Mutiny on the Bounty was released in 1962: one of those monumental Hollywood debacles derailed by star-power, as with Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, and Cleopatra. In this case, the failure was due to vast cost overruns caused by Marlon Brando’s mutiny on the set, and the coast of location shooting in the South Seas. Still, who cares if the film made money? It’s worth seeing for the spectacular set pieces and Brando’s remarkable and unusual performance.
There was a real mutiny on a ship called Bounty, and a film treatment from the 30s with Laughton and Gable, and the makers of this film wanted to set the record straight. Instead of a simple good guy vs. evil guy plot, they wanted to show Captain Bly as he was, good and bad together. Some thought that would make for a poor story that wouldn’t sell, and anyway, Marlon Brando, the reigning supernova of cinema acting during the 1950s, hijacked the picture, effectively sacking a director and taking over himself, subjecting the script to endless rewrites, sometimes the night before shooting.
For those who are interested, there are plenty of insider memoir narrations to read, filled with Brando’s pouting, sulking, arrogance, narcissism, arbitrariness, and the reactions of the infuriated cast who had to deal with him. It wasn’t pretty. In the end, Bligh comes off as a man tormented by his lowly origins, constantly suffering slights, real and imagined, of his ‘betters’, driven to cruelty by insecurity and a lack of imagination, and sexually uptight to boot.
Brando’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian, Mr. Christian, is remarkable, surprising, and a bit odd. We must assume that it was wholly a characterization of his own: no one else takes credit for it. It is willful, and a bit perverse, but, in the end, brilliant. As Stanley Crouch observed in this DVD review:
…Brando’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), a character he interprets as a high-toned British fop who is more than mildly reluctant to face the sadistic inclinations of Trevor Howard’s finely drawn Capt. Bligh—a leader who mistakes sadism as a substitute for firm but inspirational command. Brando has a superb understanding of how much it takes for a witty, charming, and insubstantial man to stand up against the very order that guarantees his position in the world.
Indeed, our first view of Fletcher is of him climbing out of an ornate carriage, in the company of two elegant women. He walks on board in a bright red cloak, and we see him only from the back, surrounded by the bustle of the grungy crew at work preparing to sail.
He introduces himself to the captain; all manners, grace, smiles, and suave superiority. He glances around contemptuously at the miserable excuse for the ship he is to sail on, and uses his verbal facility to make clear to Bligh that though he is the captain, and he, Christian, will obey him, their relative worth as men is clearly the reverse of that hierarchy.
And there is that voice! He speaks in what sounds at first like a parody of an upper-class-twit of the late 18th century. Slightly nasal, a whiff of effeminacy. That, in those days, was attractive to women of court: it went with the clothes. He is always decked out in pure white linen, and while in his cabin, he sits propped up by fluffy pillows. He is a ladies man and a dandy.
Crouch’s remarks point to the political dilemma of Mr. Christian’s position: he will not rock the boat if he can avoid it, despite his contempt for the vulgarian Bligh, a man who has no sense of how a gentleman should lead the common sort. But he is a rebel in his soul, as are all the great dandies. I wonder if Brando was familiar with Beau Brummel, and the critical writings about dandyism by Balzac and others: if not, he instinctively grasped their essence. Ultimately, Christian rebels against Bligh because he cannot stomach being commanded by such a brute: it’s just too vulgar.
In the end, he tries to convince the men to return to England, face court-martial, and tell their story. He’s convinced that they will be vindicated, but the men are not: They burn the ship, and Christian dies of burns trying to put it out. You have to wonder if he felt his exile on Pitcairn Island would be an insupportable burden because he would be cut off from society, forever branded as a criminal, or if he just could not exist without an audience for his preening and witty repartee.
Christian the gentleman, refuses to adjudicate between the word of a gardener and a seaman. What’s the point?
Fabulous wide-screen shots of the Tahitians welcoming the Bounty, a complete replica of a ship of that day.
Captain Bligh is compelled to dance with the island princess to avoid offending the local chief. He is humiliated at having his crew watch him attempt the feat. Anglo Saxon commanders can’t dance.
Bligh won’t go ashore, and refers to the local women as sluts. But he orders Christian to do his duty and make love to the chief’s daughter. Brando makes the scene into a cruel and funny one: mocking the captain’s sexual anxiety, mocking patriotism, mocking duty, and feigning resignation at what he must do.
Fletcher in love, or at least, satisfying his lust, as commanded by the Captian. (The chief will be offended if the princess is spurned.)
The last straw with Bligh comes when he rations the water to feed the plants they are ferrying to Jamaica, where it is hoped they will provide a reliable food supply for the slaves toiling in the sugar plantations.
Bligh kicks the cup from Christians hand, and Christian strikes him, saying, “You’ll not put your foot on me again, you bastard!”
They say their goodbyes: Bligh is set adrift in a boat with some supplies and loyal crew. The film soft pedals the fact that Bligh executed a stunning feat of seamanship, piloting the boat over thousands of miles and losing only one man. He returned to England quickly to report the mutiny.
Almost immediately, he starts to mull on what he has done. Unlike the common sailors, he had a lot to lose, and now it’s gone.
He’s left with only common sailors and one officer to command, but he looks the part of captain.
The final scene, with Christian dying of his burns is tremendous. We see the man, no longer able to face the world with the stance of a dandy, shocked at being told that he is dying. There is nothing left. He tries to sum up, but death cuts him off.