MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY
****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C
starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin
screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson, based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
directed by Frank Lloyd
KRAMER VS. KRAMER
****/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A
starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry
screenplay by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Avery Corman
directed by Robert Benton
by Alex Jackson Frank Lloyd's 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty and Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer don't have much in common other than that they both won the Oscar for Best Picture and that they are both totally fucking awesome. I know it sounds weird for me to apply fanboyish hyperbole to such conventionally middlebrow fare, but I love these films in much the same way I love Star Wars or the Indiana Jones movies. One is a lavish, two-million-dollar literary adaptation starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; the other is a minimalist Issue Movie about divorce (apparently aiming to do for the dissolution of marriage what Gentleman's Agreement did for anti-Semitism) starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Evidently, they represent what the Academy believed was quality cinema at the time.
Mutiny on the Bounty is effectively shot, written, and edited, and it sports career-defining performances from Gable and Laughton. But just because Mutiny on the Bounty is a well-made film, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's a good one. The muted and tasteful Kramer vs. Kramer is even easier to dismiss. In that year's Best Picture race, it beat Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and we can't help but suspect that the Academy members who voted for Kramer vs. Kramer are afraid of movies with any pulse or flavour. And then there's the problem of it being an Issue Movie. There's folly in believing that any one film can encompass a social issue like divorce in all its complexity. Most people are genuinely looking to be edified but don't want to be lectured. The very idea of a movie like Kramer vs. Kramer instils a lot of resistance in audiences.
Nevertheless, I married myself to these films at an early age. I discovered them in my mid-teens and instinctively understood that there was something that separated them from the rest of the "Tradition of Quality" embodied by the Academy Awards. I first saw Mutiny on the Bounty on the TNT network shortly after the American Film Institute revealed its Top 100, and I remember Dustin Hoffman saying something about Laughton's Captain Bligh that fascinated me. It was something along the lines of, "What made him so terrifying is that he was so much smarter than you." On a basic level, Mutiny on the Bounty is about an arrogant, pudgy tyrant lacking the good looks, populist touch, and capacity for pleasure of his immediate subordinate. He clings to his status as ship captain and to his love of England and seafaring because he doesn't have a place in the world of human beings. His jealously of people goes hand in hand with his contempt for their vacuousness. Oh yeah, Captain Bligh is one of the greatest movie anti-heroes this side of Travis Bickle.
Mutiny on the Bounty is based less on the historical event than it is on Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's eponymous 1932 novel. In 1787, the British Naval ship HMS Bounty set sail for Tahiti to acquire breadfruit plants and transport them to the West Indies as a cheap food source for slaves. On the voyage back, Sailing Master Fletcher Christian (Gable) overthrew the ship's captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and seized control of the vessel. According to the film, the mutiny was motivated by Bligh's constant abuse of his crew. He demands sick crewmembers report for duty, literally flogs a corpse, refuses Christian shore leave out of spite, keelhauls a man arrogant enough to ask for water to clean his bloodied knees, and punishes sailors for stealing cheese that he himself had purloined. This is all somewhat of an exaggeration. While the historical Bligh was verbally and emotionally abusive towards his crew and Christian in particular, the flogging rate for the ship was lower than the contemporary average and there were only two reported deaths prior to the mutiny, for neither of which Bligh was responsible. In reality, the mutiny happened largely because the crew didn't want to leave Tahiti. Having spent five months gathering the breadfruit plants, they had fallen in love with Tahitian culture and the beautiful Tahitian women.
This isn't to say that Mutiny on the Bounty is a conventional Hollywood whitewash of the past. In retaining a good deal of the historical narrative, the picture goes in some very odd directions. The Bounty's mission is ignobly, unromantically pragmatic. They aren't furthering scientific progress or protecting their country. No, these men are endeavouring to make slavery more affordable! The picture has something of a happy ending, but evil isn't punished. Bligh doesn't get his comeuppance per se and it appears that after testifying against the mutineers he goes back to commanding ships. Meanwhile, Christian crashes the Bounty on the island of Pitcairn and burns it so that nobody will ever find them. "An island can be a heaven or a hell if we make it one," he says. We notably never learn what became of him and his followers. Historically, the mutineers devolved into a society of drunks, rapists, and murderers once freed of the discipline of the Royal Navy, and with its open ending, the film entertains the possibility of this happening. Something rings hollow about Christian's idealism. It's clear that he hasn't simply rejected the restraints of British civilization--he has rejected its protections as well.
