potted green plants. (One shot that oddly doesn’t fare well in the format’s wide 2.76:1 ratio is the film’s opening shot in Portsmouth: as the camera pans along the harbor, across rooftops, and tilts down to reveal the street; the angle is clumsily almost front & centre, and gives the sense of a 35mm shot awkwardly matted down to fit the wide ratio.)
The Extras: Deleted Scenes
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the inclusion of two deleted scenes meant to bookend the film. According to the text caption, the material was excised prior to its Roadshow engagement, and was seen once, for the film’s 1967 ABC TV broadcast, after which it disappeared from sight. WHV provide decent non-anamorphic transfers of the footage, which is fascinating for their very dour tone.
Coming right after the Main Titles, the film begins in 1814 with British sailors arriving at Pitcairn Island, finding a Bounty canon half covered in moss, and being confronted by an older version of Brown (Haydn), the sole survivor of the mutineers. He begins to tell the sad tale of his circumstances, and the film flips back to Portsmouth in 1787, under which we hear Brown’s narration which occasionally pops up in the film.
In the closing bookend, after Christian dies, the camera pans right, and after holding on a burning Bounty, the shot dissolves to Brown, now on a mointaintop, surrounded by women and children. He explains to the British officer (unbilled character actor Torin Thatcher) and crew that he’s the lone male survivor from the Bounty, and he’s quite ready to surrender himself to Navy justice, but the officer tells him there’s little need for an arrest, as the Bounty mutiny helped rewrite the books and codify higher moral and gentlemanly conduct. The British seamen then leave Brown, and the film ends with the lone Bounty survivor, standing with his back to the camera. Although purely unintentional, both his clothes and big hair oddly resemble one of the monkeys from the Planet of the Apes series. (Seriously. Look at the hair and Dr. Zaius jacket pattern.)
The deleted scenes are important in presenting the film as a kind of testimony from the mutineer’s lone survivor after internecine conflicts had friends and associates waging small war upon each other on Pitcairn (which is historically true), but it also presents Christian as a noble martyr who was perhaps right in wanting the men and himself to returned back to England. In Brown’s visage, one can surmise that had the group acquiesced to Christian’s reasoning, the Bounty wouldn’t have been burned, and the men would’ve have died in vain, fighting each other like elder lords of the flies.
More than likely, the bookend scenes were dropped because they simply opened and closed the film on two dreary notes, rather than the current edit which begins on a high of ocean adventure, and closes with a dying hero cradled in the arms of his beloved, while their love theme gently flows through the film’s 6-track sound mix. After MGM had spent a fortune realizing the Bounty saga in big screen sight and sound, they wanted people to leave cinemas feeling they too had benefitted from men like Christian, instead of being saddled with several unresolved moral conflicts.
The Extras: The Featurettes
The film’s uneven production history is pretty much ignored in the featuretes. Pity a historian wasn’t contacted for a rundown of the film’s genesis; Carol Reed’s walking off the picture after losing patience with Brando’s ego, and Lewis Milestone taking the directorial reigns as a hired gun; nor a separate featurette on the film’s cinematographer and composer; but what has been assembled is a good smattering of contemporary and archival productions about the impressive Bounty replica built from the ground up for a major studio production.
A 2006 featurette integrates black & white footage from the vintage making-of featurette with interviews of Bounty’s current owner, details of her restoration after being found in bad shape, and bits of fascinating ephemera. The Bounty, for example, was supposed to go up in smoke in the finale, but Brando refused to finish the picture if they torched he ship; in the end, replica side views were built, and the boat wasn’t destroyed, allowing MGM to use the ship as promo material, as seen in the 1964 New York’s World Fair (covered in a separate promo featurette).
Also included is a bogus newsreel highlighting the Bounty’s trip to Vancouver (!) and cities peppering the south western coast of North America, plus a colour featurette as the ship was taken to her then-final resting place in St. Petersburg, Florida, with stopovers in east coast cities like New York City. (Most of the clips cover the sailors in action, as well as rare glimpses inside the ship’s mess hall.)
The best featurette is the 1961 MGM / Canadian Broadcast Corporation making-of co-production, which focuses on the ship’s construction, and filming on location in Tahiti. Built in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, it’s a classic CBC documentary on the minutia of tradesmen & artisans at work, capturing old ship-building techniques in the renowned city where a square sailing ship hadn’t been built in over 200 years. Everything was crafted by hand, including sails, the superstructure, and deadeyes, and the meaty documentary details the Bounty’s launch and eventual voyage to Tahiti, where it was used as a set, soundstage, and makeshift hotel for cast & crew.
The Bounty replica was also designed to house the massive Panavision cameras with extensions for wide shots, and we also see one of the author’s sons working as camera assistant: the great Conrad Hall, who would later photograph The Outer Limits TV series (1963-1964), In Cold Blood (1967), and American Beauty (1999).
Maligned by critics and pundits as MGM’s version of Cleopatra (1963) – the financial disaster that was underway at Twentieth Century-Fox – this version of the Bounty saga is sufficiently distinct and unique from other versions, and it retains its own artistic luster in spite of some unwanted character and plot tweaks. Its 3 hour length is partly due to lengthy series designed to intensify Christian’s anger under Bligh’s cruel rule, but as a widescreen extravaganza the ’62 film never disappoints, capturing the pinnacle of big screen filmmaking when studios were using every resource to distinguish their product from free television, and stay alive as audience demographics were starting to favour a younger set with very different tastes in genres.
The irony is that as studios were trying to find the right widescreen format which they could own and exploit, much in the way Fox enviously standardized film exhibition with their sexy CinemaScope format, they perhaps created more confusion for exhibitors who wanted less boutique technologies in place of something simple yet classically elegant.
Mutiny on the Bounty was the last film in Ultra Panavision 70, after the studio has previously used the format under their MGM Camera 65 brand name in Ben-Hur (1959) and Raintree County (1957), albeit with County being shown in anamorphic 35mm prints. More specifics on the format can be found at Martin Hart’s awesome Widescreen Museum website.
Director Lewis Milestone would never directed another feature film, ending his fine career – All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Of Mice and Men (1939), Pork Chop Hill (1959), and Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – with a trio of episodes for The Richard Boone Show and Arrest and Trial (1963-1964).
Veteran producer Aaron Rosenberg would produce the dour WWII drama Morituri (1965) with Brando as star, plus a string of detective films with Frank Sinatra, but perhaps his most unique production of the sixties is Fate is the Hunter [M] (1964), a provocative procedural drama about a modern airplane disaster.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan
Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review