Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Flame That Could Burn More Brightly

Having consumed a dozen or so books on Nelson, along with all of the C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower’s and Patrick O’Brian’s naval adventures, it would be fairly impossible for me to not take some measure of enjoyment from That Hamilton Woman, a 1941 film depicting the outrageous love affair between the aforementioned admiral and what was perhaps the most scandalous and beautiful woman of her day.


Winston Churchill, himself no stranger to history, reportedly watched this film close to 100 times, an odd piece of trivia I still am trying to compute and reach a conclusion about. My difficulty lies in how That Hamilton Woman is something of mixed bag. Stuck between wanting to be a historical romance and a propaganda piece that browbeats audiences into seeing parallels between Britain’s 19th century struggle against Napoleon and its 20th century conflict with Axis Germany, director Alexander Korda is forced to make several tough choices as he attempts to juggle these contrary agendas.

Some of Korda’s decisions are right. The film wisely stays away from trying to be a naval epic dependent on scale models floating in the back-lot pool thrashing each other to pieces (save for the final scene, depicting Trafalgar – and doing a fair job of it). It mostly focuses on Lady Emma Hamilton, the sometimes wife of the British ambassador to Naples, Emma’s husband (Sir William) and Nelson himself. A few other characters come and go (Nelson’s dour wife among them), but the drama here is the love triangle, and it is rightfully given most of the screen time.

A mini-Trafalgar that ages quite well...

What is missing is some meaningful depiction of context and passion between the three leads, two of which are stoic enough to be considered statuary.

The Napoleonic wars are explained by Sir William Hamilton casually spinning a globe in his study, pointing to countries as if what is happening is little more than a game of Risk (and maybe it was to such aristocrats?). Shipboard life in Royal Navy is entirely absent from the film, as is Nelson’s and Emma’s courtship via letters, many of which survive to this day and could have been quoted in voiceovers. The complicated political interests of the major European powers, Napoleon’s successes and failures (and what they meant to people in Europe other than Napoleon) are conspicuously jettisoned in favor of an England is “good” and Napoleon is “bad” motif – a position my prejudices allow me to accept, only the manner of spoon-feeding here is so blatant and obvious that I found myself irritated with it. 

The British people of 1941 (when the film was released) – to say nothing of contemporary audiences – probably are not interested in a history lesson, but a little less talking and a little more "showing" would have gone a long way in a film that often feels like a stage play with cameras turned on (balconies and bedrooms, a friend once quipped about this film, referring to the setting of many of the scenes).

Too often the film is lost in opulence
As if this were not enough, we have Laurence Olivier as Nelson. 

Like everyone else, I suppose I respect Olivier as an actor because it is conventional to do so, but I cannot help but feel that his performances grow more bizarre the further history advances from them. In all the pictures I have seen with him, he seems completely unaware that movies are more than plays being captured on film and screen-acting is more than bellowing out lines in as clear and pronounced an educated British accent as possible. Here I am forced to remind myself that overacting – or stage-acting – was vogue in the 1940s. Or was it? This film was released the same year Citizen Kane was, and there simply is no comparing the performance of the male lead in that picture to Olivier’s in That Hamilton Woman. They are worlds apart – and not in any way that reflects well on Olivier.

In addition to his questionable overall method, Olivier just completely misplayed Nelson, too.

The real Nelson was a vainglorious man who decided early in life to be a hero (he wrote this in his own journal) and methodically plotted how to make this happen. Along the way, he was insubordinate to commanders, disdainful of aristocracy (even as he yearned to join it) and routinely irritated that his genius was never properly recognized by his royal betters. He often referred to himself in the third person, was prone to ridiculous hyperbole (this is why he is so quotable) and had a notoriously short temper. At the same time, he was brave beyond belief, his loyalty to his comrades knew no bounds and the care and attention he paid to his subordinates was both genuine and heartfelt. He was instinctually patriotic and believed in service to King and Country, honor, dignity and doing one's duty -- no matter the cost.