Then there is the issue of Bligh on the lifeboat. Rather than kill him aboard the Bounty, Christian insists they put the captain and any loyalists on a lifeboat with a compass, a cutlass, and ten days' worth of food and water. Not only does Bligh survive this ordeal and reach England to report the mutiny, but we also see him dutifully ration provisions, selflessly feed a dying man the nourishing blood of a captured seagull, and sincerely pray for God's blessing. Shortly before he was captured, we saw Bligh yawning and stretching in his nightclothes like a pampered French king, yet this episode proves that he is a more than capable seaman and his appointment to ship's captain wasn't without merit. The discipline that resulted in the mutiny is similarly responsible for Bligh's continued survival. He denies the natural human impulse to join his men on Tahiti, and he denies the natural human impulse to despair on this small lifeboat. His higher calling is not so much to himself as to what he sees as a code of professional conduct. And in praying for God's blessing, he appears to have received it. Regardless of how good a sailor Bligh is, he couldn't have made it this far without "divine intervention." Was God rewarding those instances of empathy? Was He on Bligh's side all along, even as he mistreated his men? Or is it all a crapshoot, with the wicked occasionally coming out ahead of the righteous because there's no real correlation between how we behave and where we end up?
Mutiny on the Bounty has dated in the sense that it perhaps feels more otherworldly today. But it never really devolves into camp. From the basic fact that it's in black-and-white to the Code-isms of the dialogue ("You blue-nosed baboon!") and the curious absence of navels on the Tahitian women, the film feels more stylized than artificial. In particular, it's clear that we are looking at a model in an underwater keelhauling shot, but that does little to inoculate against the horror of what's being implied. Indeed, in context it has a somewhat nightmarish quality--the man is reduced to a literal rag doll, tortured by a sadistic eight-year-old. And, of course, you have Gable and Laughton. They aren't just playing Fletcher Christian and William Bligh, they're playing "Gable" and "Laughton," too. That is to say, screen personae that encompass and surpass the earthly confines of these historical figures.
The film's strangest scene is one of its earliest. Captain Bligh demands that a sailor's corpse still receive his original sentence of two-dozen lashes. The men cringe at this disgusting display. But then they prepare to set sail and start singing. This speaks to me as a potent metaphor for physical abuse. In the struggle to deny their victimhood, these men minimize the mistreatment of their fellow sailor and optimistically focus on the adventure of going out to sea. The movie is about denial. Christian is faithful to Bligh and at times angrily defends him against the crew, but he gradually begins to suspect that this isn't how a captain should treat his underlings and from those suspicions grow thoughts of mutiny, an act he finds deep in his bones to be beyond the pale. The genius of the film is that we are taken through the process by which he becomes radicalized and we identify with him, yet once the dust settles, we're unsure as to whether we're truly on his side any more.
As "The Divorce Movie," i.e., a film that considers divorce as a broad sociological topic instead of merely the dissolution of an intimate relationship, Kramer vs. Kramer is definitely reductive. In talking about "divorce," the 1979 release is really talking about second-wave feminism. It's about "women's lib" and the changing family dynamic from the obsolete nuclear ideal. Ted Kramer (Hoffman) doesn't want his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) to have her own career. He wants her to support his by taking care of the home and their son, Billy (Justin Henry). Ted expects her to run his family so that he can focus exclusively on his work. As the movie begins, Joanna is in the middle of a mental breakdown. She later states at the custody hearing that she had been content working in the advertising field before meeting Ted. After marrying him and having his child, she realized that she was unable to transfer her creative energies onto this new role as wife and mother. Wracked with guilt and believing that this meant she didn't love her son, she ran away to California to find herself.
I'm not sure this has much relevance to marriage as we know it today. Even the most conservative members of my family expected my sister and my female cousins to attend college and develop a career before getting married and starting a family. The thing is, this has created some new issues that were likely unforeseen forty or fifty years ago. So women don't have to depend on their husbands and families to define themselves. Well, then how do they define themselves? If they can be anything they want, what is it they want to be? This isn't a simple question. It assumes a level of introspection that many of us haven't attained. In short, it seems a little easy to me that Joanna knows what she wants and has a poor marriage to a bad husband preventing her from fully realizing her core identity. When she leaves her family and goes to California, it's not to decide what she wants to do with her life. She explicitly states on the stand that she repeatedly tried to talk to her husband about getting a job. Her sabbatical was more about overcoming the guilt of feeling unsatisfied as a wife and mother and squaring that with the role of a professional in the workforce. Joanna's unhappiness is directly (and conveniently) sourced to institutional oppression and not so much to the broader, more basic existential crisis of identity formation.
