They don't make films like Mutiny on the Bounty anymore. The road show spectacular is a lost art that has disappeared along with 70mm cameras. But in 1962, MGM's remake of the Gable-Laughton Mutiny of the Bounty was the most breathtaking of all the big super-productions coming out of Hollywood. Exciting, colorful, no expense spared (the studio even constructed its own exact copy of the H.M.S. Bounty with craftsmen laboring at wooden hull construction), a cast of thousands (when that really meant a cast of thousands), the pageantry of real Tahitian locations, Mutiny on the Bounty was a massive, awesome extravaganza.
With veteran director Lewis Milestone at the helm (this was to be his final feature), Bounty shoves off in impressive form. As in the 1935 version, the film chronicles the repressive and sadistic Captain Bligh's (Trevor Howard) attempts to corner the market in breadfruit for England by traveling to the South Seas and First Lt. Fletcher Christian's (Marlon Brando) mutiny, casting Bligh to sea in a rickety boat with a handful of allies as the mutineers set sail back to Tahiti.
But being 1962, the old Clark Gable/Charles Laughton dynamics have drastically changed. Coming off the razor close 1960 Presidential campaign of Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, this new Bounty pits Bligh and Christian as old-school Republican versus new generation Democrat. Howard's Bligh is a Nixonian paranoiac who feels inferior to the naval upper class and treads on fear -- he tells Christian, "Fear is our best weapon."
Brando's Christian is everything Bligh hates. Bligh remarks upon first seeing Christian, "So, I've had a career fop pawned upon me as a first mate." And the upper class Christian is Kennedy-esque -- a denizen of the effete class but yet a man of the people, more comfortable among the uncouth shipmates than Bligh, even though Bligh is closer in class to them than Christian.
This dichotomy leads to the biggest shock of the film -- Brando's performance as Christian. With Clark Gable's recent death creating an awareness and an expectation in moviegoers of 1962 for a robust and manly Gable characterization, instead Brando delivered a nasally, aristocratic poseur. The first time Christian is seen he is emerging from a royal coach, a shit-eating grin on his face, escorted by two flowery women, wearing a flowing red cape, a fashionable hat, and a jumpsuit with ruffles. No wonder Bligh immediately hates him. And Brando has no compunction about making himself look like a idiot -- he appears later on wearing a nightcap and smoking a very long pipe and, once in Tahiti, getting adorned with Tahitian ornamentation, exclaiming, "Oh, isn't that jolly." Clark Gable he ain't. Even so, Brando gobbles up all the actors around him and, as the film progresses, Brando more than proves Christian's mettle.
Christian is also something of a watershed role for Brando. At 38, this would be his last rebel role. From this point on, Brando would solely portray authority figures in various states of disrepair. Here too is seen the first inkling of Brando's post-Last Tango in Paris career recklessness, more than willing to sabotage a film to get at a new, bizarre angle on a character.
As for the film itself, the first half of the film leading up to the mutiny is vibrant and exciting, with such impressive set pieces as the failed voyage around Cape Horn, the splendid Tahitian settings, and an energizing fish-catching sequence. The second half of the film falls apart with the post-mutiny narrative buckling and lurching forward nonsensically -- the most egregious moment being when Bligh is cast adrift in the rowboat on the open sea. Bligh announces that they will have to make an arduous 4,000-mile ocean voyage to the nearest port... but the next time we see Bligh, he is hopping out a carriage in London fresh, rested and not too much the worse for wear.
And there are more screwball moments -- Christian chasing down deserters in Tahiti by walking on water and hailing the king's outrigger like a taxi, Richard Harris's countdown to Brando's blowup, and the longest death scene in cinema history.
Still, how can a film go completely wrong when it features dialogue like, "You remarkable pig! You can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you haven't turned me into a murderer."
The two-disc DVD contains a bunch of extras, including an excised prologue and epilogue and five featurettes extolling the manmade construction of a new Bounty for the film -- the most interesting of which is a promotion to attend the Mutiny on the Bounty exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair.
I coulda been a bosun.