Lord Nelson, bedecked in triumphs
In short, Nelson was a narcissistic and complicated person who nonetheless was a peerless leader with a tactical brilliance and an ability to inspire those around him. This made him an incredible military commander, a man other men would gladly die for. When Nelson himself died, common sailors who spent years before the mast, the hard men who survived on menial diets of beef and rum and were constantly beaten or threatened with beatings, cried like babies – and the vast majority of them had never even glanced at Nelson, let alone spoken to him.
Olivier looks the part, but fails to do much else...
I mention this only to illustrate how strange it is to watch Olivier creep through That Hamilton Woman like a hunchback who is afraid what other people will think of his deformities (Nelson loses an arm and an eye, off-screen). Neither Nelson’s vanity, which persisted even after his injuries, nor his lust for battle is ever on display. Indeed, Oliver paints the admiral as a kind of reluctant warrior, one pulled from his plow kikcing and screaming (the real Nelson lived for fighting). Olivier’s Nelson is a kind of Phantom of the Opera, in that we could easily imagine him more at home in dungeon, making music for his ears alone. And this important for more than historical accuracy’s sake. . .


The real Emma Hamilton was a prima donna (in every sense of the word) who fell in love with Nelson precisely because he was a hero and behaved like one. She could have had almost any man she wanted, but she chose Nelson because he was famous, he wore a bedazzled uniform everywhere he went (his appearance compared by some to a “peacock”) and generally was the life of whatever party he attended (though he was never a dilettante). In the film, it is somewhat impossible to fathom why Vivien Leigh’s Emma Hamilton falls in love with Oliver’s stoic and shy Nelson. Their courtship feels convenient and distinctly cool and passionless. That is a problem for any film aspiring to romance, and it is an even bigger problem for a picture asking its audience to accept the premise that the couple is pursuing their affair at the risk of everything they hold dear.

I have been told, however, that I missed what is indeed a tempestous courtship by mistakenly looking for real people where there are only actors.

Along this line of thinking, Leigh's Hamilton is clearly locked in a marriage devoid of anything but wealth, and when she meets Nelson he is young and handsome, with boy-like charm and a commanding position in the Navy. She's intrigued and hot in her hoop skirt for him, and he's a long way away from a depressing wife who is looking after an even more depressing father. Distance plays a part (indeed, Nelson is famous for quipping that every man is a bachelor once he rounds Gibralter), but the affair really hinges on circumstance, availability and the obvious opportunity (for both Emma and Nelson) to engage in some passion completely unavailable to them in their other lives.

This is the film's beating heart and you either buy it -- or you don't...

Are they believable as illicit lovers?
Still, for all these gripes, there is something charming about the movie. It has grandeur – cold sometimes, but grand nonetheless – that seems to have evaporated from contemporary romance pictures, focused on today’s “everyman” and “everywoman” as they are. I suspect the grandeur works precisely because it is true-to-life and not the invention of the screenwriter. There is nothing worse than the invented princess; although ignoble by birth, Nelson and Emma were as close to the proverbial fairytale as anything else history has to offer. That the pair are swept up in world-changing events greater than themselves also stands in stark contrast to today’s romances on screen, wherein the main conflicts center around much more mundane exterior conflicts (will his/her parent’s like me?). 

In the end, Leigh’s boisterous and energetic performance more than makes up for Olivier’s odd sulking, and the script is competent and clever in all the right places, despite its intentional limitations and book-report feel. When watching this, one is often overcome with the "they don't make 'em like they used to" nostalgia. And there is nothing wrong with that. Movies are supposed to make people happy, aren't they?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Love Affair with Black and White

I recently told a friend that I have come to appreciate film noirs above and beyond their peers in classic cinema. Pressed by this acquaintance for a definition that helped explain what was – and what was not – film noir, I found myself unable to articulate anything other than a disparate list of movie titles, which at first glance, had little in common ... other than lots of people smoking...

Life before smoking bans
As it turns out, I am not the only who has trouble defining the genre.

Film critics, art historians and various other media types have argued about what film noir is and which films are considered examples of the genre for quite some time. I do not believe I can propose a solution to their disagreements here, but I can talk about some of the less controversial aspects of noir and explain why I love it so much.

