“But perhaps, as your father used to say: ‘A taut hand at sea is better than a slack one.’“
What does it mean to create a civilization? Is it possible that something as lawless as a mutiny can bring about one of the greatest advances in law, order, and institutional structure in history?
Mutiny on the Bounty is my favorite film on this list because it tackles these questions and larger ideas on the margins while telling a true story of a violent seizing of a mercantile vessel and the legal and political aftermath thereof.
86 years old, the film is as modern as anything could be… and yet it is also an alien to our unenlightened post-modern era. Dave Chappelle famously labeled our present era “the Age of Spin.” I would add that we also live in an era of deconstruction. The zeitgeist of our nation does not know how to create things; only destroy. Everything from sports to movies to statues to Aunt Jemima is given its supposed secret dark history and hubristic dissection. If you are nostalgic for something, it will be torn from you and you will be told that the problem was you for the crime of daring to like it. Everything in the present is superior to everything that ever existed before, and we have nothing to learn from the past except what to correct for the present.
No wonder so many movies and TV shows are dull and pointless. Great art does not thrive in a fading constitutional republic or a rising people’s republic. But that’s our world today, and as such, we do not know what to do with a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty.
If someone pointed a gun at the world and told me he was going to erase nine of my Ten for Ten, this is the one I would choose to save. By doing so, I would feel like in a small way, I saved the world itself. It is a story that reaches deep into the conflicting ambitions of mankind and excites us for the good that emerges from the mess. Behind every civic custom, institution, and courtesy there is a story that featured real people making bad decisions in the era before it. I learned that in law school, and I learned it again when I re-watched this film.
Mutiny on the Bounty arrived in an era of steel, industry, and central banking, yet made mercantile economics and bartering, and old concepts of supply, demand, and commercial transportation of goods not only relatable but dramatically exciting. I watch the film today in the digital age, and I recognize the truth of the characters as surely as I recognize anyone I meet in person. It is timeless, and yet the timing is everything. When the Bounty departs the shores of Portsmouth, the public fanfare it receives, despite the fact that it is not a big vessel, can only be compared to a space shuttle launch. The music soars, the sails drop, the film cuts between the faces of the men, the families and well wishers they leave behind, and the ship sails off to its destiny. Despite the fact that I barely know anyone on board, the emotion I feel is nothing less than overwhelming.
But the swashbuckling dream turns into a relentless nightmare the moment a dead man is ordered whipped by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Bligh does not seem to know how to command his vessel or his crew; only how to punish and provoke them. Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) attempts to be the good cop to the Captain’s bad cop, and privately criticizes Bligh for it. Tensions escalate to the point where Bligh openly accuses Christian of mutiny (in front of the whole crew), and the conflict is then interrupted (as well as exacerbated) by their arrival at Tahiti. The Captain’s cruelty is obviously exaggerated, and perhaps excessively repeated, but the sea is a harsh, unforgiving beast too. One man accidentally loses a bucket overboard while bailing the ship, for which he is bound to the mast. A harsher punishment than necessary, perhaps, yet we will find out later how necessary that bucket really was.
The story of the voyage, the captain, and the mutiny all reveal different, interesting meanings when you repeat a viewing. Bligh’s cruelty and vanity only become more senseless as the story goes on, but instead of making that the only story or trying to justify it, it asks what the role of the law is when men such as Bligh exist. The other films about the Bounty’s voyage missed this. The 1962 Marlon Brando remake was developed in hell. The 1984 film The Bounty with Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, and all the beautiful exotic women is good, but so encumbered by its commitment to historical accuracy and misplaced focus on the characters as individuals that it lacks the profundity and modernity of this one.
Frank Lloyd, the director and the prior owner of the rights to the novel, demonstrated an understanding of the limits of simply being true to history. For example, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, itself inspired by Mutiny on the Bounty, is, from a historical accuracy perspective, an utter catastrophe. But there is no film that better demonstrates and challenges the human conflicts underpinning the laws of slavery in America and the world. And there may be no other pair of films that better represent the enduring legacy of the American Revolution. While Lloyd certainly did his research, the larger purpose of the narrative reaches for something much bigger than merely “what happened.”
The character Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), who is unique to this version of the story, fulfills that purpose. He is idealistic and owes his fortunes to Bligh, but has a longstanding friendship with Fletcher Christian. Instead of telling the story from the point of view of Bligh or Christian (the other movies do this to a fault), it is Byam – the translator and midshipman (emphasis on “mid“) who observes them both and reacts accordingly. At all times he is in the middle. He loves Christian but remains loyal to Bligh. It is with Christian that he has his most meaningful friendship and connection (they romance women who act and behave like sisters), yet he attempts to violently stop the mutiny and wants to depart with Bligh. When the mutineers caught by Bligh on the H.M.S. Pandora are tried, Byam is tried with them for the same crime, and then, after he is condemned, he articulates the throughline as best as he understands it.
The political and cultural relationships are enriched by Byam’s interactions with everyone. Laughton’s Bligh stands as a figure of British repression and contempt. Gable’s Christian is the upstart all-American man of action. Byam’s relationship with each of them reflects both the falling out and the reconciliation between the two nations. And the rhetoric he employs makes the dramatic conflict in the film equally analogous to other things, such as a labor strike that may induce immediate pain, but results in a healthier understanding between employers and laborers. He gives the history of Britain and America the respect they each deserve (and needed more than ever given the coming world war) simply by being a great character.
The final fifteen minutes are among my favorites of any film. It ties the setting, story, and era together beautifully with its usage of law and rhetoric. The character of Bligh is rehabilitated with remarkable efficiency after Christian and his mutineers throw him and his loyalists overboard into a longboat. Bligh’s leadership and loyalty prove true the quote that opens this essay. Even as he destroys the next ship in vindictive pursuit of Christian, Bligh shows us, for better or for worse, and in the best possible way, why he was the captain, and that his discipline was not a mask for cowardice. Perhaps this is what Donald Trump was referring to when he tweeted about his love for the film. But even when Bligh is made to look stupid again during those final fifteen minutes, the story, the dialogue, the messaging, and the ties to the opening text all show its focus on something far bigger than merely him. Law is a reflection of a larger cultural, economic, and political understanding that social people have, and every now and then we are given clarifying moments that tell us why it’s so important.
Mutiny on the Bounty is itself such a moment.
The very first event in the film is a British impressment. The act of seizing a vessel and converting it into Naval property or forcibly conscripting men into His Majesty’s sailors; it was one of the continuing and incessant encroachments of the British against American vessels that led to the War of 1812. That war need not be discussed here, but it is notable that the year the H.M.S. Bounty departed from Portsmouth was 1787 – the year the Constitution was ratified, and the year of the Mutiny, 1789, was the year George Washington became America’s first President. The Bounty’s mission is to procure breadfruit from Tahiti and transport it to the West Indies to feed the slaves in the colonies. The fact that the slaves must be fed inspires an ambitious global circumnavigation, which goes so awry that the crew of the Bounty discover the meaning of freedom. Yet the pillars of civilization are strengthened by the lessons learned from that very mutiny. That civilization, imperfect as it was, went on to taking the extraordinary step of first banning slavery and then becoming one of human history’s greatest liberators.
This is the history we do not appreciate today. Yet there it is, all in a single great epic film directed by the taut hand of Frank Lloyd, to lift our hearts and help us recreate the country I love.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)