Saturday, October 13, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Mutiny Madness!

Rollicking seafaring adventures never seem to go out of style, if the success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy is any indication (or “Master and Commander” somewhat less recently; 2003). It’s hard not to get caught up in the chaotic panic of a thrashing oceanic storm or the bravado of a swashbuckling pirate raid or the claustrophobic tension of a submarine mission. However, one of my favorite elements found occasionally in the wave-scaling genre is one that is one less-often addressed (almost as rare as its real life counterpart): Mutiny.

Mutiny has a great deal of appeal both as plot element and theme. Who doesn’t like the vicarious bucking of authority and upsetting of petrified power structures. Today’s Iceberg Arena will pit two mutinous crews against each other, both heralding from acknowledged classics of the studio era. The contenders are “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) and “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).

Mutiny on the Bounty:

“Mutiny on the Bounty” is based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (in turn based on the real-life 1789 incident), which has seen other adaptations both before and after this one. I can’t claim to have seen them all, but the 1935 Frank Lloyd version has remained a popular favorite if not a particularly accurate retelling of the tale.

The always-dashing Clark Gable plays Fletcher Christian, the first mate aboard the H.M.S. Bounty sailing from England to Tahiti. Gable and the crew suffer under the totalitarian regime of Captain William Bligh, an extremely capable if sadistic taskmaster. Bligh’s excessive punishments result in the death of at least one sailor and morale drops below sea-level. Arrival at the tropical island provides some relief from the seething tension, but also gives the men a taste of contentment, relaxation and even love. When the barked orders and snapping whips resume, it isn’t long before the last straw breaks and a ship-side civil war breaks out. Christian and his primarily low-ranking cohorts successfully overcome Bligh and his surprisingly numerous supporters. Christian returns to his island paradise and leaves Bligh and his buddies in a small sailboat with a bare minimum of supplies. Undaunted, but against all odds, the revenge-driven captain sets about the 3000+ mile trip back to England to secure a new vessel and a means to destroy Christian for good.

Director Lloyd gets in all the action and adventure you could want, with a snappy pacing that manages to draw attention to the arduous stretches of endless sea travel without lashing the audience to the drudgery and repetition actually involved. The story is thankfully divided into several phases: the outbound journey, the island, the mutiny, Bligh’s return and so on. The script smartly keeps a tight character focus, with a convincing friendship developed between Fletcher Christian and Roger Byam. Byam (played by Franchot Tone) is a midshipman who sides with Bligh as a matter of honor and patriotism despite his frank revulsion for the captain’s methods. For his trouble, he still ends up on trial, in a scene that neatly transfers the sense of gross injustice from the ship to the courtroom.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” plays fast and loose with historical facts and thus often finds itself dealing with caricatures where more interesting realities could have been useful. Charles Laughton’s performance as Bligh is vintage villainous hyperbole and swells with a transcendent megalomaniac evil that is sure to get every viewer outraged. However the character is a bit too Dickensian, with his one loudly declared trait emphasized at the expense of any other development. He is finally vindicated by his bravery, authority and shipsmanship (if I may make up a funny-sounding term) in his daring cross-ocean return to England, but where was the evidence of those positive attributes earlier? Ultimately we are also left with little clue into his personal life or private thoughts and he seems occasionally blind and obtuse beyond belief.

Other minor characters likewise suffer from the bold swath-stroke screenwriting. The painfully sexist island girls, for instance, are male-idealized into exotic fantasies of long hair, big smiles and chipper servility. Why don’t they ever mutiny from having to fetch coconut cocktails and dance in uncomfortable outfits for their male imperialists? Then again, Clark Gable’s gentlemanly crew of good-hearted, hard-working chaps are hardly the prison-drafted thugs and rapists of the real life case. A happy-go-lucky drunken doctor stereotype is the only evidence of alcohol (and that is only as eye-winking guilty pleasure confined to a small hip flask). No evidence of debauchery, crime, deprivation or tropical illness taints the Bounty. Perhaps that’s why the historically inaccurate euphoric ending sits so uneasily.

