Reading some of the reviews of the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone) would suggest the film is a disaster: a sunken shipwreck of a film that deserves to be buried somewhere in the high seas. “Overlong and unattractive” (1) Halliwell’s declares. Time Out reckons it’s “overlong and frequently leaden” (2). A Marlon Brando biographer, Charles Higham, describes the many on-set problems that would lead critics to believe that the final result couldn’t be anything but a complete failure. Originally to have been helmed by Carol Reed, and finally directed by veteran filmmaker Lewis Milestone, who had little truck with Brando’s exploratory method, the film was blighted by appalling weather and even tragedy: one of the Tahitians in the film lost his life shooting one arduous sea scene.
But over forty years later we can look at the film without thinking too readily of the production problems that would no doubt have impacted on the critics’ reaction to the film. What we can now perhaps more readily see is the way the film offers a thorough examination of status viewed chiefly from the perspective of the socially lowly Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard), and the haughtily extravagant Dandy and aristocratic second in command, Brando’s Fletcher Christian. But what makes it especially interesting is the slow-burn nature of this clash, the way Brando’s character absorbs all the films’ cruelty before he can move towards a decision, and acts decisively not because of the cruelty, especially, but because Bligh does something that flies in the face of Christian’s aristocratic sense of superiority. He smites the captain after Bligh has the temerity to touch Christian. It’s as though the film wants to examine the possibility of the humanistic, but without the cause and effect aspect that would possibly make the film morally anachronistic. That is, morally cause and effectual for the viewer in a mainstream, contemporary cinema manner, but that would, in consequence, be playing much more with the chronology of history.
Mutiny on the Bounty feels like a film much more faithful to history than to a viewer’s expectations, which is rather different from the marvellous but nevertheless more accessible 1930s version (Frank Lloyd, 1935) with Clark Gable (Christian) and Charles Laughton (Bligh), where Christian’s social status seems somewhere in between the lowly crew and the aristocratic officers, and where Christian oscillates as fairly as he can between the two. However, this isn’t to suggest that the eschewal of modern filmic morality in the 1960s version means that the film could show the normality of any amount of sadism going on on the High Seas, for as Bligh’s told at his own court hearing at the end of the film, after he’s returned to London and has to explain the mutiny that took place on his ship: there are certain aristocratic values that most captains – taken as they are from the aristocratic class – uphold. Bligh, from a less august background, was found lacking in this particularly superior moral fibre. Thus, it isn’t just a democratic morality the film touches upon, it’s underpinned by an aristocratic morality less immediately accessible to the viewer’s consciousness. While the 1935 version makes it clear through an opening title scroll that the mutiny changed the way the navy worked – that the mutiny led to key changes that made the British navy what it is today, circa 1936, and that we watch it with our moral conscience unquestioned – the remake wants us queasily confused by the motives of the often problematic Christian. And just as we’re not quite sure where to stand over Brando’s motives, even the notion of aristocratic morality as a mode of being on sea as well as on land that he allows sub-textually to permeate his behaviour is information we’re given near the end of the film, in the courtroom scene where Bligh’s chastised. So, for the rest of the time, we might be under the impression that Bligh’s values, whilst sadistic, are very much of the time and those of the Crown.
Frequently, throughout the film, he invokes both the values and the wrath of King and Country, and we’re put in a position of believing he’s offering the standard line of the period, and that Brando’s Christian is a potentially enlightened humanist, ripe to reveal the full consciousness of a 20th-century liberal in waiting. But that doesn’t quite happen, despite Christian’s frequent gestures of decency, a decency that in Bligh’s eyes will nevertheless leave him nation-less. After the mutiny, Christian gives Bligh and his supporters a small boat in which to make their way; but, before getting into the boat, Bligh goads Christian with the idea that Christian is now a man without a country, as if everything Bligh has done during the months they’ve been sailing has been completely consistent with the demands of the Crown.
Now what is interesting here is that when Bligh invokes the rules and regulations demanded of a captain Christian rarely reacts, even though we would assume he’d be entitled to counter with the sort of arguments that Bligh is offered when in court back home. But Christian doesn’t do so perhaps because though he hardly approves of Bligh’s methods; he’s very wary of becoming the mouthpiece for a class, the working class of the crew, for whom he has little sympathy and less respect. The moment the mutiny takes place, Fletcher shrinks from the camaraderie offered to him by the others, and increasingly holes himself up in his quarters. Is this Christian, though, just escaping from the vulgarities of his crew, or, equally, might there be something else going on? And what that something else might be is Christian’s constant need to think through the problem he’s got himself into and how he is going to get out of it?
