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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

The infamous story of the 1787 mutiny on the HMS Bounty is such a classic battle of archetypes and wills that it has spawned three major motion pictures — and while the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty may be the standard by which subsequent films must steer by, regrettably it has not held up as well as other movies from Hollywood's classic era. Based on the best-seller by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and directed by Frank Lloyd, Bounty stars Charles Laughton as Lt. William Bligh and Clark Gable as first mate Fletcher Christian. Given his mission to sail the modest 90-ft. HMS Bounty from Portsmouth to Tahiti in order to collect breadfruit trees, Captain Bligh selects Christian to be his first mate — the two are fond of each other, although it's clear that lifelong sailor Bligh envies Christian's higher social standing (Christian is a "gentleman," while the captain is not). With the ambitious goal of circumnavigating the globe, Bligh departs to the south Atlantic, where he plans to cross to the Pacific around Cape Horn. The weather, however, does not cooperate, and the crew is forced to reach the Pacific via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. The crew's temperament immediately becomes an issue for Christian — many of the sailors are conscripted, while others have wives and families and fear for their lives. Bligh's strict adherence to discipline may provide the results he's looking for, but Christian is aware that men can only be pushed so far. Arriving in Tahiti, the crew enjoys their tropical respite — which makes the return voyage that much less appealing. And when Bligh makes it clear he plans to reach the Atlantic via the treacherous waters around Cape Horn, Christian realizes he needs to seize the ship before it descends into paranoid anarchy. While an enjoyable chestnut from the '30s studio system, Mutiny on the Bounty is a flawed film by today's standards, where audiences are accustomed to a certain level of cinematic realism, both in terms of dialogue and acting. And unfortunately, this rendition's chief flaw is none other than the day's most popular leading man, Clark Gable. It's no secret that the biggest box-office draws are actors who continually reinvent versions of themselves for the screen, offering ticket-buyers the assurance that, whatever the story may be, at least the star is a known commodity. But Gable, as the English-born Fletcher Christian, doesn't even attempt an accent, instead rattling off his crisp, indignant dialogue just as if he were ragsheet-reporter Peter Warne in It Happened One Night (1934). As Captain Bligh, Charles Laughton is far more enjoyable, giving a classically drawn portrait of a man who is drunk with power and distrustful of all subordinates — his cherubic face and oddly effeminate grin strike an odd, delectable counterpoint to his cruel command. And Laughton is at his best in the story's most incisive, ironic moments, when he's cast adrift with his officers and shows that he's not just one of His Majesty's hardiest naval officers, but also capable of genuine leadership and great compassion. MGM spent $2 million on this production, which included location shooting in the South Pacific, and it's little wonder that the film is content to linger during its Tahitian sequences. But again, yesteryear's moviehouse attractions can often cause contemporary DVD fans to check their watches. Laughton's performance makes this one worth a look, but the picture has been surpassed since its 1935 Oscar-win, both by 1962's widescreen color epic Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, and 1984's taut The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Warner's DVD release of Mutiny on the Bounty features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with the original monaural audio. The source-print is not up to restoration standards, but it's clean and very watchable. Supplements include the vintage newsreel "Return to Pitcairn Island," which looks at the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers who still reside in the South Pacific, as well as a brief awards newsreel and trailers for the 1935 film and the 1962 remake. Snap-case.

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