Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
At the film’s outset, title cards inform us that the crew of The Bounty, which is about to leave port, will mutiny against their captain and begin life anew in the Pacific. Like the idea of ‘the epic’, this is another old Brechtian technique, where by knowing the ending already we are invited to observe not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ and the ‘why’.
Analysing how the mutiny unfolds, it’s apparent that the ship’s captain, Bligh (played with superb skill and dominating charisma by Charles Laughton), is a monster. We observe him lashing dead bodies and keelhauling for a minor offence. I understand that these events are not historically accurate, but this doesn’t really matter to me as the statement on humanity is much more potent than is keeping events historically correct.
I believe this film can be read as a statement on power, control and freedom. Michel Foucault, a famous French philosopher, describes in one of his seminal works, Discipline and Punish, how authority in the eighteenth century asserts control of it’s subjects through the public display of power over bodies. By publicly lashing a dead man before the ship sets sail, Bligh’s power manifests itself in the minds of the sailors and they come to willingly relinquish control of their own bodies, becoming virtual slaves to the ship.
Manuel Castells isolates and defines power as the ability to perform violence against another. At mutiny itself Clarke Gable’s character, Fletcher Christian, leads a rebellion against Bligh after conditions become intolerable (a sailor is killed, and the threat to life becomes more dangerous than the threat of harm to the body). The power shift is established through Christian’s assertion of physical domination over Bligh – the most physically threatening entity becomes the one in control.
All of this is very interesting I am sure, but what is the message here? There is a strong topical link between Mutiny on the Bounty and the fantastic Cavalcade, each of which was directed by Frank Lloyd. Both films are preoccupied with being British subjects. Subjectivity is a fascinating topic itself, and very complex. In relation to Mutiny on the Bounty, the notion that is instilled in the sailors, the idea that they are British subjects, is the reason that Bligh is able to dominate The Bounty with such totality. He is constantly invoking the right of the Crown and Crown Law. Even as far away as is physically possible from England, he forces the crew to uphold their status as British subjects. With Bligh acting as such a monster, the only way to escape him is to deny the Crown and the laws attached to the Crown, mutinying against their captain. Suddenly they have become ‘free’, no longer dominated by the British law, until Bligh returns to arrest them in the name of the Crown.
Remaining steadfast to British law they means that they must suffer the death-penalty and that they therefore cannot exist any longer. They must run to a treacherous and forgotten island in order to live. The film seems to be saying, whether consciously or not, that freedom of self can only be attained through a complete rejection of the known world. As long as we answer to the law we are not free, yet to question the law is to force us onto a forgotten island and lose freedom all together.
And on a final note, this film had great editing.