If the first two thirds of the film deals with Christian’s observation of Bligh’s appalling behaviour, as he terrorises, tortures and whips various crew members, in the last section of the film Christian is much more focused on his own navel: most of the time, he seems to be working out whether he can return to England and defend himself successfully in a naval court. We realise this again retrospectively: near the end of the film, he tells the crew that he wants to return to England; the crew react and promptly burn The Bounty.
So, what we have here are the two major decisions on Christian’s part: one external and observational, one internal and requiring the focus on intangible variables (how will the Court act in weighing up all the evidence?) and two retrospective realizations on the viewer’s: the awareness that generally speaking naval law would be on Christian’s side and not Bligh’s, and that Christian’s introspective escape from the crew was based on trying to find a way of returning to England. What this gives to an ostensible adventure movie is a high degree of inexplicability, perhaps inevitably so given the casting of Brando in the first place, and Brando as a borderline, effete, English aristocrat. It’s as though Brando wants to play an intolerable member of his class, made tolerable by the nature of his circumstances, but not quite redeemed by them. After all, he seems far happier making the most of the sensuous and sensual delights of Tahiti than he does later asserting his authority as the new captain of The Bounty.
Surely a conventional adventure movie would insist that Brando’s foppish aristo would become a man of the people, especially when the film goes to great pains to make Bligh a monster. When in one scene Bligh explains his method to Christian, Bligh reckons the only thing that allows him to retain power over the entire crew is the notion of fear: they have to fear him, and thus the slightest outbreak of insubordination will be met with ferocious retribution. This may on the one hand be the words of the hissable villain; but on the other we sense a strong anthropological reasoning here that our own supposedly enlightened take on life should be wary of rejecting. It brings to mind some decidedly politically incorrect comment the anthropologist Margaret Mead made in conversation once with James Baldwin. She explains that in New Guinea she’d been responsible for a labour line, with some two hundred men, some of them cannibals, many fiery fighters, who all had to obey the orders of Mead:
Now, when I was temporarily alone, I had to run that labor line. I had to give them orders based on absolutely nothing but white supremacy. I was one lone white woman. Any one of them could have killed me, and it was my business not to get killed. (3)
She then goes on to explain that in one place she was the only white person in the village, and on one occasion some villagers, who were trying to sell her some worm eaten beans, on their way out walked off with a box of matches:
I had to get that box of matches back. If I didn’t, I would have been as good as dead. White people who let a thief go used to be killed; they had shown themselves as weak. (4)
It’s this type of reasoning Bligh is essentially practising, but it’s perhaps because he lacks the aristocratic instinct for power, that he overplays the ruthlessness. But then, if Christian’s our hero, why doesn’t he simply counter the vulgar power Bligh practises?
This is central to the film’s inexplicable aspect. On the one hand, we have Bligh practising a kind of Meadian anthro-ethic and pushing it too far; and, on the other, Christian biding his time constantly aware of an aristo-ethic that he keeps chiefly to himself. In one scene, Christian counters Bligh when changing the direction of the boat after a man dies during a storm. Bligh furiously attacks Christian for going against his orders, and Christian half-heartedly defends his position with a simple humanist argument over the sort of aristocratically humanist argument he could have used, an aristocratic argument we did not realize was available to him until we’re told about it at the end of the film. For when Bligh insists he’s fighting for the Crown during this spat, at no stage does Christian explain that, in fact, Bligh is going against the ethical code of the country. Christian seems to want to be his own man – he doesn’t want to offer aristocratic arguments, side with Bligh, or with the crew – and yet, of course, it’s his very aristocraticism which leads to the incident that will cost him his career and at the end of the film his life.
At the beginning of this piece, we looked at the production problems that beset the film, production problems not entirely unlike those that beset the Brando-directed One-Eyed Jacks (1961) the previous year. Originally, Stanley Kubrick was going to direct One-Eyed Jacks, but Brando took over and very much made the film his own: taking an inordinate amount of time over certain shots according to one of his biographers, Charles Higham (5). We needn’t claim Brando took over another troubled production shortly afterwards, but there are certain parallels between the two films that lead us to wonder if the film ‘belongs’ to anyone it must surely be to Brando. It seems to have Brando’s ethos stamped all over it, if we take into account the fact that Brando had script approval on both films, and the sort of ethos at work most especially in One-Eyed Jacks. For just as, according to Higham, “Marlon attempted a masterpiece in the genre of the western’ (6), so perhaps Brando wanted to do the same with the adventure film. But if we need to talk of masterpieces of genre, we should try to explain how the films transcend their generic calling. They’re genre films shot through with the sensibility of the non-generic, for if genre is so often about a cause and effect world in a recognizable mise en scène; these two films are much more psychologically anti-generic; relying first and foremost on a milieu over a mise en scène. Brando, who, as we’ve suggested, greatly influenced the writing on both projects, seemed to want to work on genre films that would be altered by a twofold process: a more realistic script attached to a vivid mise en scène, to a milieu. But how would these two elements come together? It lies in the nature of the films’ waiting game narratives attached to a locale that would suggest the necessity of waiting. In a mise en scène, waiting would seem almost absurd: the film sets itself up in such a way that the mise en scène isn’t an observable space, but a narrative back-drop, it allows the filmmaker to progress his story from place to place, but there is no need for the backdrop to become a character. If in a mise en scène film a character seemed to spend minutes looking at an obviously back-projected wave, the viewer would understandably wonder why the story’s ground to a halt, when the visual æsthetic, the mise en scène lends itself not to the reflective image, but the active storyline.
