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Cheapskate: Mutiny

“Mutiny” is a wonderfully evocative word, isn’t it? Whenever I hear someone say it, I can almost smell the gunpowder and the salt air, and hear the roar of the muskets and the shouts of the grizzled sailors. So, naturally, when I saw a film called Mutiny at the Internet Archive, I felt like it was worth watching.

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I was surprised to learn that this movie would take place on an American ship during the War of 1812. Surprised for two reasons: first, because I was kind of hoping there would be pirates (although Jean Laffitte was hanging around during this time period), and second, because who really cares about the War of 1812? It was a picayune conflict in which the Americans and the British fought each other to a draw and the Canadians took credit for a victory they didn’t earn. (Don’t feel bad, Canada, you can still take credit for Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach.)

Mutiny was scored by Dimitri Tiomkin, who also worked on some films you might have seen: It’s a Wonderful Life, High Noon, and Dial M for Murder. Director Edward Dmytryk would stick with the naval theme and make a much more successful sea picture two years later, The Caine Mutiny.

The film starts out with a British warship pulling right up next to an American vessel. I mean, right next to it. The guy in the crow’s nest must have been holding his spyglass up to his glass eye to have missed this one. The British are grabbing sailors from merchant ships to crew their warships. (This actually happened: “impressment” was one of the major causes of the War of 1812.) When a guy jumps overboard to escape, the redcoats start shooting at him.

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Shoot him, men, before he drowns!

In Salem, Massachusetts, the townsfolk are meeting to air their grievances with impressment, in a gathering so spontaneous that they left their thesauruses at home.

SPEAKER: “The ocean that washes these freedom-loving shores was meant to be free!”

When a messenger arrives to announce that the U.S. and Britain are at war, the crowd cheers and starts shaking hands and slapping backs. Now, in real life, the War of 1812 was horrifically unpopular in Massachusetts because its sailors profited extensively from its trade with Britain. New England came damn near to seceding over the war. But this movie was made in the days before any smart-aleck on a flyspeck island could use the Internet and his six hours of electricity per day to find out what happened in the War of 1812. Its writers had to rely on its hazy memories of history class, and its audience didn’t much care about historical accuracy. (Let it be known, though, that I only looked up the information about New England secession to fill in details of stuff I remembered from college.)

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Jim Marshall, in the days before he developed a new amplifier and recorded 127 sacks for the Minnesota Vikings

The Navy is here to recruit Captain Jim Marshall, owner of a very fast ship called Concord, for a special mission. He’s to sneak past British ships and sail to France, where he’ll pick up $10 million in gold to fund the war effort. The French won’t use their own navy to deliver because they don’t want to risk war with the British. Of course, when I think of heads of state who were reluctant to fight the British, Napoleon isn’t the first name that comes to mind. Maybe Talleyrand authorized this mission without l’Empereur’s permission? A sort of 19th-century Iran-Contra affair?

Concord doesn’t normally carry guns, so Jim’s going to need an expert gunner to help him hire a gunnery crew. Luckily, Jim knows just the guy, and he heads to a local tavern (with a very nicely printed sign!) to meet up with Captain Ben Waldridge. Ben is a former Royal Navy captain who got kicked out of the service a few years back (long enough ago that he’s lost his British accent), saw his girlfriend Leslie run away to Paris, and masks his pain with whores and snark.

BEN (to Jim): I heard you’d been sunk with all hands. I cried, man, the room was awash with my tears.

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Ben keeps Leslie’s portrait turned to the wall, just to suffer a little more theatrically. And doesn’t Leslie look a little familiar?

Ben is pleased to have a chance to get his revenge on His Majesty, but he isn’t happy with the proposal that he serve as Jim’s first officer. Jim manages to talk him into it with a little bit of patriotic rhetoric.

JIM: Ben, this country gave you refuge when you needed it most. It needs your help now. You can’t refuse.