The aesthetics of film noir are perhaps its most distinguishable feature.


“When I think of film noir,” Paul Duncan writes, “I think of stillness and silence. I think of a pure black screen with tiny pinpricks of white trying to break through.” Film noirs tend to be black and white pictures made between 1940 and 1960, whose lighting was intentionally engineered to create contrasts as sharp as the moral entanglements present in the plots. I say tend to, because as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown illustrates, noir still had legs as late as the 1970s, and it works in color (for more recent examples of noir, keep reading).

Since we cannot rely entirely on time period and aesthetics, I propose the best way to identify noir is to pay attention to several common themes. More specifically, noir films are about trust and betrayal. Oftentimes, the protagonist is a male (private eye, cop, journalist, spy, criminal, etc.) and he must choose between two women – one beautiful and damned, the other plain and honest. The beautiful woman is the femme fatale, and like the mythological sirens of the ancient world, ruination lies at the end of paying her the slightest bit of attention.

Choices, Choices...
Noirs delve deeply into the psychology of the characters. Nearly everyone in a noir film is obsessed with something (typically money, sex or power) and many times their egos, fears or weakness are the critical components the plot hinges on (see Jimmy’s Stewart behavior in Vertigo). Noirs also portray the disturbing chasms between the theory of society and its practice. These films are chock full of public corruption, perversions of authority and the endless struggle of the one man against a social construct, such as his family, his government or his environment.

Other times it is some facet of the America dream itself that is the film’s catalyst. Or as Ann Douglas puts it, “noir is premised on the audience’s need to see failure risked, courted, and sometimes won; the American dream becomes a nightmare, one strangely more seductive and euphoric than the optimism it repudiates… Noir provided losing with a mystique.”

Prominent examples (not to be missed) of the genre include:

Double Indemnity (Reviewed here)
Touch of Evil
The Third Man (Reviewed here)
The Big Sleep
The Maltese Falcon
Chinatown
Sunset Boulevard

And since we are talking about a genre as a whole, I feel it is okay to step outside the usual writ of this blog and offer some contemporary examples of film noir, too. The genre is alive and well, even if its best days may be behind it. My hope is that after watching a few of the more recent films (most of which I am sure people will have seen), readers will then go back to the true classics.


Basic Instinct – This controversial – some would say notorious – film is absolutely awash in noir elements. Michael Douglas’s policeman character must navigate a treacherous world of lies and half-truths and choose between believing the good woman in his life or the bad woman (and the film muddles which woman is which). Throughout, Douglas’s obsessive/compulsive character continues to make bad decisions for rational reasons, adding to the sense that his character (who is already under a cloud of suspicion for a fatal shooting) is doomed. Did I mention Sharon Stone? Forget what you may or may not see in that scene and recognize that her character is the perfect embodiment of more than 50 years of femme fatales.   

Body Heat – This frank and lurid remake of Double Indemnity has more than enough original material to make it interesting, beginning with Kathleen Turner’s breakout performance as a woman bent on becoming rich the old fashioned way – by murdering someone. Body Heat is also a wonderful film to contrast to its source material, in that it works precisely because it has the kind of steamy sex scenes, remorseless violence and bawdy language unavailable to filmmakers in the 1940s. As a result, this film’s pair of doomed lovers is far more erotic and psychologically disturbed than their cinematic predecessors, even if they are less complicated and more obvious.
Even in today's neo-noir, light and shadow still matter.
Heat – Many would argue this is more of a straightforward heist film, but all the conflicts present in Michael Mann’s tour de force hinge on noir themes. Pacino and De Niro are presented as doppelgangers whose professional expertise and personal identities largely depend on each other. That one is good (a policeman) the other bad (a bank robber) does not separate the men from each other as much as their roles would suggest. Indeed, the pair strikes up something of a friendship, even as they are incapable of making their other social relationships work. Ultimately, Heat is as pessimistic and fatalistic as any classic noir. All the characters are incapable of escaping the channel they have chosen to swim within and when bad things begin to happen to them, the script responds with the genre’s typical “so what” attitude.