Certainly, there were filmmakers in the 1980s, in France (Jean-Jacques Beineix) and in the US (Francis Coppola), who played on this mise en scène as a reflective space, but as a rule ‘mise en scène’, as opposed to milieu, has always lent itself much better to the pace of a story rather than to dawdle. Both One Eyes Jacks and Mutiny on the Bounty, however, are milieu films, explorations of the time and space of the locations as readily as the telling of a story, and so it was no surprise when many commented on both films being slow. As genre pieces, they are slow, but as explorations within the complexity of milieu they are perfectly and fairly paced, and they find in Brando an actor capable of a reflective capacity equal to the absorption of the milieu. In Mutiny on the Bounty, Brando’s Christian has to weigh up the pros and cons of a life based on the High Seas and on small islands, and make a decision out of these variables. So, while it comes as a complete surprise to his crew members that he reckons they should return to England, it should come as little surprise to the viewer. We may admire the stunning South-Seas locations, but would we want to live there, and especially if we were an aristocratic Englishman whose personality is that of a dandy? How would a dandy cope with a culture where minimal dress is much more important than fancy clothing? So it might be all very well for one to claim Fletcher Christian evolves through the film, moving from Dandy to heroic ship captain, but we should perhaps see the milieu not as one that transforms him, but as one that must be looked at, analysed, made sense of; to see if it could become an inhabitable space. When Christian tells his crew he wants to return to England, we should see that the milieu hasn’t transformed him; it’s been comprehended and rejected as an uninhabitable area.
What Brando gives to the film, as well as to One-Eyed Jacks, is something very interesting. He doesn’t just act the role, to further the story, nor does he just allow the milieu to absorb his character, but we sense his character weighing up multiple possibilities in the very thought processes that distort genre and slow the films down.
Now this type of space, the milieu, could conceivably make sense in relation to isolation in the big outdoors, and is brilliantly realized in a scene in One-Eyed Jacks where Brando’s Rio waits by the coast before deciding whether to get revenge on the old buddy who let him down. As he sits on a rock looking out at the waves, it’s an image finally not too far removed from Rodin’s thinker sitting on the pier. Sea, and certainly the stunning waves that lash against the shore in Monterey, where One-Eyed Jacks was filmed, seems to demand this reflection. But what about scenes in Mutiny on the Bounty where Christian gets harangued by another, sensitive, officer and seems less concerned with defending himself than continuing his own inner dialogue? It’s of course a trait we often see in Brando’s acting: this sense of not listening or engaging with his interlocutor or audience, but allowing the interlocutor’s words to play like background static to his own interior thought processes. It’s there in scenes with Maria Schneider in Ultimo Tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) and in that cat-stroking scene in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1971), and it is there throughout Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967), with Brando’s Weldon Penderton, at one stage near the end of the film ostensibly teaching marine cadets the strategies of war, but finally meanderingly offering his own inner torment. And it is here again, in this scene with his subordinate officer insisting that Christian lacks humanity if he’s willing to allow members of the crew to be clapped in irons and left in the hull of the boat. But what the subordinate cannot really see is that any argument with Brando’s character, and this is true of many of Brando’s roles, will be secondary to the argument Brando’s character is having with himself. It’s partly why the scene in Last Tango in Paris where Brando’s Paul coughs and spits out insults at his late wife works so well. If Brando was never a great central conflict actor, never a conventionally great actor of confrontation with others, then it lies chiefly in this sense that an argument is first and foremost with himself.
