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Mutiny on the Bounty: Special Edition (1962)

The Marlon Brando Collection

A prized piece of movie trivia notes that Marlon Brando was originally offered the role of T.E. Lawrence in the Sam Spiegel-David Lean epic biopic Lawrence of Arabia, a role that ultimately went to Peter O'Toole. But it was not to be. According to Peter Manso's mammoth biography of the late actor, Brando was disinclined to spend a year in the hot sand. And yet, by contemplating the possibility of the two actors switching their biggest roles of 1962 — Brando in Lawrence and O'Toole in Mutiny on the Bounty — we discover particular facets of their screen personas. Each could easily do the other's part, but Brando would have been smoldering and more angry as Lawrence, while O'Toole probably wouldn't have brought the same quality that Brando delivered as Fletcher Christian. Mutiny on the Bounty might be the most underrated — if not the most misunderstood — epic ever to the hit the screen. Its production history, one that rivals Cleopatra and Ben-Hur for complexity, rewrites, interference (from the studio and actors), and delays (it went through two directors, first Carol Reed then Lewis Milestone, with Brando directing some scenes himself), has overshadowed the fact that the picture was both financially successful and really quite good. Adding to the skepticism of middlebrow journalists and reviewers greeting the film was that this Mutiny was a remake of a much beloved MGM film from 1935 starring Clark Gable (the height of American movie masculinity) as Fletcher Christian, and Charles Laughton as the very template of unjust leadership as Captain Bligh.

Based on the novel by Nordoff and Hall, itself based on the actual case of the mutiny of 1789 that led to the establishment of a exile colony on Pitcairn Island, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, though a hit at the time, sank in later years behind Brando's reputation within Hollywood and the media for troublemaking on film sets. What Brando brought to the party was an unexpected interpretation of Fletcher Christian. His version of the Master's Mate is a fop, arriving to board the docked Bounty in floral robes and outlandish hat, with two 18th century party girls in tow. However, this leads to no Aubrey-Maturin relationship with his captain (as seen in Patrick O'Brien's Master & Commander novels). Brando's Christian instantly grates against the more prodding Bligh (Trevor Howard), who is leading his first command. Bligh's mission is to establish whether the breadfruit plant can accommodate the dietary needs of the British Navy, both in bulk and nutrients (it is first to be tested on various slave populations). But in an attempt to impress the admirals with his speed and endurance, Bligh sends the Bounty on a disastrous route around Cape Horn, whose waves and weather eventually beat back the ship. Heading home later with several breadfruit samples, Bligh rates the vegetation higher than the men, and he rations their water in favor of the fruit. On the return voyage, several of the men are whipped and otherwise tortured by Bligh for infractions both major and minor, which leads the unofficial rabble-rouser of the mutineers, John Mills (Richard Harris) to sense that Christian doesn't approve of Bligh's tactics.

*          *          *

Mutiny on the Bounty is remarkable in two ways. The first is Brando's turn as Fletcher Christian. We see him thinking, pondering, weighing Bligh's extreme leadership, and comparing it to his own moral code, and the movie takes its time as Christian arrives at his decision. Like many naval stories of the time, (such as The Caine Mutiny), Bounty is a meditation on authority and when to defy it. Brando perfectly realizes the state of mind of a man torn between conscience and class. He has one foot each in two camps, the ruling class and the political class, so to speak, of reform. The film's second strength is the intelligence of the script, credited to Charles Lederer but with contributions from many others, including thriller writer Eric Ambler, who wrote the first draft and may have included such lines as, "You remarkable pig. You can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you haven't quite turned me into a murderer." Or Christian's account of his state of mind after the mutiny: "I believe I did what honor dictated and that belief sustains me, except for a slight desire to be dead, which I'm sure will pass." In this script, Bligh is not reduced merely to a buffoon, holding his own in the witty repartee with Christian. As Bligh departs the Bounty for the last time, Christian says, "Take your flag with you," laying the bloody whip on Bligh's shoulder. Bligh responds, "I don't need a flag, Mr. Christian. Unlike you, I still have a country."

The flagship title in Warner Home Video's "The Marlon Brando Collection," the two-disc Mutiny on the Bounty offers a gorgeous, restored anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with a restored audio track presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Supplements on Disc One include the film's original prologue (4 min.) and epilogue (3 min.), unseen since a 1967 ABC-TV broadcast, which focus on the later discovery of Pitcairn and contain scenes with and narration by the ship's survivor, the botanist William Brown. Also on hand is "1964 New York World's Fair Promo," a color guide to the recreated ship's location at the fair (6 min.), "Story of the HMS Bounty," a black-and-white contemporaneous promotional documentary that features interviews with the ship's creators and crew in Nova Scotia that should appeal to the readers of Patrick O'Brien's seafaring series (28 min.), and trailers for other titles in the collection. Disc Two contains "After the Cameras Stopped Rolling: The Journey of the Bounty," a recent documentary about the ship's creation (24 min.), "Tour of the Bounty," a vintage black-and-white newsreel (7 min.), and "Voyage of the Bounty to St. Petersburg," another contemporaneous documentary that recounts its journey down the east coast to Florida (24 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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