L.A. Confidential – Trust and betrayal are at the heart of this sprawling epic about corruption in post-war Los Angeles. This is a film in which every character is more than what they initially seem, every character openly wants something and they all are willing to elevate expediency over morality in order to get it. Most films struggle to depict a single character’s moral dilemma, but in this movie, every character has a dilemma and the audience gleefully watches as the film toys with individual motivations and preferences, and then gradually forces them all to collide on screen. Kim Basinger’s contrarian take on the femme fatale won her Oscar.

Sin City – A fairly obvious choice. This is film noir storytelling filtered through the comic book genre and then adapted back to the screen with a healthy dose of hyperbole. Visually, the film’s partial-animation takes Duncan’s aforementioned pinprick dichotomy of black and white to a whole new level, as characters and settings are literally reduced to the most basic interplay between light and shadow. A brief examination of the plots in the film reads like a laundry list of noir tropes. Not to be missed for those capable of delighting in tongue-in-cheek moviemaking.


The Big Lebowski – How could this be included? A few years ago, I might have asked the same question. It took multiple viewings, all of which were enjoyable, before I finally began to figure this picture out. It is, I believe now, a quirky homage to – or perhaps even a parody of – noir classics like The Big Sleep. If you do not believe me, look at the title. If you still do not believe me, take a deep breath and then consider how the plot of Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece and the Coen brother’s movie can both be described thusly: An eccentric and wheelchair-bound man asks someone to track down a kidnap victim – only it turns out that this person really was never actually kidnapped in the first place. Now go and watch The Big Lebowski again, study its plot, taking note of its setting and its strange characters. Then consider how the action is filled with constant moral temptations and accept the movie as a new kind of noir, because that is what it is.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Most Dangerous Thing

Like fire, truth is often a deadly and indiscriminate thing. 

Difficult to control, once it is let loose it can burn the guilty and innocent alike, and in many cases, there is no stopping its warm proliferation until the thing itself gives up and dies on its own accord. These Pyrrhic attributes of truth, along with what people choose to do with it and how that decision impacts their lives, has never been depicted on film with as much accuracy, skill and gusto as in Elia Kazan's 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront.

Set among organized crime and corruption in a New York dockworkers union, the film masterfully juggles the destructive and rejuvenatory power of truth by following the complicated odyssey of Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer on the docks who is forced to deal with maze of complicated loyalties, conflicting emotions and moral choices that are all well beyond his intellectual and psychological means. 

It is an interesting twist, in the sense that the contemporary audience member is more accustomed to watching Mafia pictures from the perspective of the Mob. In those films, the drama lies in witnessing the depravity of the criminal mind and in exploring the crime world's compromised system of morals. In contrast, this picture forces the viewer to confront the moral dilemmas faced by the Mob's victims, all of whom are workingclass and interested in little more than making a living, staying alive and hanging on to their dignity through a social code of silence ("deaf and dumb"). Malloy and his coworkers, in other words, are all nobodies, they are "bums" trying to survive on the scraps their criminal masters leave for them. It is a depressingly powerful calculation on Kazan's part -- one that works even better today, post-Godfather and post-Sopranos, than it did in the 1950s world of post-Cagney films.

Marlon Brando is rightfully praised for his performance as Malloy. Brando could have played this part as a primitive palooka, veering between tenacity and confusion throughout the picture, and probably still achieved Kazan’s goal. Instead, he boldly portrays Malloy as a former bully who wakes up after several years to discover he is just another peon among the bullied (despite his older brother's connections to the Mafia running the union). This change in circumstance has left Malloy glum and unsure of himself, all of which Brando masterfully evokes with his deliberately slow and confused speech, his gloomy – at times, almost clownish – face and his timid movements.

Malloy's troubles begin when he is used by Mob boss Johnny Friendly to lure another union employee who has been speaking to the police to his death. Malloy tries to forget the incident, but his conscience will not let him (he is also resents being used, which reminds him of his fallen status). His inability to put the murder behind him becomes even more problematic when he meets Edie, the sister of the dead man (played to perfection by Eva Saint Marie, in her debut role).

