Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable): But the prisoner is dead, sir!

Capt. William Bligh (Charles Laughton): Never mind. Continue with the punishment!

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the reason why movies in the '30s and '40s were so good is because so many were based on classic stories.

Sometimes the recent original stories on which movies are based are pretty good, but, in my experience, most are not. If reliably quality storytelling is what you want, you can't go wrong with the classics — the stories by Shakespeare or Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson or Charles Dickens. It isn't a foolproof system, of course. It is possible to mess those stories up, but you really have to work at it.

Director Frank Lloyd's "Mutiny on the Bounty" was such a story although it was not really a classic. There have always been questions about the accuracy of the story, but that is not the fault of the movie. It is the inevitable fault of a novel about certain facts, not a report about the facts themselves. Consequently, the fault lies with Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who published the novel in 1932.

While the novel may not have been written in another century, the movie on which it was based took home Best Picture, beating several movies that were based on stories that were at least a century older than "Mutiny on the Bounty""David Copperfield," "Les Misérables," "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

But the movie won no other Oscars, even though it was nominated for several, and that is an extremely rare occurrence for a Best Picture. One would think, even in those early days of filmmaking, that the Best Picture of the year would also stand out in some other way — for its acting or its editing or its music, something. And, in fact, that was the last time — to date — that the Best Picture took home no other awards.

The movie's three stars — Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone — were all nominated for Best Actor and lost to Victor McLaglen for "The Informer." I've never seen "The Informer" so I don't know if McLaglen's performance really was better, but my guess is that Laughton, Gable and Tone wound up canceling each other out.

That's only speculation, of course, and a rather obvious conclusion, I think. It's much harder to figure out the reasons for the other Oscar losses.

Modern conventional wisdom holds that the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars usually go to the same movie, but John Ford ("The Informer"), not Lloyd, won Best Director. "Mutiny on the Bounty" lost Best Adapted Screenplay, again to "The Informer." It lost Best Score to guess who? Right. "The Informer."

(Maybe I ought to see "The Informer.")

It also lost Best Film Editing — this time to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

As I say, there were questions about the accuracy of the story, but it was a novel, not a work of nonfiction. Poetic license was taken, much of it, apparently, at the expense of Capt. Bligh, who was portrayed as a callous fiend, calling for the continued flogging of a prisoner who was already dead. Certainly, Capt. Bligh is an effective villain. The American Film Institute named the character the 19th–best movie villain of all time. AFI didn't say which film portrayal — Laughton's or Trevor Howard's 27 years later — was the best, and I haven't seen the movie that was showing at theaters in 1962, but it would be hard to beat Laughton's performance. It's good material, a juicy role, but it's not entirely true.

There were other things like that in the movie. Apparently much of Bligh's treatment of his men in the movie and book simply doesn't find support in the historical record.

So, while Laughton's performance was great as always, it wasn't necessarily true to life.

There was an HMS Bounty, and there was a mutiny aboard the Bounty in the late 18th century.

But anyone who is researching the event for a term paper or something should look elsewhere for the facts.