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And The WInner  Is - a dive into the story behind every film to win Best Picture
  • L Alan Reitano

AND THE WINNER IS... MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

HISTORICAL FICTION

Mutiny On the Bounty, , from 1935, is the 8th film to win Best Picture.


The film, headed up by Scottish director Frank Lloyd, who also won Best Director for Cavalcade, in 1933 and The Divine Lady, in 1929. Mutiny On The Bounty was also produced by Lloyd, along side MGM creative head - Irving Thalberg.


It was considered - at the time - one of the most important films since the invention of talking pictures.

THE NOVEL


Charles Laughton – had always been interested in the story, and bought the book rights to the 1932 novel by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall. He took them to MGM who agreed to produce the film – for $1.9 million. It was a good decision. Mutiny On The Bounty, did a global box office of $4.46 million – and turned a profit of $909,000.


FRANK LLOYD

Frank Lloyd

Director Frank Lloyd always loved the sea. His father worked installing ship engines, before an accident forced his retirement. Lloyd acted in, or directed, at least ten films about the sea, including Captain Kidd, and Sea Hawk. Frank Lloyd, started out as an actor on the British stage. He began directing silent films in 1917. His first Best Picture was Cavalcade, (1933) followed by Mutiny On The Bounty, in 1935. He also won Best Director for The Divine Lady, (1929). Frank Lloyd was a founder of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.


In making Mutiny On The Bounty, Lloyd considered the ship Bounty to be her own character in the film. Using plans from the Admiralty art director Cedric Gibbons, built a replica of the ship in L.A. harbor. The replica ship actually sailed to Tahiti for filming.

SETS & LOCATIONS


Part of the film was shot in Tahiti and French Polynesia, but most scenes were shot off the coast of California. After returning from Tahiti, the crew discovered their footage was spoiled, and all had to sail back to the south pacific and re-shoot. Several native huts were constructed on Catalina Island, as well as the Portsmouth, and London street sets. According to Lloyds granddaughter, Tonia Guerrero, Mutiny On The Bounty was the first major film to record a storm at sea,


There was at least one tragedy on set - when Glenn Strong, a cameraman attempting to save a camera on a foundering barge drowned, moments after shooting the scene where Franchot Tone’s character Byam climbs the mast in a storm.

THE CAST


The film starred Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, and Franchot Tone as the fictional Roger Byam. It also had uncredited roles by youngsters, James Cagney, David Niven and Dick Haymes who appeared as extras. Cagney was reportedly sailing near Catalina Island where the crew was shooting, when he called up Lloyd and asked if he had any work. Lloyd put him in a sailor suit and stuck him among the extras. Actresses Marion Davies and Joan Crawford - who were filming another film on Catalina Island – dressed as natives & appeared as extras in Mutiny On The Bounty, as a lark.

CHARLES LAUGHTON

Charles Laughton was married to Elsa Lancaster, though it was widely known he was bisexual. Laughton is best known for his role in Mutiny On The Bounty, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


During an interview with satirist and playwright George S. Kaufman – Laughton claimed to be so good in seafaring roles, because he came from a long line of sailors. Kaufman - without missing a beat - quipped, that he must also come from a long line of hunchbacks as well, since he was so good in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Charles Laughton was self-conscious about his appearance, especially in relation to Clark Gable. It’s likely that the real-life inferiority complex helped with his performance of Bligh. Thalberg is believed to have cast Gable opposite Laughton – in hopes they would hate each other. It likely worked. The actors rarely make eye contact on screen. Laughton insisted on using the Gieves Company, in London - the tailor who had dressed the real Captain Bligh. They still had Bligh’s measurements on file, and Laughton lost more than fifty pounds to fit into the uniform. It’s said he wore Bligh’s actual hat. The thickeyebrows he donned for the role, were inspired by those of Frank Lloyd.

FRANCHOT TONE

Franchot Tone was cast as Midshipman Roger Byam. Cary Grant had lobbied for the role, but lost out to Tone.


Tone is best known for appearing opposite Constance Bennet in Moulin Rouge, and opposite Bette Davis in Dangerous. Tone also appeared in, and directed, dozens of live television shows in the early days of the medium. Tone was married to Joan Crawford in the 30s. A lifelong chain smoker, Franchot Tone died of lung cancer in 1968.

THE FICTIONAL ROGER BYAM


Franchot Tone’s character Roger Byam – was based on Midshipman Peter Heywood. Heywood was captured on Tahiti along with 14 other mutineers, and court-martialed aboard the HMS Duke, in Portsmouth Harbor. On the journey home, they were kept in a makeshift jail on the ship Pandora’s quarterdeck. It was dubbed Pandora’s box. At trial Heywood and five others were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Heywood – reportedly from a wealthy background – was pardoned and returned to service. The press made hay from the fact that some of the mutineers bought their way out of execution - while those less fortunate were hanged. Reports of Heywood’s financial fortune were not true – but there still seems to have been some benefit to being of the proper class.


The pardon and promotion of Heywood, was seen as a public rebuke of Bligh’s command. Heywood undertook a defense of the actions of Fletcher Christian. He published an appendix to the court martial proceedings that justified some of the actions of Christian and the mutineers, and incriminated Bligh. Bligh rebutted the allegations against him, but William Peckvover, who had been loyal to Bligh, confirmed the allegations in the appendix of Heywood's rebuke.