Forced by an inquisitive Edie, who finds the contradictions bubbling beneath his surface persona to be both attractive and dangerous, Malloy confesses his philosophy of life is nothing more complicated than “Do it to him before he does it to you.” Edie correctly identifies this as the law of the jungle and she tells Malloy he is “living like an animal.” Unable to deny it, Malloy tries to derail Eddie’s troubling enquiry with beer and dancing, but his Epicurean attempts are foiled by a Mafioso toughie telling him he has to meet with Johnny Friendly and policemen stuffing a subpoena into his hand. 

Like it or not, Malloy has to face his choices. He cannot pretend they will go away. He cannot play the Longshoreman way and be “deaf and dumb” the way he has in the past. Events have conspired to hand Malloy the dangerous flame of truth, and he can either speak the truth – letting it loose, damn the consequences – or bury it deep inside, where it will smolder and eventually immolate him.

Malloy's choice is further complicated by Father Barry (played powerfully by Karl Malden).

Following the death of Edie's brother, Barry has had enough of the local thuggery, and he makes it his mission to aid the helpless and expose the corruption present in the union. Barry makes a bombastic appeal to truth and righteousness after another man who comes forward is killed, arguing that those who do not speak up are as guilty of the Savior’s death as those in crowd who boisterously shouted at the Roman Govenor to free Barabbas instead of a certain Jewish preacher from Nazareth. This sort of lofty appeal is lost on most of the Longshoremen and seems contrived more for the audience than anything else. (There are persistent rumors that Kazan made this film as an apology for naming names in the infamous HUAC committee hearings on communists in Hollywood, but Kazan always denied this).

What finally stirs the union from their self-imposed slumber is the sight of Malloy fighting it out on the docks with Johnny Friendly. When Malloy beats Friendly, the unassailable thug loses his infallibility. The union's respect for him is further eroded when the Mafia boss simply calls on his minions to beat up Malloy because he cannot. This offends the men’s sense of dignity, and they subsequently transfer their respect from Friendly to Malloy, the latter of whom has proven with his body that he is a man of principle and not a rat. In these terms, it is hard to read Malloy climbing back to his feet and staggering toward his jobsite as anything other than a kind of crude resurrection.

However, Malloy's motives for standing against the status quo and speaking the truth -- in court and in his everyday life -- are not entirely moral. Not for nothing do the police investigating the union try to push Malloy's buttons by mentioning his former boxing career. They can see he is unhappy with his fallen status and hope to provoke him by reminding him what he might have been had he not gotten mixed up in the rackets. Malloy's plea that he could have been a "contender" is often cited -- and parodied -- as one of the great lines of dialogue in classic film, but the most moving moment in this expertly crafted scene, packed full of raw emotion, comes when Malloy realizes that his brother Charlie -- and specifically Charlie's close ties to the Mob -- are what has derailed his life and made him a "bum."
Charlie's betrayal and ruthless manipulation of his brother is further brought home by the fact Charlie actually considers killing Malloy in order to keep Friendly happy. "It was you Charlie," Malloy sighs, realizing how his much blame his brother shoulders, how alone he is in the world and how powerful the corruption he faces truly is (for Friendly has nearly succeeded in turning brother against brother). Later, Malloy will want revenge for what Friendly does to Charlie, but at that moment, his grief and his resignation to how ugly the world can be is palpable, and as an audience, we truly feel for him.


This is why when Malloy says “I ain’t a bum” in the early-going of the film, the line comes across as the petulant and defensive cry of a child who wants something to be true, even though he knows it is not. At first, an equally defensive and inexperienced Malloy does not know what to do with the truth, but once he warms to the notion of using it for good (both personal and impersonal good), he becomes more human and loses his haunted and unsure look. Yes, he takes a beating, and much of what he cherishes is destroyed (his brother, his pigeons), but when he gets back on his feet, he is -- for the first time since he started taking dives in the ring -- something other than a bum, and it is the truth that delivers him to this new existence.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Life Among the Ruins

