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Mutiny on the Bounty Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

Image Based on the true story and the trilogy of novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, “Mutiny on the Bounty” tells the tale of oppressive, tyrannical Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) and his troubled journey to Tahiti in 1787 to transport bread fruit trees for the British Empire. The elitist and egotistical Bligh makes several blunders on the trip, causing the deaths of crew members and raising the ire of Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando). Christian, the first mate, is a bit of a dandy, but his senses of justice and humanity are repeatedly tested and eventually brought to the breaking point.

Brando delivers a good (but not great) performance as Christian, and there’s a sense in several early sequences that he’s having a bit of fun with the effete role (the scene he steals in a silver nightgown and smoking a pipe, for example), and he’s quite playful in the Tahiti scenes. The build-up to the mutiny is extremely believable, and the sequence itself is gripping. The enormous weight of Christian’s actions is strongly conveyed in the scenes after, though one wishes the film probed Christian’s feelings a little more directly, rather than have him lock himself in his cabin to brood for part of the film. Brando rises to the occasion for his final sequence, and delivers a terrific heart-breaking scene.

Trevor Howard is the standout actor here; it’s a plum role and he steals the picture. He captures Bligh’s mixture of arrogance and cruelty perfectly without resorting to cartoon villainy. Because Howard is so strong, after the mutiny, we feel his absence and yearn for his return. Unfortunately, this has the effect of softening his character (at least in your memory) as the film moves further and further away from his sequences, leaving you with, not quite sympathy, but a more moderate sense of it being a rather unfortunate series of circumstances for all involved. Amusingly, Howard and Brando were reunited as characters still at odds with each other, though not as ferociously, in “Superman.” Richard Harris is enjoyable in a supporting role, and the cast of character actors that make up the crew (Hugh Griffith, Richard Haydn, and Gordon Jackson among them) are a stalwart bunch. Structuring the three-part story into one film is a bit of an awkward task. The build-up to the mutiny is the most gripping portion of the picture, and everything after, tends to seem a bit prolonged and somewhat unnecessary. It would be interesting to see the books filmed as a three-part mini-series where the odd structure would be more appropriate.

A gigantic production from M-G-M filmed at the height of the roadshow era, “Mutiny on the Bounty” was beautifully filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 (a format previously called MGM Camera 65) by Robert Surtees. Surtees was no stranger to 70mm, having shot “Ben-Hur,” “Raintree County,” and “Oklahoma,” and his glorious epic compositions are sights to behold. Given the story’s predominance of ship interiors and on-deck scenes (including some rear-screen process work), it’s a somewhat odd choice for 70mm, but the storm and Tahiti sequences make full use of the format.

Enormous 70mm productions such as “Mutiny on the Bounty” are ideally suited to High-Definition. Classic Roadshow 70mm movies from the 60’s delivered a level of lush, grand visuals ideally suited to the enormous screens these movies were displayed on. Great effort was taken to transport the audience, through the level of you-are-there detail, photographic clarity and enveloping, vibrant multi-channel surround sound. 70mm’s rock solid sharpness and detail are severely compromised by DVDs necessary data compression—there simply aren’t enough lines and pixels available in that format to convey all the photographic information. Warner’s HD-DVD release of “Mutiny on the Bounty” is a highly encouraging step toward making 70mm originated productions more satisfying in the home theater setting. Colors are perfect; richly saturated, smooth and conveyed with a widely varied spectrum. There are dozens of different variations of green in the Tahitian vegetation; blacks are dense and rich, and darker scenes (such as below decks) are faithfully rendered and clean. There’s an admirable level of detail in wider shots, as in the opening at the docks and the arrival at Tahiti; the entire film just feels more involving and impressive as a result. While the image quality is impressive, it’s not quite perfect. There’s a slight softness to the image, mostly noticeable on larger monitors (over 30”). It’s unclear whether this is an authoring issue or directly related to the source material. 70mm is a challenging format to telecine, and only recently has 70mm film-to-tape equipment approached the state of the art that 35mm equipment has reached. This disc was transferred from a 35mm element made from the restored 65mm negative. Perhaps a 70mm transfer would have produced a sharper transfer. Once we have a few HD-DVD or Blu-ray titles sourced from a 70mm telecine transfer, we can have a benchmark of comparison, but for now the jury’s out.

The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is a terrific piece of work. The Overture and opening titles of the film featuring Bronislau Kaper’s large and brassy score has a bit of peak distortion in a few of the louder passages, but as the rest of the track doesn’t have these issues, it may be built into the original music masters. Consider that gripe a footnote, though, as the rest of the soundtrack is an impressive accomplishment. The original 70mm release of “Mutiny on the Bounty” featured a high-quality six-track magnetic soundtrack. Only one of the six tracks was designated as the surround track, with the other five tracks placed behind the screen. On the enormous screens delegated for 70mm first-run presentation, having five channels placed behind the screen made sense, as the audio would allow dialogue and sound effects to closely follow the action on-screen. Actors walking from far left to far right would have their voice and footsteps aurally pan across the entire screen, giving the film a much more involving presence. In the years since, both theatrical and home theater surround sound configurations have changed to the current trend of three channels behind the screen (or adjacent to, in the home) rather than 70mm’s five. Warner’s team of sound re-mixers has done a stunning job of faithfully recreating the original 70mm mix. They have managed to convert the five front channels (Left, Left-Center, Center, Right-Center, and Right) into the current Left, Center, and Right configuration without dumbing down the mix. The two absent channels have been folded into the adjacent channels so skillfully, that audio appears to come from five distinct locations. In addition, the HD DVD retains the placement of the dialogue throughout the front speakers, and doesn’t bolt it into the center speaker (a current trend in home theater mixes and some theatrical that should be abandoned.) It should be used as a model, especially its use of discrete dialogue placement, to inspire others to create more ambitious and involved front channel mixes. The surround activity is extremely minimal, but in this era of filmmaking and mono surrounds, there wouldn’t be a series of sounds that call attention to themselves. Instead, the surround channel quietly reinforces the atmospheric sounds present in the front. It’s a mix that feels 100% faithful to the original.

Some viewers have noted a sync problem in the actual mutiny sequence. A sequence about 6-7 minutes long appears out of sync. On our viewing of the film, it was perfectly in sync, so this could be player related issue or issues with some of the more troublesome recent firmware upgrades. The pause/resume feature on the first generation players has been known to cause a sync hiccup. As the mutiny sequence occurs after the intermission (where most would pause the picture) this would seem to be a likely cause.

The extras are almost entirely focused on the creation of the new ship Bounty, which was made specifically for the production. All of the featurettes (most of them contemporary) are welcome, but a huge production such as this film, and the talent involved, makes one hanker for some kind of “making of” documentary or audio commentary to shine some light on its production history. The most substantial extra is the inclusion of the original prologue and epilogue, which structured the entire film as a flashback, as survivor William Brown (Richard Haydn) relates the tale as he’s discovered on Pitcairn Island decades later. While the flashback structure was used for each of the three original novels, it doesn’t really work here, and was wisely deleted. The sense of suspense and the anticipation of where the story is going is weakened by our knowing where the Bounty will end up. It was shown for its television premiere decades ago, but this (and the recent DVD) are supposedly the first time the footage is being presented in its original widescreen. The sequences are fully finished and the quality approaches that of the feature. The Marlon Brando trailer gallery thankfully includes the original trailer for this film, and a few others from the recently released Brando DVD box set.

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