24 September 2005 | bkoganbing
The Grandest Sea Saga of Them All
At that most prestigious of all film studios, MGM, they produced the greatest and grandest sea saga of them all. In 1935 it was considered quite daring to have an over two hour film. But Mutiny on the Bounty holds your interest through out.
All three leads Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone were nominated for Best Actor that year and they managed to cancel each other out. Victor McLaglen took home the statue for The Informer with the fifth nominee being Paul Muni for Black Fury.
Clark Gable wisely did not attempt a British accent and yet there was no criticism of his performance as Fletcher Christian. Christian was first mate of the HMS Bounty and a man of conscience. It tears him up inside to see the sadism and cruelty of Captain Bligh on this voyage. The men aren't king and country volunteers as he tells the captain. But the captain has his own ideas.
Normally Charles Laughton played a whole lot of twisted and/or tortured souls for the screen. His Captain Bligh is a man with a deep inferiority complex. The key to him is in the dinner scene on board the Bounty. Watching him, you can see the envy and jealousy he has of the confident and self assured Gable, the callow youth Franchot Tone brimming with idealism and even the surgeon Dudley Digges who despite his drunkeness and crudity is a professional man with some education. It's so much like James Cagney's captain in Mister Roberts and worse because at that time the British Navy gave him the authority of God on that ship.
The conflict between Gable and Laughton is obviously the main plot of the film. Yet there is a subplot that's rarely talked about, the conflict between Gable and Franchot Tone. Tone who was also American, but was stage trained and could fit into a British setting easily, plays Roger Byam one of the young midshipmen on board and who Gable befriends. The key to his character is right at the beginning of the film when he's being sent off to sea by Henry Stephenson playing Sir Joseph Banks. Seven generations of Byam's family have been part of the glorious naval tradition of Great Britain and none have failed in their duty. That should be uppermost in your mind.
Gable and Tone have different ideas of duty and it tests their friendship. Each chooses a different path, yet Tone ends up defending Gable against Laughton. Franchot Tone's finest screen moment for me has always been at his court martial where he makes a stirring speech in defense of the rights of the ordinary British seaman.
As always though the mark of a really great film is the impact those small character roles leave. The men on the Bounty include Donald Crisp, Stanley Fields, Eddie Quillan, Herbert Mundin. My favorite though is Dudley Digges as the ship's surgeon Mr. Bacchus. At the drop of a shilling he'll tell you how he's lost his leg. Outrageous, humorous, and a kindly man who softens the blows of Laughton's harsh discipline, had there been the Supporting player categories then, Mr. Digges would have been my choice for 1935 as Best Supporting Actor.
Even in black and white, made in the studio back lot, Mutiny on the Bounty still holds up well today. Despite two subsequent versions of the story, this version has stood the test of time.