'Mutiny on the Bounty' is one of those oft-told tales that Hollywood loves to remake again and again. The classic novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall has been adapted for the screen three times: first in the notable 1935 version starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, and most recently a 1984 update toplining Anthony Hopkins and a pre-scandal Mel Gibson. In-between was this 1962 take by director Lewis Milestone ('The Front Page,' 'Anything Goes,' the original 'Ocean's Eleven'), and featuring Trevor Howard as the famous Captain William Bligh and a younger Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. It is certainly a intriguing and sometimes even daring take on a venerable morality play, if one that is not entirely successful.
The story should be familiar. Bligh embarks on a two-year mission to Tahiti, from 1797 to 1799, to obtain a thousand fruit trees, and then carry them to the West Indies to provide food for slaves on sugar plantations. Relying heavily on his first mate Christian to run a tight ship, the pair often resort to cruel means to keep order, including starvation and flogging the crew. After a brief respite in Tahiti, the the conditions become unbearable, and Christian, with the help of fellow seaman John Mills (Richard Harris) leads a covert mutiny against Bligh. Yet even with the ship overrun and Bligh cast to sea, a harsh fate may still await the the rebels of the Bounty when it returns ashore.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspects of the 1962 version of 'Bounty' are its two lead performances. Both Howard and Brando interpret their characters far differently than others before or since. Howard is surprising in his sexual ferocity, especially in a era when the Hayes Code was crumbling but still acted as a creative strait-jacket. His Bligh seems to delight not only in the hedonism of Tahiti, but almost writhes in sadomasochistic pleasure at all the whippings and keelhaulings. Brando's Christian feeds off all this sexual transgressions, with the actor's rather effeminate portrayal (complete with bizarre headgear) introducing a possible new dimension to the men's relationship. Unfortunately, Brando eventually overplays the mincing, to the point where the idea of this man as a Naval Officer in the first place seems hard to believe. But it's Brando, after all, and such subversive (for 1962) homoeroticism certainly does give the film's mutinous climax a charge lacking in any other other adaptation of the story.
Unfortunately, none of this really gels otherwise with Milestone's approach to the material. The film is unsuccessfully narrated by a botanist from Kew Gardens, William Brown (Richard Haydn), who is only along for the ride to ensure that the trees remain alive. Whether this was merely a weak narrative device, a reflection of more conservative times, or simply a result of Milestone not trusting either of his main actors to carry the picture, the Brown character is dull and unmemorable. Yet 'Bounty,' which was Milestone's last picture after a quite illustrious career stretching back six decades, does have moments of considerable flair and beauty. Though the whole Tahiti segment of the film drags on far too long, there are some gorgeous shots in there ('Mutiny' is a visually spectacular film for is period), and the fiery finale is still an impressive physical achievement. Alas, despite such flourishes, and however fascinating its many unique parts, the 1962 version 'Mutiny on the Bounty' doesn't quite do justice to the original.
(Note that 'Mutiny on the Bounty' was a "Roadshow" production, a grand artifact of the '50s and '60s that treated movies more akin to traveling Broadway extravaganzas than mere movies. As such, this HD DVD preserves the Roadshow version of 'Bounty's "Overture," "Intermission" and "Entr'acte" segments and music cues. The film may be way overlong at 185 minutes, but these essential transitions do restore the epic to its full grandeur.)
Another fine Warner remaster of one of their classic catalog titles, 'Mutiny on the Bounty' only recently hit standard-def DVD, so the source is still very fresh. Presented in mega-wide 2.76:1 widescreen (to accurately replicate the film's Ultra Panavision 70mm theatrical exhibition), it's another lovely piece of work from the studio, if perhaps not quite at the level of such superlative efforts 'Casablanca' and 'The Searchers.'