So Ben rounds up a bunch of gunners, most of whom are nameless and faceless, except for two guys. One of them is a gruff dude with a beard and a hook for a hand, who’s named Hook. (Some coincidence, that is.) The other is a bald Irishman who goes by Redlegs.

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Hook and Redlegs.

They’re immediately established as villains when Hook starts talking about floggings and Redlegs is mighty suspicious that he’s being asked to run a blockade without being told where he’s going. (Except nobody told Redlegs that he was running a blockade, at least not on camera. He must be a good guesser.)

The crew of the Concord sings shanties as they board the ship, which shows a real dedication to the art of nautical music, and we meet the ship’s secret weapon: a hand-powered, two-man submarine! Now, a submarine in this era wasn’t unheard of: David Bushnell tried to attack British warships with the Turtle in 1776, and Robert Fulton designed a human-powered submarine in 1800. But submarines were death traps until the 1880s, and Redlegs is rightly skeptical of this newfangled contraption.

Concord is spotted by a British warship immediately after leaving the harbor, and they can’t use the submarine to attack it because you can’t introduce something as cool as a Napoleonic-era submarine and use it right away. Instead, the crew stalls for time while Redlegs swims over and plants a bomb on the enemy’s rudder. At least, I think that’s what’s happening. It’s too dark to tell.

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Get used to a lot of shots like this, where the director uses darkness to cover up the fact that he’s just sailing a model in a tub.

Jim wants to hold position until Redlegs returns, but Ben wants to flee before the British get within shooting range.

BEN: But this is war, man!
JIM: Even war doesn’t relieve us of our responsibilities to our fellow man.
CHEAPSKATE: Provided he’s fighting on our side.

The bomb works, Redlegs returns to much celebration, and Concord is soon zipping across the Atlantic at its top speed of… fifteen knots? When the crew describes her as “a fast one,” they’re not kidding. That’s as fast as Cutty Sark, which was built some fifty years later, and significantly faster than Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory, which could only do eight or nine.

Having run out of shanties to sing, the crew is starting to get bored, and Redlegs the ever-suspicious convinces Hook to hang over the side of the ship to spy on the captain’s discussions with Ben. Granted, this is probably a job for a guy with two hands, but perhaps this is just an assassination attempt.

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Also, it’s remarkable how a guy who operates a cannon for a living is able to hear anything at this range.

As soon as Hook hears the phrase “gold bullion,” his face lights up (as much as anything can light up in this darkness) and when he reports this news to Redlegs, they immediately begin developing a plan to mutiny and steal the gold. (Redlegs is putting greed above fighting the British? Wolfe Tone would be ashamed.)

They go to Ben for assistance, but he’s not too keen on the plan. But neither does he immediately report the mutineers, so Hook and Redlegs get time to convince the gunners to join them in the revolt. This makes dividing the treasure complicated.

REDLEGS: Lift up me feet, I’ll need me toes to mathematic this out.

Their reveries are interrupted by a sailor who’s overheard the whole plan. Because no one can know of this plot (other than the first officer, of course), the gunners drown the sailor in a barrel of water (or possibly grog) in a scene so dark that I didn’t even get a screen shot of it. C’mon, guys, you’re going to have to drink out of that.

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God bless the man who first superimposed a travel scene on a map.

The Marseillaise accompanies Concord’s arrival at Le Havre. If I were trying to avoid British warships, I would’ve landed at a port on the French west coast, like Bordeaux, instead of sneaking through the English Channel, but this ships is captained by experienced sailors and my ocean-going experience is limited to a ride on a dive boat in Cairns, so what would I know?

Ben and Jim race back from Paris with the gold in tow. They’ve got it on board a rowboat and get chased by another rowboat that’s shooting at them with a cannon. I commend the naval architects who were able to construct rowboats that could carry ten million bucks worth of gold and cannons without capsizing. The guns of the Concord take out the enemy rowboat eventually.