Then again, there's a sense in which the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. Joanna mentions seeing "a very good therapist" in California. At the custody hearing, when asked to explain why she left her son and husband, she talks about needing a creative and emotional outlet other than her child. This all seems true enough, and I believe it accurately reflects her true thoughts and feelings. Still, there's something about her cadences that suggests rote recitation, like she's parroting something her therapist has told her. As I wrote in my review of Amy Holden Jones's The Slumber Party Massacre, you can't really educate women to be independent. I don't think that Joanna has been brainwashed into following some sort of neo-feminist dogma, exactly. Rather, her marriage to Ted has rendered her a shell of a person and she has developed, with her therapist's politically-biased guidance, an identity with which to fill herself back up. Joanna isn't yet a complete person with autonomy.
It's strange to think that Kramer vs. Kramer was criticized at the time for being unsympathetic to the Joanna character. She leaves at the beginning of the film and resurfaces in the third act. On paper, it seems reasonable to peg Joanna as the villain--but this is Meryl frickin' Streep we're talking about. She's a national treasure and, to put it simply, she brings her A-game to this role. (The film won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.) We never doubt that she loves her son or that leaving him was a decision she made lightly. This is strongly reinforced as she calmly and mechanically explains to her husband as soon as he comes home from work that she has paid the utility bill, has taken out the two-thousand dollars she had in her savings account when they got married, and is leaving behind her keys to the apartment and the slip for the dry cleaning, which Ted is now going to have to pick up. She clearly planned this all out ahead of time and is hoping to make a clean break.
The politics behind the custody hearing are intriguing. Ted's lawyer tells him that the courts tend to side with the mother, and sure enough: Joanna is ultimately awarded full custody of Billy. Explaining this to his son, Ted pathetically attempts to sound excited about taking his boy out for dinner two times a month. Ted's lawyer is the one legitimate failure of the film. This guy is just a complete fucking hack. Cross-examining Joanna on the stand, he brings up how Ted never cheated on her, beat her, or failed to provide for her. He asks if she has a lover, then uses circular logic to imply that she's an unfit mother because she's divorced and thus "failed" at the most important relationship of her life. This lawyer represents the conventional moral thinking of the patriarchy. By essentially victimizing Joanna, he artificially makes her the more sympathetic party and indirectly undermines the legitimacy of Ted's claims to sole custody. There should be some doubt as to her stability as a parental figure. Ted's attorney only lightly touches on the fact that she walked out on her son and has only recently established residency in the city. More practically, Ted has shown an ability and willingness to balance his work and family life. He has made genuine sacrifices, including his career, and at this point we're unsure if Joanna can or will do the same as a working mother.
At the end of the hearing, Ted states that a mother shouldn't be more entitled to her child than a father by virtue of her sex. This is the closest the movie gets to a thesis statement, but even then, it's hard to categorically sympathize with Ted. He's certainly a horrible father initially, so out of touch that when he takes Billy to school in the morning, he has to ask a teacher which grade his son's in. In the film's most painful moment, Billy tries to get his father to interact with him. Ted is paying him the bare minimum of attention until Billy spills juice all over his papers. Then Ted blows up, rhetorically asking, "Who took you to the park? Who bought you ice cream? Who gave you everything you ever wanted?" He appears to believe that because he has given Billy "everything he ever wanted," he has fulfilled his paternal role and the child has lost the right to demand anything else from him, regardless of how immaterial. Before Joanna left, Ted saw Billy as an accessory and something of a status symbol. After, the kid was a liability. Through the course of the film, however, Ted begins to see Billy as his son and starts honestly loving him for probably the first time in his life. There's something cruel about the way Joanna jumpstarts this father/son relationship by leaving them to fend for themselves, only to return to dismantle it so she can resume being a mom.
Although the gender politics of Kramer vs. Kramer could hardly be said to reflect the reality of marriage today, I hesitate to call the film stale or dated. Somewhat like Mutiny on the Bounty, Kramer vs. Kramer is all the more effective as a museum piece, helping us to understand this subject matter in a way we probably couldn't have in 1979. In a broad sociological sense, the feminist movement destroyed traditional institutional definitions of gender roles and left behind a pile of rubble we're still sifting through. Microcosmically, we see this happening within the Kramer family. They weren't happy, but they were secure. They were functioning. Everyone knew up from down and left from right. With the divorce, everything is thrown into turmoil. It's not that the film is even-handed--it's that it's virtually impossible to determine who's in the right, who's in the wrong, and what should be done about it. We can no longer rely on conventional moral wisdom (either that women who abandon their families are unfit mothers or that women are naturally more nurturing than men) to guide us. A shitty marriage has evolved into a shitty divorce.