Film noir thrillers come and go, but not many seem as wonderfully bleak and overtly stylish as Carol Reed's The Third Man.
Part spy thriller, part mystery, this 1949 film delves deeply into the ugly side of humanity among the bombed-out grandeur of post-War Vienna and concludes that people can easily become grotesque and contorted versions of themselves if they are forced to exist in a rotten enough environment.
Indeed, the symbiosis between the film’s characters and its urban setting is both powerful and confusing. At no point are we certain if the people are altering the environment with their actions or allowing the environment to dictate their behavior – or some subtle combination of the two. What is clear is that Vienna operates in this picture as a kind of canvas, on which only the worst elements of humanity can thrive and excel.
A masterpiece of black and white photography, nearly every shot in this film is composed with striking angles and acute shapes, many of which are presented in a neo-expressionist fashion that recalls the intentional geometry of classic silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, seen below here.
The result is an empty and moody Vienna, one in which everything is warped and distorted and nothing at all is anything like safe and ordinary-looking.
The city also functions as a Pandora’s Box for protagonist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who arrives fresh-faced from America in search of a job with his old friend Harry Lime. When Martins learns Lime was struck by an automobile and killed just before his arrival, he suspects foul play. That he is na├»ve and incapable of comprehending the actual depravity associated with Lime’s death is masterfully illustrated through Martins’s interactions with Major Calloway, the British MP who investigated the fatal accident. Calloway forthrightly tells Martins to quit nosing around the Lime case and leave Vienna: “You don't know what you're mixing in,” Calloway chides.

Clearly, Martins is the stereotypical American who is not quite ready to deal in the harsh brutalities present in the larger world. When he finally learns the truth about Lime and what he has been up to in Vienna, he is shocked at the inhumanity of it all. Calloway, who has swum in these troubled waters before, is not.

By the film's end, Martins is more like Calloway, in that he becomes a compromised character willing to trade other people in the name of a ultimate end. In this Vienna, nothing else seems possible. The only difference in the people is the end they are aiming for -- everyone is using everyone else as a means for something, and in this environment friendship and fidelity are quickly sacrificed to expediency. Anna, Lime's one-time girlfriend is the only character who remains loyal, and at the end of the picture, she is a lonely figure, doomed to be re-patriated by the Soviets. Her loyalty bought her nothing, a result which forces the audience to ask if she might have been better off joining in the game of compromises, too.
This form cynical realism is further reinforced when Orson Welles (Lime) finally appears on-screen. Absent for most of the picture, the wait for Welles is well worth it. Not only does he outshine all of his cohorts, he also delivers the most important lines in the film. The speech given on the Ferris Wheel is rightly famous as one of the most sinister pieces of dialogue ever committed to film. What it lacks in moral sentiment, it makes up for with diabolical and coldly pragmatic logic:
“Victims?” Lime says, when Martins alludes to people who suffered from Lime’s tampering with morphine. “Don't be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots (the people on the ground below them) stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
Lime then lashes out against governments, claiming this is how they treat people, so why should he not do the same thing? Considering that we have seen the British and Soviets trading people like poker chips in the film (and are aware, as an audience, that the Cold War looms on the picture’s historical horizon), the argument feels powerful in its initial gusto.

What it lacks, however, is any moral consideration of perspective and intent. The black market – itself a distorted and unnatural part of capitalism – has thoroughly corrupted Lime by compelling him to limit his vision and actions to a sole actor – himself. Thus, Lime ends up alone, and after being chased through a sewer, he is killed by his oldest friend. That he becomes one of his own dots is the film's ultimate irony: The ominous and foreboding circular motion of the Ferris Wheel is complete.
However much he had it coming, Lime’s death still leaves us confused and unfulfilled, in that it feels like there is no justice or retribution present in the act (certainly Martins’ face seems confused about what the execution means). This is because the demise plays as little more than a sum to the equation Lime set in motion himself. The  confusion is simply testament to the film’s power to muddle morality, to stretch it and distort it and filter it through this post-war Vienna’s troubled prism. It is also a subtle verification to many of the uncomfortable ironies that makeup the history of civilization. Or as Lime puts it:
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Complicated Bounty of Mythmaking

We never seem to tire of stories about the 18th century ship known as the Bounty.

