Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Mutiny on the Bounty: Movie History vs History History
Director: Frank Lloyd
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin
Total Oscars: 1 (Best Picture) from 8 nominations (Best Director, Best Actor—Gable, Laughton, and Tone—the only time in Oscar history three men from the same film were nominated for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing)
Film has always had a tenuous relationship with history. Often, films that have won the Best Picture Oscar use actual historical events as their subject. Mutiny on the Bounty, though not the first film to be based on historical events, has, over time, come under some scrutiny for its depiction of the actual mutiny on the HMS Bounty on April, 28th, 1789. Frankly, there isn’t much I have to say about the actual film itself. Therefore, this post is a perfect place to examine the relationship between film and history.
First, I’m going to give a brief description of the story of Mutiny on the Bounty. The film tells the story of the crew of the HMS Bounty. Chief among the sailors are Ensign Roger Byam (Tone), an upper-class Briton who volunteered for naval service, first-mate Fletcher Christian (Gable), and the tyrannical Captain Bligh (Laughton), who is so committed to instilling discipline among his crew that he continues to have a man flogged even after he is killed from the punishment. The Bounty is sent to Tahiti to bring back vast quantities of the breadfruit plant, and on the journey, a sharp contrast in philosophy develops between Bligh and Christian. Bligh feels that order and discipline need to be instilled through corporal punishment; Christian feels that Bligh’s methods ultimately demean and demoralize the crew, many of whom are unskilled sailors that have been pressed into service.
The Bounty reaches Tahiti, and the crew spends several months there waiting to harvest a plentiful crop of breadfruit plants. Many of the men have integrated themselves into the society of the island, and both Christian and Byam form relationships with native women. When it comes time to leave, many of the men do not wish to leave, and a few are accused of desertion. Christian objects to the punishment meted out (though desertion is a high crime in the British Navy), and ultimately, he blames Bligh for a decision that leads to the death of the ship’s doctor. Christian gathers about half of the Bounty’s crew—including a reluctant Byam—and they mutiny against Bligh. The Captain and those loyal to him, are sent out into the open sea on one of the Bounty’s lifeboats. Bligh, in an amazing feat of navigation, pilots the lifeboat over 4,000 miles to the nearest landmass, not losing a single sailor. Christian returns with the Bounty to Tahiti.
Ultimately, Bligh returns to England, and leads an expedition back to Tahiti to capture the mutineers. Some of the men are brought back to England and face a court martial, Byam among them. Some are executed, though Byam is spared. The other men abscond with Christian on the Bounty, where they leave (with several Tahitians in tow) to form a perfect society on Pitcairn Island. When Christian reaches Pitcairn, he orders the Bounty burned.
So, while the film is truthful to the fictional historical novel (by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall) on which it is based, it fails to accurately reflect history. Some of the basics are indeed correct. Yes, there was an actual mutiny on the HMS Bounty, and yes she sailed to Tahiti. Even some of the nitpickier details are correct. Gable was (under considerable protest) forced to shave his famous moustache, and he complained the sailor’s uniforms were too effeminate. The recreated Bounty looks fabulous; the production values that went in to the ship are easily the best thing about the film. The milieu is real.
The milieu, however, is the easiest part to get right. Where the film crucially errs is in the portrayal of Bligh. While the crew did mutiny, Bligh was nowhere near the bloodthirsty taskmaster the film makes him out to be. Compared to the far more famous Captains James Cook and George Vancouver, Bligh was far less violent. In the book Past Imperfect—a collection of essays that compares the histories presented in the movies to actual events—historian Greg Dening notes that Bligh flogged 10.9 percent of the Bounty’s crew, compared to 25.6 percent of the crew on Cook’s HMS Resolution and 52.8 percent on Vancouver’s HMS Discovery. Dening suggests that the crew on the Bounty mutinied because unlike the more sanguine Cook and Vancouver—who were content to simply flog and be done with it—Bligh taunted his crew before and afterwards by suggesting that they should be grateful to him for not punishing them more. Bligh instilled feelings of self-doubt and guilt among the men on his ship (on detail the film does get correct), and the state of mind he created was a recipe to brew open rebellion.
Bligh’s appearance in the film is also inaccurate. Paired alongside the dashing Gable as Fletcher Christian, Laughton’s Bligh is cartoonish—a fat, impetuous, mackerel-faced villain. Audiences of the time did not have to strain to see who the film portrays as its hero. In reality, Bligh was not so grotesque, and was actually only thirty-five when he piloted the Bounty, maybe ten years older than the hoi polloi that populated his crew.
There are several other big inaccuracies in regards to actual history. First, the Byam character was never on the Bounty—he is a composite character created by the novelists used as an Ishmael-like narrator. Second, while Frank Lloyd did film in the South Pacific, the actors who portrayed the Tahitians look nothing like Pacific Islanders. There are also little inaccuracies like Bligh and Christian’s father being present at the court-martial of the mutineers, but those are done to give the screenplay dramatic heft. The biggest inaccuracy comes with the ending, where it suggests that Christian leads the Tahitians and Bounty mutineers into an island utopia on Pitcairn Island. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the society formed there quickly denigrated into violent chaos, with rape and murder taking the place of law and order.
To me, that story is quite compelling. Let the facts speak for themselves. It seems like a movie with a story that writes itself. But the reality is that film is art separate from history. Also, the act of recording history is primarily a function of diligent research. The re-creation of history on the silver screen is a far more complicated—and expensive act. A film represents an investment—of money, of politics, of art, and often the three combined.
The one “true” story behind Mutiny on the Bounty is that of MGM’s two driving forces: Irving G. Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg acquired the rights to the Nordhoff and Hall novels, thinking they would be excellent source material for a feature film (and perhaps he was also looking to stage his own sea epic, having been long outclassed by Warner Brothers in pictures about pirates and seafarers). In that regard, Thalberg proved to be prescient. Mayer, however, did not feel that the American public would buy into a film where mutineers are celebrated as heroes. Therefore, the true life story of the HMS Bounty, adapted into an admittedly fictitious historical novel, is further transformed into an epic about common men bravely taking a stand against tyranny.
As both men were Jewish, they were highly aware of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s. Why not re-craft the story into an anti-fascist parable? The film opens with a prelude stating that the mutiny on the HMS Bounty “helped bring about a new discipline, based on mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain’s sea power is maintained as security for all who pass on sea.” A nice sentiment, to be sure, but floggings, keelhauling and other forms of corporal punishment are recorded a century after the actual mutiny. Thalberg and Mayer give the audience clean-cut heroes in Christian and Byam, a despicable villain in Bligh, and ultimately, both Christian and Byam come to uphold the values of democracy and liberty over tyranny and cruelty.
In short, the film is a sly piece of political propaganda, with the MGM producers backing the story with the full might of their studio’s technical wizardry. History aside, Mutiny on the Bounty is a thrilling, thinking man’s adventure picture, with three fine actors in lead roles (Gable, Laughton, and Tone were each nominated for Best Actor, which ultimately led to the creation of the Supporting Actor categories) and a hell of a good looking ship sailing in exotic settings. As a movie, it is an absolute success. As history though, Mutiny on the Bounty is a ship with a leaky bottom.
Hollywood is always rewriting history for the sake of good old fashioned entertainment—movies continue to do this today—but I feel that viewers of any “true story” need to take responsibility to separate movie history from actual history.