The Caine Mutiny:

“The Caine Mutiny” (1954) is slightly milder on the action-adventure, but sturdier on the characters and realism. It too is a literary adaptation, but comes from the entirely fictitious novel by Herman Wouk. The nominal protagonist is Ensign Willie Keith (a somewhat dull Robert Francis), a preppy, sheltered young man newly assigned to the titular disorderly minesweeper. The setup could almost belong to a wacky comedy, but the entrance of a new captain, Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart in an against-type authority role), sobers up the ship’s disparate slackers.

Queeg is a stickler for neatness and the chain of command, but gradually comes to exude the distorted perspective of a mentally unstable man. Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray) is the first to suggest that Queeg might be a paranoid schizophrenic. His diagnosis is based on a variety of observations from nitpicky (he fidgets with a pair of metal balls), to suspicious (his ruthless perfectionism and willingness to lie to protect himself) to convincing (his desperate late-night manhunt for imagined strawberry thieves). A series of cowardly and incompetent command decisions finally puts Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) in the unenviable position of relieving his commanding officer of duty. After the ordeal, everyone who was on deck at the time is put on trial.

The courtroom drama is handled with much more interest than the scene in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” with director Edward Dmytryk treating it as a self-contained story in its own right. As for the earlier (and longer) scenes aboard the Caine, they are certainly more tame and at times more mundane than life on the Bounty. However the subtler angle works for “The Caine Mutiny,” especially the way we see Keefer grow and mature in a smoothly invisible continuum and the way Queeg’s mental illness is handled with dignity and care. Bogart’s performance isn’t nearly as spellbinding or iconic as Laughtons, but it is more nuanced and layered. The restraint in depicting mental illness is ahead of its time and I can imagine viewers in the 1950’s disagreeing with the protagonists that anything was seriously wrong with Queeg other than poor decision-making.

Bogart’s acting is great, but Fred MacMurray steals the show as the lieutenant who introduces the doubts that lead to mutiny. His character is a cynical, intellectual would-be writer who isn’t happy under any captain, but least of all one he feels totally superior to. Ultimately he is as much a coward as his target, and his lack of deeper honor or integrity goes from being charismatic to vile. Jose Ferrer gives another top-notch performance as the sharp, world-weary lawyer in defense of the mutineers. Ferrer and MacMurray team up in the unexpected coda to deliver a powerful scene that complicates the otherwise happy ending.

Robert Francis and Van Johnson are both less interesting characters, who play (perhaps necessarily) a pair of fairly typical navy everymen. Francis’s protagonist is a little too blandly handsome with his shirts always starched, his buttons perpetually polishes and his laces ever straight. His romantic subplot is somewhat tacked on as a scale by which to measure his maturity and doesn’t really get (or deserve) much attention. One could successfully argue that Keefer’s average-Joe role is needed as a perspective through which to view the more eccentric performances, but I think he could have been more interesting.


Both films are shot in typical Hollywood style without much visual panache or virtuosity. The emphasis is on the plot and if we don’t notice what the man behind the camera is doing, all the better. The effects are about equivalent in both movies for their respective eras. They use detailed models for the storm scenes which seem a bit impressive for 1935 and a bit dated for 1954. The use of stock footage for some of the sea battles in “The Caine Mutiny” may have been a wise choice for realism, but the failure to color balance or clean up the older prints makes them distractingly jarring. The music, like the cinematography, is also of little note although I fancied Max Steiner’s score for “The Caine Mutiny” was slightly preferable.

Dmytryk and Lloyd are both directors who knew their trade, and kept the audience in mind when it came to maintaining momentum. The editing is smart on both films and despite some dragging in the center of both pictures, there is a sense of a three-hour movie packed tightly into the 130 minute range. These are two classic of the Hollywood mode (perhaps not of the highest tier) with wide-appeal and high entertainment value and free of guilt due to the literary tradition and solid acting.

With the competition so close, picking a victor is somewhat arbitrary. I’ve been waffling back and forth but I think I’m going to have to give my vote to “The Caine Mutiny.” The Bogart-MacMurray-Ferrer combination and the more mental, rather than physical, nature of the central conflict are the clinchers.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am unfairly biased toward liking heroic and beefcake-ful Clark Gable and thus Mutiny on the Bounty better.

I probably would have seen it earlier had I know what a hottie he would be in it. That HAIR!