Few could have been surprised that the 1935 Best Picture Academy Award® went to a film whose inciting action was unintentionally steeped with irony. Seen in 2013, the double standard of acceptable slavery (the Bounty’s task is to transfer 1000 breadfruit plants to the West Indies so that cheap food can be grown to keep the slaves from costing too much…) within the Western world and outrage at systemic servitude on the ships of Her Majesty’s Navy, delivers a stronger message than ever about sanctioned cruelty to our fellow human beings.
At the centre of the storm are HMS Bounty’s Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton’s performance is a study of irascibility both seen and heard) and his reluctant-to-serve-with-him-again first officer, Fletcher Christian (showing his range and fine physique—if somewhat outdone by the bare chested men and women of paradise on earth, Tahiti—Clark Gable is brilliant whether finally having his fill of his murderous commander or idyllically wooing, bedding and wedding his sudden Tahitian love).
But possibly the best acting of the overall talented cast comes from Franchot Tone’s portrayal of midshipman George Byam who morphs from wet-behind-the-ears newcomer to a tower of loyalty only to be convicted and sentenced to death thanks to the unsubstantiated lies of his revenge-seeking superior officer. Byam’s heartfelt, nuanced appeal at his court martial is riveting to the last hopeless syllable. It’s here (in the impassioned line “[we’re] not as slaves but as free Englishmen”) that the film—seen with 21st century eyes—collapses under its own weight. For what is worse? Conscripting seamen from those unlucky enough to be “pressed” into service (beautifully represented by Tommy—Eddie Quinlan always a joy to behold in his close-ups—who leaves behind an anxious wife and their newborn son when forced into the ranks) or treating Africans as second-class citizens, serving their betters wherever upper -class Englishman are expanding the empire?
For comic relief, the ship’s one-legged, brandy guzzling surgeon, Bacchus (Irishman Dudley Digges was born for the role) appears to be a drunken old fool, forever inventing just how he lost his limb, until one final act of courage saves a principled sailor from Bligh’s wrath, causing Christian to snap, then rally those of the same mind to send most of the others and Bligh into what should be certain death traversing the unforgiving machinations of the South Seas.
The male chorus sets a lusty tone on a few occasions (with snippets of “Rule Britannia,” artfully woven into Herbert Stothart’s rollicking score) and the special effects leave little doubt as to just how dangerous typhoon category storms can be for those sailing under canvas or hauling oars. But—given the ultimate goal of their labours—beyond the cinematic wizardry that deservedly brought “three cheers” from all manner of critics and audiences alike, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for any of the principals whether punished, exiled or snubbed by their peers. JWR