The true story of the Bounty is an amazing tale. There are sea voyages on wooden sailing ships that took multiple years and girdled the Earth on routes that threaded the Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope to get to such amazing places as Tahiti must have been in the eighteenth century. Then the human drama of a crew finally rebelling against a merciless tyrant and then escaping the whole British navy to start a new life on a remote island from which they could never return. Bligh’s unbelievable 3,500-mile sea voyage after being set adrift in a life boat. And finally, the trial of the men who were captured on Tahiti after the mutiny.
Hollywood found the perfect Captain Bligh in Charles Laughton. His strutting, bellowing Bligh is an inhuman monster of legendary proportions. When a seaman whose knees are raw sores asks for water to wash the sand of the deck out of his wounds Bligh orders him to be keel-hauled. That means he was dragged the whole length of the ship bottom against a barnacle encrusted hull. Naturally he doesn’t survive.
And Clark Gable is an excellent Christian Fletcher. His defiance of Bligh before the mutiny is measured and prudent but when the outrages become insurmountable, he finally snaps and leads a mutiny that takes the ship and sends Bligh and his loyal followers out onto the open sea. The movie presents us with Fletcher sailing the ship to Tahiti and allowing his men to take Tahitian wives. When the British come looking for them Fletcher leads all of them to Pitcairn Island on the Bounty where they start a new life.
Franchot Tone portrays Midshipman Byam a friend of Fletcher’s who refuses to join the mutiny but is forced to remain with the mutineers. When the Bounty flees Tahiti Byam remains to return with the British but he is accused of mutiny by Bligh and ends up on trial for his life. According to the movie the trial is the cause célèbre that eventually caused the British Navy to reform their treatment of enlisted men.
Along with these leads there are a dozen other supporting characters that are each engaging and entertaining. The seamen, the officers, the Tahitians, the Admiralty Court Martial. Each is given screen time to tell a story. One of the standouts for me is Dr. Bacchus, the one-legged, constantly inebriated ship’s surgeon who provides medical help and moral support to the victims of Bligh. His other amusing characteristic is the constantly changing story of how he lost his leg. One time it was in a sea battle against John Paul Jones. Next, it’s a French frigate and after that a Spanish galleon.
As I said at the start, the true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty is an amazing tale. The 1935 movie is based on a fictionalized account. There are many inaccuracies that have been added to the story. For instance, Bligh was not the captain of the ship that brought back the mutineers from Tahiti and chased the Bounty. There is no record that a sailor was keel-hauled and died by Bligh’s order. And Bligh did not attend the court martial. But it is a remarkable movie nevertheless and it is still very entertaining eighty-five years after it was made. I highly recommend it for all fans of adventure stories.
This movie is a cinematic retelling of H. G. Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” As opposed to the majority of the creature features and horror flicks this film has a very substantial actor involved. Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau. He’s a scientist who was chased out of the civilized world for the experimentation he was doing on animals. So, he lives on a small island in the South Pacific and a boat skipper delivers a cargo of live animals once a year. As the story opens up the boat picks up a survivor of a shipwreck. This survivor, Edward Parker, is headed for a nearby island but he gets into a beef with the captain and gets dumped into Moreau’s launch as it is transferring the animals to the island. When he arrives there, he notices that the island is inhabited by the strangest looking people imaginable. Most of them resemble apes in pants. Later on, when Parker walks out in the jungle he is accosted by a group of the natives and has to be rescued by Moreau. Moreau sounds a gong and the natives assemble and to the accompaniment of Moreau’s cracking bullwhip they recite their creed.
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law (SOTL): Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
SOTL: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
SOTL: Not to walk on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Incidentally, The Sayer of the Law is Bela Lugosi but his face is so completely covered with fur that the only way to tell is by his unmistakable voice. Parker is confused by all that’s going on and in the next scene he hears agonized screams coming from Moreau’s laboratory. Breaking in he thinks he is witnessing Moreau vivisecting one of the natives without anesthesia. And now Moreau explains to Parker the truth about the natives. They are actually animals that Moreau has modified through biochemical and surgical modifications. The laboratory where Moreau performs these modifications is called by the patients, for obvious reasons, “the house of pain.”
