For a globe-spanning tale of treachery on the high seas, Mutiny on the Bounty often feels like a very contained film. That’s not a put-down. This first major adaptation of the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (an hour-long Australian version starring Errol Flynn had been released two years prior) thrives on its trio of lead actors more than violent escapades or exotic location shooting. The film has hardly a moment of spectacle, and yet it seems somehow to attain epic status because of the masterful performances of Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone — all of whom were nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, leading the Academy to develop supporting acting categories.
Based on the true events that occurred on the British Royal Navy’s HMS Bounty in 1789, the film retains the novel’s fictional character of Roger Byam (Tone), a midshipman who gets caught in the power struggle between Captain William Bligh (Laughton) and master’s mate Fletcher Christian (Gable). The ship is on a two-year expedition to Tahiti to harvest breadfruit plants as a cheap food source for slaves in the West Indies.
Many of the men onboard have been coerced into service, and their dread at spending two years at sea is compounded by Bligh, a fearful and cruel master who doesn’t hesitate to have any subordination met with swift and overwhelming violence. He metes out the flogging punishment for one man even after he’s died and cuts down on rations to make more money for himself. Laughton’s portrayal is brilliant, presenting a man who is unquestionably a monster while allowing for moments of weakness to shine through.
Gable’s Christian is a far more likable character, but he’s a problematic hero. On the one hand, his seizure of the ship from Bligh seems wholly justified given the inhumane treatment much of the crew receives, but the way he uses his command to return to Tahiti where he’s fallen in love with a native girl seems to suggest ulterior motives at play.
The film struggles to pack a lot in after the actual mutiny takes place around 90 minutes into the film, with Bligh’s amazing tale of survival with his loyalists in a rickety boat, Christian’s return to Tahiti and subsequent voyage to Pitcairn Island and Byam’s eventual trial for mutiny in England all crammed into a little more than 30 minutes, but the film’s pacing mostly works, and Mutiny on the Bounty serves as an entertaining — if mostly historically inaccurate — depiction of drama on the high seas.
The Blu-ray Disc
Mutiny on the Bounty is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Warner continues to do a splendid job of bringing classic Hollywood films to high definition with this unimpeachable transfer that shows rich contrast and excellent sharpness throughout. Blacks, whites and a range of grays are stable and distinct, and a nice layer of film grain is always present. The print is in quite good shape, with occasional damage lines showing up in a shot and several shots that appear to have been taken from a lesser quality print, but none of it is anything to complain about.
The audio is presented in a lossless monaural soundtrack that likely shows great fidelity to its source. Overall, it’s a little on the quiet side and some of the dialogue is a bit muffled, but for the most part, voices are clear and distinct, and there’s not a trace of any distracting hums or clicks.
This is the department where the release disappoints, with the meager supplements from the previous DVD carried over in standard definition. A 10-minute newsreel tells of the settlement on Pitcairn Island with a dry recounting of the mutiny on the side, and a one-minute clip shows the Best Picture Oscar win for the film. Trailers for this film and the 1962 version starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard are also included.
This version comes packaged in a Blu-ray book, which includes 35 pages of glossy production photos and notes.
The Bottom Line
With most studios reticent to dive that far back into their catalogs for Blu-ray upgrades, it’s nice to see Warner do it on a consistent basis and do it well.