Perhaps we can equate Mutiny on the Bounty and Kramer vs. Kramer in that each is about the deliberate transformation of a stable environment into a chaotic one--one through mutiny, the other through divorce--and the difficulty of evaluating this is as a moral action. In comparing Joanna to Christian and Ted to Bligh, we better see how the line between victim and perpetrator has been blurred. Christian immediately becomes less sympathetic once we see him in terms of the passive Joanna, driven by desperation as opposed to some strong sense of right or wrong. As a father figure to the other sailors, he has abandoned them in much the same way Joanna has abandoned her son. Regardless of how he tries to mitigate it, Christian has given them the choice of dying with him, dying with Bligh, or waiting until the English recapture them and dying in England. And perhaps Bligh becomes more sympathetic like the considerably more benevolent Ted. Getting cast adrift makes him a better man, and this improvement is contingent on Christian's mutiny. Moreover, as I mentioned before, his villainy can be sourced in no small degree to his over-identification as a British naval officer. It seems to me that Mutiny on the Bounty is more ambiguous and Kramer vs. Kramer is more universal than their reputations suggest.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Warner's digibook Blu-ray release of Mutiny on the Bounty is a treat, though I hope a fully-loaded special edition is in the cards for this title. The (pillarboxed) 1.37:1, 1080p image is imperfect, retaining minor print damage--including a few fairly surprising vertical scratches early on. On the whole, watching it made the heart of this Blu-ray virgin palpitate a little. The sailors' white shirts have a pristine, Joseph Smith-like quality I really dig, and the fine-grain transfer is an excellent showcase for Laughton's memorable close-ups. The mono soundtrack, preserved in 1.0 DTS-HD MA, comparatively shows its age, but dialogue comes off strong, showcasing, again, the potent personalities of the two leads.
Extras, on the other hand, are a grave disappointment. There is a very good ten-minute, standard-def newsreel segment detailing the actual Pitcairn Island, in which we meet descendents of Fletcher Christian. Interestingly, its description of the mutiny sides strongly against Christian and overall goes to great pains to remedy the romantic idealization of the Pacific island as some kind of paradise. I especially liked a shot of the Pitcairn church wherein several curious children look right at the camera. Aside from this segment, we have a one-minute fragment of the 1936 Academy Awards ceremony and theatrical trailers for this film and the 1962 remake starring Marlon Brando (SD, all). Featuring 32 pages of stills and trivia, the digibook packaging is, however handsome, hardly a substitute for a good commemorative documentary on the film and its legacy or an audio commentary from an enthusiastic historian.
Sony's Blu-ray version of Kramer vs. Kramer looks sharper and more naturalistic than the Columbia Tri-Star DVD from 2001, but probably not enough to justify a repurchase. (And I particularly hate the new title screen, with its tacky gavel cursor.) Accompanying the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is a modest but reliable 5.1 remix in Dolby TrueHD. Dialogue is clear and balanced. The sole extra, "Finding the Truth" (48 mins., SD), is a holdover from said DVD, but it's among the very best retrospective makings-of that I've seen. "Finding the Truth" goes beyond explaining how Kramer vs. Kramer was made to give us an understanding of how the cast works and why the film may have been satisfying to them on a personal level.
Hoffman initially turned the project down, citing his difficulty relating it to his own experience of going through a divorce. Encouraged by writer-director Robert Benton to heavily rework the script, he brought so much to the table that Benton offered him a screenwriting credit, which Hoffman declined. (A decision he says he regrets in the doc.) The process was incredibly collaborative and it's strongly hinted that, at least with regards to his hyper-intimate, mentor-like relationship with child star Justin Henry, Hoffman co-directed Kramer vs. Kramer as well. He relates a story about teaching Henry to cry on command by imagining how sad it will be when filming's over and he never sees the cast or crew again. Far from feeling manipulated, Henry was exhilarated to discover this acting technique. Hoffman helped wean Henry of his artificially precocious, "TV kid"-like mannerisms and discusses their collaboration as fellow actors in improvising the famed ice-cream scene.
Streep was working on a play and starring in a supporting role in Woody Allen's Manhattan simultaneous to the shooting of Kramer vs. Kramer. Her fiancé, the actor John Cazale, had recently died of terminal bone cancer, and Hoffman felt that she hadn't properly dealt with it. Where Hoffman saw making the film as a cathartic experience, Streep seems to have been a bit more guarded, viewing it as an opportunity to distract herself. Nevertheless, Hoffman helped her to channel a bit of her grief into her performance. Hoffman caps all this off with a funny/poignant anecdote about a court stenographer who worked on the film. This is absolutely top-notch stuff. Rounding out the BD-Live-enabled platter is a promo for the Blu-ray technology and a trailer for Stranger than Fiction. Originally published: March 30, 2011.