It’s this that can return us to our original point about Mutiny on the Bounty being a reflective film, contained by one of cinema’s great reflective actors. The film flies in the face of comments like David Mamet’s On Directing Film, when he says “You tax the audience every time you don’t move on to the next essential step of the progression as quickly as possible.” (7) But what if the film isn’t searching out first and foremost the essential next action, but the inexplicable thought that arises between the perception and the action? Does this simply mean the filmmaker arrives at a failed adventure film – as many believed Mutiny on the Bounty to be – or does it mean the film has moved beyond the limitations, the cause and effect demands of the adventure film, and arrives at an enquiry into the event, the event on this occasion being of course the mutiny on The Bounty? Now many adventure films are also ‘event’ films, but the historical event gets buried under the sort of demands Mamet insists the good film respects. They don’t tax the viewer’s good nature as Mamet would say. When Mamet goes on to insist that the viewer may indulge the filmmaker who doesn’t immediately move onto the next shot for political reasons, these aren’t, however, the politics of an event a critic such as Michael Rogin works with when questioning Steven Spielberg’s approach to Amistad (1997), but the politics of a sort of lazy late modernity:
Political reasons being, “dammit, I like that kind of countercultural statement. I am one of that group, and I endorse the other members of this group, who appreciate the sort of things this fellow is trying to say.” (8)
For Mamet, there is this common sense notion that everybody ignores for a form of aesthetic political correctness.
But where would that leave someone like Rogin, who attacks Amistad because its insistent move to the next essential step the viewer demands, begs all sorts of questions and removes the examination of the event? What often happens is the “filmic expectation” superimposes itself on any event, so that what matters isn’t the complexity of an event realized, but the filmic expectation met. As one writer Rogin quotes says:
Spielberg brings [the African slave] Cinque [Djimon Hounsou] to life as a sweaty, black-faced monster with fingers dripping with blood. By the time Cinque breaks out of the bowels of the boat and slaughters some of his captors, I am left wondering: Didn’t I see a Spielberg dinosaur do the same thing in The Lost World[: Jurassic Park, 1997]. (9)
What happens here is the filmic expectation, the technique, remains the same, even the thematic might remain the same, only the subject changes. Thus, what a mainstream filmmaker will do, taking into account Mamet’s comments, is find the appropriate material that can allow for the essential steps, or alter an historic event in such a way that the event gets buried under the conventional style. This is what Rogin sees happening in Amistad. The learning kit that accompanied the film and was distributed for use in schools explains:
Reshaping history into drama is in some ways like writing history, which requires a scholar to select the most significant facts and emphasize the most important developments. Both historical drama and historical scholarship aim to portray the truth about our past. (10)
But then Rogin goes on to say that Americans’ desire “for immediate gratification”, the sort of next essential step in Mamet’s terms, the filmic expectation in ours “leaves history behind”. He goes on to give as examples the way a linguist is portrayed in the film as a fussy poseur who pretends to have knowledge of the African language, Mende, he doesn‘t possess. That’s a blatant but convenient untruth, Rogin explains. He also says:
Now, none of the scenes that I have so far described ever happened outside Amistad, the movie – not Adams speaking up for storytelling, meeting Cinque, or learning ancestor-worship from the leader of the uprising […] (11)
This isn’t to suggest Mutiny on the Bounty is a work of absolute historical integrity; that isn’t finally the issue. It is, however, at the very least, a work that enquires into an event, and risks sacrificing the ‘next essential step’ to a querying narrative that looks at Christian Fletcher’s motives in an oblique, inexplicable way. It’s the inverse of the Spielbergian claim in the handouts that we quote above. Certainly the filmmaker, like the historian, has to offer a perspective on history, but there is tentative historicizing and assertive historicizing. Now, of course, some tentative historicizing leads to a very self-conscious, abstract presentation, a sort of radical historicizing that creates a distanciating effect in relation to the event. Here, a film is never allowed to develop a conventional æsthetic form because the filmmakers constantly want to question the very problematizing aspect of dramatic retelling. A good example might be a film like Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972), where Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet move between contemporary Rome and ancient Rome, with a character driving around the modern city and then, the same character, still wearing a modern suit, interviewing people in its ancient equivalent. Historic presentation is very obviously not being taken for granted. But in the reflective action film, presentation may be taken for granted, but the action won’t be. In an excellent example of the reflective action film, Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995) hinges on two incidents that the central character cannot readily act upon, even though the viewer is given all the variables: the murder of the eponymous character’s friend and the rape of his wife. He can’t act immediately in relation to the friend because he doesn’t know whether the friend has been murdered, or whether he’s taken off with the money he just received from a lender. In relation to his wife, she keeps from him the fact that she’s been raped, because if Rob (Liam Neeson) finds out he’ll immediately want revenge and that’s exactly what her rapist would want: a show-down with Rob Roy.