I remain amazed at how great the Warner restoration team can make these older titles look. The source has been cleaned up very, very nicely, and is near-immaculate -- it is often hard to believe 'Bounty' was made forty five ago. (Note: There are some unavoidable defects, namely some dropped frames, but what are ya gonna do?) Grain is apparent but appropriate to the look and age of the material. Colors are bold but clean; especially impressive are the reds and deep blues of the sea, primaries which usually bleed and blur on vintage transfers. Detail, if certainly less textured than a modern film, is still impressive. Sharpness is also laudable, if again softer by today's standards. Contrast, thankfully, is not overdone -- the transfer is maybe a bit bright, but still retains a nice, natural look. Warner continues excel at authoring these old titles, with no compression artifacts or noise to mar the presentation. Kudos!
Warner also offers up a very nice Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track, encoded at a decent 640kbps. Like the transfer, it is real surprise how good a film this old can sound. I wasn't expecting such a lively surround mix, but that's exactly what we get.
The sense of envelopment is the track's most impressive attribute. Sure, it can be spotty at times, but it's still better than many modern surround mixes I've heard. For example, take the highlight Cape Horn sequence. As the waves crash and the ship heaves, the rears are quite active. The depth and realism of the sound is rich and robust, and directionality quite accurate. Composer Bronislau Kaper's award-winning score is appropriately bombastic and Wagnerian, and swells with great force, often filling up the entire soundfield. Dialogue remains quite well balanced in the mix, if only hampered by flat high-range and, at times, a weird (if slight) hiss. Still, this is one of the few vintage remasters that really deserves a Dolby TrueHD track, or at least a higher bitrate than 640kbps. Let's hope Warner increases their support of lossless and/or uncompressed formats on HD DVD soon.
'Mutiny on the Bounty' hits HD DVD only a few months after the film's long-awaited premiere on standard-def DVD, and this edition includes all of the supplements included on that two-disc set. Surprisingly, for all the hype there really weren't that many extras included -- there is no audio commentary, and precious little in the way of production footage. Instead, fans will have to suffice with mostly vintage featurettes and a few recently-unearthed excised scenes.
The only fresh extra is the "After the Cameras Stopped Rolling: The Journey of the Bounty." Produced in 2006, this 24-minute featurette is actually pretty hefty, dissecting the actual construction of the ship. It also boasts an interview with one of the original seamen who sailed the replica to the Tahiti location used in the movie, plus the vessel's current captain and crew.
Other than that, the four remaining featurettes are all vintage '60s nostalgia, though still substantial in length. "The Story of the H.M.S. Bounty" (30 minutes) again covers the same ground as "After the Cameras Stopped Rolling," though focusing solely on the ship's journey to Tahiti; "Voyage of the Bounty to St. Petersburg" (24 minutes) is exactly what its title suggests, though by this time I was really sick of endless shots of the ship chugging along; "Tour of the Bounty" (8 minutes) is a fun look at the promo trip made to flog the movie; and finally, "1964 New York World's Fair" (7 minutes) is more marketing fluff, but fun to watch.
But the real recovered treasures here are the film's long-lost original Prologue and Epilogue. This roughly 7-minute bookend device, featuring botanist William Brown, was excised before the original theatrical run (though it was reinserted for a single airing on ABC in 1967). The film is already long enough in my opinion, but these are a great find for completists. The material itself is presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen; alas, it is not presented in full high-def, only 480i.
Rounding out the collection is a Trailer Gallery highlighting the films of Marlon Brando. Promos include 'Mutiny on the Bounty,' 'Julius Caesar, ' Reflections in a Golden Eye' and 'The Formula.'
'Mutiny on the Bounty' is a title everyone knows, even if there has never been a definitive cinematic retelling. Yet I found this to be an interesting and very well-acted interpretation, if far from perfect (and needlessly overlong). This HD DVD is without question a mighty effort from Warner. The transfer and soundtrack are superior for such a vintage title, and the supplemental material is good enough. This one is certainly worth a purchase for fans, and at least deserving of a rental for film buffs and those interested in the history of epic American cinema.