Sent in 1789 to Tahiti to transplant the breadfruit tree to the Caribbean, the crew mutinied against Captain William Bligh three weeks into the return journey and set him and 18 others adrift in 23-foot boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Bounty and most of its crew then landed at Pitcairn Island and lived out their natural lives there. Bligh made an incredible 41-day journey to Timor and then returned to England. He went on to fight with Nelson, survived another mutiny in Australia and died with pomp and circumstance as an admiral.


A man driven by professionalism and duty, Bligh would probably recoil if someone suggested during his lifetime that hundreds of years later his name would be synonymous with sadism and tyranny, and if the actual history of the Bounty’s mutiny is anything to go by, he would be within his rights to feel unjustly treated by the cabal of poets, authors and screenwriters who have chosen to elevate the plight of the ship’s mutineers at his expense. But dramatically speaking, Bligh never had a chance: Artists tend not to extol the virtues of authority and argue for its legitimacy.

Caroline Alexander wrote an excellent book dispelling many of the erroneous Bounty myths that have come down to us, including the fiction that Bligh was a heartless dictator, but the splash her lively and detailed scholarship made is nowhere near powerful enough to undo hundreds of years of ripe retellings and exaggerations. Sea stories are typically better when they are not true, but on this occasion, as anyone who has read her books knows, straying from the facts has coarsened the tale and made it less remarkable. Bligh’s open boat voyage is typically given short shrift, as is the incredible tale of the British ship that returned to Tahiti to round up some of the mutineers. What we are left with, then, is a rather exotic tale of good and evil, of one man’s tyranny (Bligh) and another man’s political descent into open rebellion (Fletcher Christian, Bligh’s 2nd in command). There is, at this point, a healthy body of literature repeating this dichotomy and at least five films that do the same.

Among this impressive corpus is the curiously uneven 1962 film starring Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian.
The role seems a natural one for Brando, who at this point in his career is still young and dangerous-looking and full of the kind of combustible energy that worked so well when directors pitted him against some sort of authority – oppressive or otherwise. The only problem here is that Brando is horribly miscast in the Christian role and he fails to deliver most of his lines with anything like the craftsmanship we expect from an actor of his caliber. A great deal of the problem lies in the accent he inexplicably verbalizes. There is a well-known joke in England that the upper classes speak as though they have plums in their mouths. Somebody must have told Brando this, because he spends most of the picture with his head cocked slightly backward, his eyebrows aloft with a kind of bemused arch as he conjures words through his nose.


To make matters worse, both Brando and the script presents Christian as a rich dandy, bored with pretty much everything life has to offer. When he first reports for duty, he is dressed in a preposterous costume and he struts across the deck with two well-heeled strumpets on his arm. At one critical point in the film, he appears in foppish pajamas smoking a pipe befitting a hobbit. At another, he is seen traipsing around the deck sketching while the rest of the men go about the business of sailing a ship halfway round the world.


Pressed by Bligh about his motivation, Christian confesses he serves His Majesty’s navy only because the army was “too dusty” and “one must do something.” Bligh, who is presented as clearly not of this kind of landed gentry, eventually accuses Christian of thinking he is better than everyone else and being incapable of any emotion but contempt, both of which ring true and hardly make Christian the likeable leader of truth and right the film desperately wants us to think he is.

Although it is woefully inaccurate, Howard’s portrayal of Bligh is far more interesting.

In the film, the real Bligh’s foul mouth and puritanical leanings are jettisoned in favor of showing him as the living incarnation of corrupted authority. Command is lonely and personally unsatisfying and the ability to terrorize other men its only reward. Christian accuses Bligh of beating the men because he enjoys it, but as an audience, I am not sure we see any overt sadism. Rather, Bligh beats his men from a misguided sense of duty. “Cruelty with purpose is not cruelty,” he tells Christian, “it’s efficiency.”