Moreau uses a subterfuge to keep Parker from leaving the island because he wants to carry out an experiment on him. He has manufactured a woman out of a panther named Lota and he wants to test whether she reacts like a woman when brought into contact with a man, Parker. This experiment is a success until Parker notices that Lota’s fingernails have reverted to panther’s claws.
And just at this point Parker’s fiancée, Ruth, arrives at Moreau’s island to bring him home. But Moreau cancels his Lota plan and instead plans to test his male creatures by having one of them kidnap Ruth. When this plan is thwarted Moreau orders one of his creatures to murder the ship captain who is helping Ruth to free Parker. But when the creature realizes that Moreau has ordered him to break the law by spilling blood he goes before the assembly and tells them that the law is no more. And then they figure out that since the captain is like Moreau and since they can kill the captain then by the transitive law of monster logic, they can kill Moreau. And that’s just what they get ready to do. While Parker and Ruth are escaping out the back door to safety on the boat, the creature mob catches up with the whip wielding Moreau and back him into his compound. Finally, in desperation when he has reached the wall, he reminds them that they are at the house of pain. The Sayer of the Law makes one more imaginative leap and has the mob drag Moreau into his laboratory and using his own surgical instruments they gleefully vivisect him to the rousing accompaniment of his screams.
I get the feeling that Laughton enjoyed this part. He played the part with great verve. He endowed Moreau with humor and perverse curiosity in the details of his cruel experiments. And like all good mad scientists of the 1930’s he does mention to Parker that he knows what it’s like to be God.
From a special effects point of view, the creature costumes are pretty cheesy. More interestingly it does appear that certain of the actors playing creatures had facial and other anomalies that could not have been simulated. But even if the special effects were rudimentary this is an interesting plot. Moreau’s relationship with his creatures is nuanced. Their obvious investment in the concept of their humanity is pitted against the fear and hatred they feel toward their creator. Moreau is a cruel god but he is completely absorbed in the wonder of his ability to create people. He doesn’t realize his peril when he provides the forbidden fruit of knowledge to his creatures by breaking his own law and by demonstrating that regular humans are mortal. Good story, fun horror movie, good work by Laughton. Recommended.
So instead of looking at a movie, let’s switch it up and talk about an actor. Charles Laughton was a British actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1930s and 40s) who lasted into the 1960s. In most cases this was fairly rare. And that is because most of those actors back then were movie stars who depended on good looks to bring in the audience. Once they hit forty parts started drying up. Not Laughton though. He resembled, and as he got older, more and more closely resembled, a toad. Because of this he never depended on his looks to garner success. He was a truly versatile and skillful actor. As I’ve stated recently we are inside the month-long pre-Oscar movie festival on TCM. Many old classics are being shown daily. Over the weekend I watched two Laughton movies in one day. In the morning I watched him in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” and that night I watched him in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The only thing that King Henry and Captain Bligh have in common is that they were both English. The characterizations, appearances and mannerisms are worlds apart. And yet both characters are memorable and believable. And the same can be said for the multitude of characters he played over the years. He was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, an American senator in the Cold War era, the Roman senator Cicero, an English barrister, the Emperor Claudius, a British butler in the old Wild West, Captain Kidd the pirate, a hobo, a ghost, a henpecked husband who murders his wife and even a horror movie mad scientist. His versatility allowed him to create entertaining characters in a comedy, drama, tragedy, history or any combination of the above. In fact, it was sometimes the case that a poor movie would still be worth watching just to see Laughton do his stuff. Laughton movies that I have enjoyed for at least his efforts include:
1) Mutiny on the Bounty (highly recommended)
2) Witness for the Prosecution (highly recommended)
3) Advise and Consent
4) The Private Life of Henry VIII
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
6) Ruggles of Red Rock (a very silly but enjoyable comedy)
8) The Canterville Ghost (a WWII comedy)
9) Island of Lost Souls (an early horror movie)