A story that always makes money…or at least, so MGM had hoped. By the time Lewis Milestone’s lavishly appointed remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) reached theaters it was advertised and distributed as one of MGM’s ‘landmark’ pictures – an experience more than a movie and quite sadly out of touch with changing audience tastes. A tale about the most infamous upheaval ever to befall a ship under British maritime law, the 1935 B&W classic co-starring Clark Gable, Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton as the malignant Capt. Bligh had been a colossus for the studio and a Best Picture Academy Award winner to boot. Throughout the 1930s and 40s MGM had surged ahead of its competition, producing movies of enviable quality and originality that staggered the imagination and drew in vast crowds into the theaters. But then a funny thing happened.
MGM after the departure of L.B. Mayer was never again a forward thinking studio. In fact, the bulk of their 1950s output was spent on low budget programmers or mining the studio’s illustrious past, remaking classic comedies like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Ninotchka (1939) and The Women (1939) as big budget glossy musicals (High Society 1956, Silk Stockings 1957 and The Opposite Sex 1956 respectively). Clark Gable remade Red Dust (1935) as Mogambo (1953). Rose Marie, The Student Prince, The Merry Widow and Kismet were all remade with bigger budgets though less fanfare. The silent swashbuckler Scaramouche, roared to life once more, this time with an exhilarating sword fight a la Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer in 1952. The '50s were book-ended by two colossal remakes of silent epics; Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). With increasing regularity MGM fell back on its illustrious past for future revenues. It made perfect sense. In fact, a goodly number of the aforementioned were very popular at the box office.
Regrettably, 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty would not be among these success stories. Whether by design or simply by chance, this Bounty was far more lavishly mounted than its predecessor, yet it quite simply failed to come to life except in fits and sparks. Undeniably good looking, the chief problem with the remake was its central casting of Marlon Brando as 1st Lt. Fletcher Christian. In the 1935 original Christian had been played by no less a heartthrob than Clark Gable. The 62’ version had another towering figure of masculinity in mind - Marlon Brando.
Yet, for reasons only clear to Brando, he chose to play this paragon of the seven seas as an effete fop for the first third; a daft boob for its middle portion, and a ruthless mercenary for the final act. The transitions between these various faces of Fletcher Christian were not entirely successful; their motivation weaker still. Christian’s first encounter with the sultry Tahitian beauty, Tarita (Maimita) seems to have been the catalyst for his first conversion. But regardless of what thought processes it took to take Fletcher Christian from points ‘A’ to ‘B’ the variations never caught on with audiences. As portrayed by Brando, Fletcher Christian is a man more in love with his own image than the cavalcade of strumpets he playfully courts on the mainland.
The film had better luck with the casting of Trevor Howard as Capt. Bligh. Although Howard in no way measures up to Charles Laughton's epic portrait of the maniacal taskmaster from the 1935 movie he is nevertheless ruthless. Bligh is a devious master. The Bounty is his first command and he is determined that its mission – that of gathering rare tropical plants from the Tahitian islands for study – including the grapefruit – shall not fail. But Bligh is sadist – misperceiving treason from his men and frequently administering extreme punishments for even the slightest infractions.
After rough seas, much sickness and several near death experiences the crew is at the crossroads for mutiny. But anarchy is staved off with their arrival to Tahiti – a tropical oasis teeming with luscious native girls. Fletcher meets Tarita, a sultry Polynesian with whom he falls in love. For this brief wrinkle in their journey Bligh is preoccupied with his mission and loosens his tyrannical hold on the crew. However, when the ship departs for home Bligh reverts to his strong-arm tactics. Only this time the crew has other plans. Charging mutiny Christian interrupts the murder of Bligh as planned.
Instead, Fletcher casts Bligh and his sympathizers adrift in a lifeboat, returning to the island where he perceives a future of unending bliss. Nothing could be further from the truth. For seaman John Mills (Richard Harris) – unwilling to trade in one Bligh for presumably another – decides to torch the Bounty so that no one will ever know they have returned to Tahiti. Christian takes a few men aboard in a feeble attempt to put out the fire and is mortally wounded as the vessel begins to sink. Taken back to the island he dies in Tarita’s arms; a very dower conclusion to what has been a very arduous viewing experience.
Mutiny on the Bounty isn’t a terrible film – but it fails to ignite any of that passionate romance one generally associates with sailing the high seas for a tropical destination. It’s rather difficult to reconcile the reasons why this is so. Bronislau Kaper’s score is, for example, robust and hearty, while Robert Surtees’ cinematography reveals some utterly stunning scenery. Better still, unlike the original film that used a model ship sailing in a tank on the MGM back lot, set against painted backdrops, this Bounty was actually built full scale in Lunenburg Nova Scotia to near exact specifications and with a level of authenticity a peerless example of MGM’s motto ‘art for art’s sake’. Even more authentic, this Bounty made the journey halfway around the world with its cast and crew living the story as they shot it.
As an exercise in documenting the past, this Mutiny on the Bounty is rather impressive. Regrettably, as pure entertainment it becomes rather long-winded and tiresome almost from the moment the ship leaves port. It’s as though the original narrative has been stretched too thin for three and a half hours, despite a harrowing storm at sea, various brutalization inflicted on the crew by Bligh, and the climatic torching of the tall ship. (Aside: the ship set afire was not the full scale vessel but a model, thus sparing the artisans the indignation of having to watch all their efforts go up spectacularly in flames.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with the staging of any of these sequences. But cumulatively there’s very little to tie them together in ways that are both compelling and cohesive.
Yes, the fact that the Bounty herself remains the only full scale functional ship ever built from the keel up for a motion picture is quite impressive, and yes, ditto for the fact that cast and crew actually sailed around the world to bring the story to life in its native locales. True, Brando’s Fletcher Christian is more textually layered than Gable’s, and arguably – even truer to Christian’s own nature. Yet, despite these advantages the 1935 version has more staying power, more intensity and ultimately much more entertainment value. Evidently, audiences agreed. The 62’ Mutiny on the Bounty barely recouped its production costs, pushing MGM’s already precarious bottom line further into the red ink.
Mutiny on the Bounty is accompanied by a very sad postscript. After the debut of the 62’ movie the HMS Bounty made a tour of various ports across the United States, finally appearing as an exhibit during the New York World’s Fair. Afterward, the ship fell into a delicate state of disrepair, salvaged from becoming a sunken wreck by a private collector who managed to raise the necessary funds to fully restore it to its original condition. For decades the Bounty was moored off Cape Hatteras, N.C. But on Oct. 29th, 2012 the vessel was scuttled, then capsized in a disaster just off the coast, a victim of Hurricane Sandy, killing its Captain and a first mate who had signed on mere months earlier.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray improves on the 2-disc DVD transfer from 2002. The 'wow' factor is in evidence, perhaps no surprise since Mutiny on the Bounty was one of the first catalogue titles to receive an HD transfer back in 2007. Remarkably, it never went to Blu-ray then. But sourced from restored original 65mm negatives the image is finely detailed and beautiful from start to finish. Bottom line: this image will surely NOT disappoint. Neither will the 5.1 DTS audio. Bronislau Kaper's score is the real benefactor here. Extras are all direct imports from the aforementioned DVD and limited to an extended epilogue cut from the film before it premiered, two vintage featurettes and one newly produced, describing the construction and restoration of the ship, but curiously, no 'making of' the film or even an audio commentary - pity. Otherwise, recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)