What Rob Roy does, like One-Eyed Jacks and Mutiny on the Bounty, is create space for reflection on action rather than insist on the kinetic necessity of action proposed by Mamet. This doesn’t lead to radical historicizing, a sort of non-diegetic questioning that throws us outside the enclosed cinematic experience, as in the Straubs’ work, but it does lead us to reflect upon a problem the film raises without requiring immediate resolution, or, for that matter, immediate character conflict. An example of the former would be the bloodlust of Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), where central character, William Wallace (Gibson), avenges his wife’s murder without even, strictly speaking, knowing exactly what has happened to her. But a conventional way of escaping from this need for immediate resolution without sacrificing a notion of tension is characters colliding over a decision that needs to be made, as characters argue back and forth about whether to go to war or not, whether to scale one mountain over another.
What is intriguing about both Mutiny and the Bounty, and also One-Eyed Jacks is that we feel Brando’s characters’ conflicts with others aren’t really what moves them to decision making, that the process is much more internal than that. Thus, we don’t sense the films are offering dramatic conflict just for the purpose of narrative conflict, as a surrogate action that nevertheless generates tension, but much more for an exploration of options that can just as readily be ignored for the private, inexplicable aspect mentioned above. This is the historical within the action-adventure film not as generated, surrogate tension, but much more as possibilities that are still always secondary to an interior decision. What is especially fascinating about Mutiny on The Bounty is that Fletcher Christian’s motives remain slightly out of our reach for two reasons. The first is that he is an aristocrat and we are never privy to that particular environment, because the whole film deals with the voyage. Second, Christian doesn’t offer the aristocratic perspective in his spats with Bligh. If anything, he offers humanist arguments that he does not seem entirely convinced of himself – or, rather, it’s not that he isn’t convinced by them, but they cannot rouse him, they cannot make him act in the way a casual slight against his aristocratic being moves him to turn on Bligh.
This, of course, leads to the great irony of the film. Fletcher Christian becomes a man of the people, and apparently and unavoidably distanced from his class, by virtue of an action that is decidedly class based: he lashes out at an social inferior who posses the role of naval superior and who is indeed superior given the milieu. A more straightforward action film would settle for the character arc that would turn Fletcher into a man of the people and away from his class, and that his gesture would be very much that of an insubordinate fighting for his rights. But this is instead a superior demanding his aristocratic privileges and immediately losing those privileges by an instinctive gesture of superiority in a position where he is actually an inferior.
When a critic like Time Out’s insists the film runs out of steam in the last third, then that is because Fletcher’s action leads not to further action, but instead intense retreat. What are we to think that Fletcher is cogitating over as he disappears into his cabin? The many parties he’s been to, the women he’s sleeping with, the privileges to which he’ll no longer be entitled? This is surely flying in the face of what we might call the metabolic demands of the action-adventure film, where we expect pace to pick up as the film goes on, not for a thought to slow the whole project down. Eschewing the essential next step, and barely playing to the expectations of character conflict as surrogate action, Mutiny on the Bounty wants to create as much inexplicable thought and room for character rumination as a mainstream piece can realistically contain. That it eschews such expectations shouldn’t demand the film be seen as a failure, but just as a genre offshoot, the ruminative action-adventure that would become especially popular in the seventies in pensive westerns like Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972), McCabe & Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973), a reflective boxing film like Fat City (Huston, 1971), the procrastinating noir, The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1972), the war film, The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), and the long drawn out gangster epics that were The Godfather trilogy (Coppola, 1972, 1974, 1990). These are all films with a different metabolic rate than people might expect from the general genre demands. It would be absurd to claim Mutiny on the Bounty influenced any or all of these films, but maybe had the film been made a decade or so later it would have been absorbed more easily into a ‘cine-metabolism’ that was willing to play things a little more slowly. Instead of seeing the film as a mega-budget epic ripe for mass release and expected huge commercial returns – Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960), Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961), The Vikings (Richard Fleischer, 1958), etc., – we can watch it now and feel that it is just as readily a film in a more character-driven tradition that it actually, like One-Eyed Jacks, preceded.
- John Walker, Halliwell’s Film Guide (London: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 533.
- Geoff Andrew, John Pym (Ed.), Time Out Film Guide (London: Time Out, 2005), p. 787.
- Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (London: Corgi, 1971), p. 28.
- Charles Higham, Brando, The Unauthorized Biography (London: Grafton, 1989), p. 255.
- David Mamet, On Directing Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 60.
- Michael Rogin, ‘Spielberg’s List’, The New Left Review, July-August 1998, pp. 153-60.