This chilling thought, which must run through the warped mind of every dictator who ever plagued his people, is further emboldened by the mistaken notion that the best way to entice men to achievement is through fear and intimidation. The irony, of course, is that Bligh finds the concept of fear so powerful because he himself is driven by it. The scene of Bligh surrounded by breadfruit trees in his cabin, mentally quaking at the thought of any one of them not living to see Jamaica, reveals that the Captain actually fears the Lords of the Admiralty, and that his mistaken notion of leadership is akin to passing this fear down the chain of command to the common hands (blame also works this way in this film, as Bligh never seems prepared to accept that he is ultimately responsible for his ship’s failures).

The catalyst that undoes the unhappy ship’s “efficiencies” is the island of Tahiti, which in every Bounty story is presented as a verdant paradise, full of beautiful and pliant women, plentiful food and, of course, a respite from scrubbing the deck with holystones or going aloft to trim sail. It is difficult for contemporary audiences to imagine what it must have been like to work day after day on a sailing vessel in cramped living conditions with bad food and harsh discipline. It is even harder to imagine what arrival at Tahiti must have been like, for today’s expensive island vacation destination was to the 18th century Englishmen probably akin to landing on the Moon, so different was Pacific tribal nation from everything he had ever known.


The exotic allure of Tahiti’s unusualness is captured quite well in Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s 1932 novel, but ignored almost entirely in this film. In its place, the complex dichotomy between conscription and freedom is explored more freely, as the sailors, led by a rebellious Richard Harris, begin to think unconsciously – and in crude terms – about their human rights.

There is something paradoxical and naive in the way all Bounty stories depict Tahiti as existing in a state of nature where the cruelty, violence and struggle for food and shelter conveniently do not exist. The trope of the noble savage is nothing new, of course, but I do not think it has ever been used more powerfully than in the Bounty stories, where the Europeans quite literally are entranced by an island culture at the same time they are abusing it and ruefully shaking their heads at its sheer backwardness.

Or maybe I am reading too much into all this? Remarking on how most of the Bounty men – save Bligh, of course – took wives and fathered children on Tahiti, a friend once quipped that the true theme of the Bounty stories is that men will do crazy things for love, which is really just a polite way of stating that men will do crazy things for sex.

Given this undeniable truth, what are we to make of the actual mutiny, then?

In the film, Christian claims he acted for honor. Later, he tries to compel the ship’s company to give up their notion of hiding on an uncharted Pacific island and return to England for the same reason. Given that honor is largely a personal matter, Christian’s role as emancipator seems complicated by these justifications and entreaties. Before he was put over the side, Bligh says “a little show of temper” is really what drove Christian to rebel – a point the novel also alludes to when it contends that Christian simply grew tired of being humiliated in front of the hands by his overbearing Captain.


Establishing Christian’s motivation is all important, because by the end of the film we are supposed to view him as some kind of hero. His protracted death scene, which finally sees Brando fulfill his talent’s promise (even if his speech runs on too long), offers an appeal to principles that attempts to redeem the mutiny on moral grounds. However, it is clear the crewmen do not view the mutiny as such, and indeed seem scornful of Christian and reluctant to endorse his worldview.

Our understanding is further complicated by the fact that the real Fletcher Christian was murdered by other mutineers, a victim of the forces of chaos he unleashed. I am not sure what lesson that leaves us with, but it is something quite different than the film, in which Christian is strangely aloof for a good two hours and then excessively lionized for a few moments before he dies. The uncertainty of anarchy and the inability of the actual mutineers to leave their former prejudices behind when they attempt to setup their own island paradise is precisely why it fails, but this problematic ending is typically untouched in most Bounty re-tellings.

Strictly speaking, Mutiny on the Bounty remains an impressive film. Its monstrous budget, which included a life-size replica of the Bounty and scenes filmed in Tahiti, ensured it is visually one of the most exciting sea-faring epics ever produced. Still, for all its fine craftsmanship, this film fails to capture the power of the actual Bounty story. It is muddled in setup, fumbled in execution and uncertain of its ultimate message, and powerful performances from Howard and Harris cannot mask Brando’s off-key and bewildering turn as Fletcher Christian.

Despite this, people should watch this film for its ambition. They should watch it for what it wants to be, not for what it is.