CLARK GABLE

Clark Gable

Clark Gable was born in Ohio in 1901. In the early 1920s Gable worked for his father as a wildcatter in the Oklahoma oil fields. His career in film started as an extra in several Erich von Stroheim films, as early as 1924. His first big role was for Pathe’ in The Painted Desert, 1931. Darryl F. Zanuck said “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape,” after seeing Gable’s test footage. After a couple of good showings in supporting roles - MGM publicity began marketing Gable as “a lumberjack in evening clothes." It made Gable a star. Gable wasn’t happy about shaving his iconic mustache fro the role of Fletcher Christian, but in a rare attempt at historical accuracy for the film – he agreed to do so. The Royal Navy required all sailors to be clean shaven in the 18th century.

THE SCREENPLAY

The screenplay was adapted by Jules Furthman, Talbot Jennings and Carey Wilson, who were nominated for Best Screenplay. None of them ever won – but Wilson was one of the thirty-six founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He may not have won an Oscar® but he was – at least partially - responsible for their existence.


The story the writers concocted, follows the ship Bounty, under the command of Captain Bligh, and plays out as a class struggle from the outset. The opening scene shows civilians dragooned into a two-year service aboard ship – with no option to refuse. Bligh – as played by Charles Laughton – is a cruel, ruthless dictator, who would happily let his sailors die – to prove his power, and cover up his own malfeasance. In this telling Fletcher Christian tries to ameliorate the cruelty – but finally gives in and takes control of the ship. Not to spoil the plot - but the film is called Mutiny On The Bounty.


After setting Bligh and 18 crewmen adrift in a small boat, the mutineers escaped back to Tahati – and then on to Pitcairn island. Where they salvaged what they could from the ship, then burned the hull so they wouldn’t be spotted by British sailors.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY

The story, while good as a film, is full of historical inaccuracies. In historical accounts, Bligh wasn’t the sadistic tyrant portrayed in the film – a portrayal that included killing a crewman by keelhauling, flogging a dead man, (not a euphemism), and locking several innocent crewmen in irons, starving his crew, and stealing their rations for himself. None of these things actually happened.


Accounts record Bligh as ill tempered, imperious and exacting, but not anywhere near the bully portrayed in the film. Bligh kept a meticulous logbook – even after being cast away in a small boat, and it appears his rate of punishment was lower than average in the British navy at the time.


The number of deaths during the voyage were exaggerated in the film as well. In fact, there were only two fatalities on the cruise – one from a respiratory illness, and the ships doctor who died of alcohol related disease.

A 2003 article called Scrutiny on the Bounty, in the "The Atlantic Magazine" - throws further light on the historical account.


  • Bligh in his log book recounts - Fletcher Christian having sex with the 12-year-old daughter of the island’s High Priest on March 15, 1789.

  • On April 24th he records a native female stowaway, the fourth so far. They’d kept her in a locker.

  • Far from starving his crew – Bligh lists a menu of Dolphin and Shark, with a lime-cilantro reduction, julienned mangoes, and mashed wasabi. (His own recipe) – after a nice swim to cool off.

  • It also seems that Bligh left of his own accord – saying “I shall no longer trouble you with my presence aboard this vessel.”

PITCARIN ISLAND


Pitcairn became a British colony in 1838, but when the Pitcairn settlement was re-discovered in 1808 – only one of the mutineers was still alive. The others had died from alcoholism, disease, and violent conflict over women.


In 2004 a sexual assault scandal resulted in charges against six men – accounting for a third of the male population of Pitcairn. Most - including Steve Christian, the island’s mayor – were convicted of sexual encounters with children.


Today Pitcairn Island is inhabited by a bi-racial population descended from the Bounty mutineers, and a handful of Tahitian women. As of 2020 there are only 47 permanent residents. They still carry the surnames of the mutineers, and are the least populous nation in the world. Electricity - from diesel generators - only runs from 7am to 10pm.

THE REAL MUTINY

William Bligh’s description of events claims that before dawn on April 28 - Christian, and three others seized him from his bed - and tied his hands behind his back. They dragged him – naked from the waist down onto the deck.


Bligh - and some loyal officers - were given supplies, including 20 gallons of water and 150 pounds of bread. They also had tools and a compass. Bligh later wrote a book about the journey – devoting only eight pages to the mutiny and rest to the voyage and the launch.

Bligh’s journey along with the 18 crewmen in that small boat, had to traverse 3600 miles - an amazing feat of seamanship. Bligh’s log book shows he made it back to Portsmouth in 1790, and was given another command.

THE SHIP

HMS Bounty - c. 1790

The remains of the Bounty were discovered by Luis Marden in 1957, in the waters of Pitcairn Island. In 2012 a reconstruction of the Bounty sank off the coast of North Carolina, during hurricane Sandy. Coast Guard Search and Rescue never found the captain Robin Walbridge who was presumed dead. They did recover Claudene Christian, a descendant of Fletcher Christian, who was unresponsive, and pronounced dead at a North Carolina hospital.


FILM REMAKES & SEQUELS


There was an announced, but never realized 1945 sequel; a 1962 technicolor extravaganza, starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard; and finally a 1984 film called The Bounty, based on British historian Richard Hough.


The 1984 version is thought to be the most historically accurate.


Cartoonist Fritz Frielang did an animated parody called “Mutiny on the Bunny.”

LEGACY


The opening title card of the film suggests that events on the Bounty – were responsible for a new discipline in the British Navy based on mutual respect between officers and men.

Mutiny On The Bounty, was nominated for six Academy Awards – including three Best Actor nominations for Laughton, Gable, and Franchot Tone. None of them won, and no other film has received three Best Actor nods.


Mutiny On The Bounty, only secured the statue for Best Picture. It’s, so far, the last, and one of only three films to win Best Picture, and no other Academy Awards®. The others were The Broadway Melody, and Grand Hotel.


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