But Ben and Jim aren’t alone in their boat. When they were in Paris, they found Ben’s lost love, Leslie, a saucy, sexy young woman with a delightful blue-and-black striped dress, portrayed by…

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Angela M. F. Lansbury!

For those of us who are used to seeing Lansbury in the Eccentric Singing British Grandmother roles she’s been playing for the last forty years, it’s quite a shock to see that she used to be a real looker. (Check her Wikipedia page for another photo of a cute-looking Lansbury.) It’s even more of a shock to see that she’s been paired as the May end of a May-September romance. Patrick Knowles is fourteen years older than Lansbury.

Anyhow, Leslie is quite happy to be reunited with her old love, right up until she finds out that Ben is serving as Jim’s first officer. She’s not at all pleased with the idea of living on a first officer’s pay, and turns the emasculation up to eleven.

LESLIE: So the mighty Captain Waldridge is now taking orders from a schoolboy.

She demands to be let off at the next port. Meanwhile, Hook and Redlegs are convinced that the gold is hidden in Leslie’s baggage, and burst into the room to search for it. In the process, they blab the secret about the gold to Leslie. Which is dumb, yes, but these guys don’t seem like the sorts who would give women a lot of credit for their mental faculties. Leslie thinks she knows where it is.

REDLEGS (describing the area where the anchor is stored): …it isn’t a place for a lady to go.
LESLIE: If that anchor is what I think it is, I can forget I’m a lady.

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Gold!

Sure enough, the anchor is made of gold and painted black (note to self: The Golden Anchor is a fine name for a pub) and the conspirators are now a lot richer. Leslie has to stay on board to get her share, though, so she goes all doe-eyed with Ben and tries to re-seduce him. It’s got to be a pain for her to remember whether she’s supposed to love this guy or not.

Speaking of guys, we’re now halfway through the film and Captain Jim hasn’t had a scrap of characterization. (In fact, when Leslie asks him if he’s ever loved anyone, he doesn’t give a straight answer—he just says Ben is a good sailor.) This was the sort of hero that played well in the 50s and 60s: think of Joe Friday from Dragnet, who had no defining attributes other than being a cop. But to a modern audience, a hero who doesn’t make friends, doesn’t have hobbies, and doesn’t change his facial expressions puts ninety percent of the audience to sleep and makes the other ten percent wonder if the guy is supposed to be autistic.

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I’m Jim. I like ships. I own a ship. I’m on that ship right now.

Jim still doesn’t want Leslie on the ship, because it’s too dangerous. Lansbury gives a fantastic glare in response, and before we can have too much more character interaction, Concord gets jumped by HMS Aurora, a much larger ship. Concord takes a few hits, represented by the camera shaking. Sadly, the crew doesn’t shake with them like they would have done if they’d been hit by a photon torpedo on Star Trek.

Ben knows of a reef nearby and he thinks that with Concord’s shallower draft, they can sneak over the reef and let Aurora run aground. This plan requires them to dump their cannons overboard to save weight. When one cannon goes overboard, its cord catches Ben around the leg and drags him over as well. (I think something like this happened to Buster Keaton in The Navigator.) Naturally, Jim saves him, but I think it would’ve been better for the plot if Hook or Redlegs had done it and then called in a favor later. Or if Leslie had saved him.

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HMS Aurora hits the reef. That’s a nice-looking model, but it’s not going to fool anyone.

The plan works, apart from the near-drowning, and soon Jim, Ben, and Leslie are dining in the captain’s quarters, and Ben thanks Jim for his help.

JIM: You’d have done the same for me.
BEN: Would I? I wonder.

Jim soon leaves, because talking ain’t his strong suit, and Ben and Leslie are left alone. Leslie reveals that she knows about the gold, and she wants Ben to steal it. Ben is having none of it.

BEN: I’ve grown tired of living under a cloud. Being known in every port as the captain who stole a ship’s payroll to pay a woman’s debts.

Hook and Redlegs seem awfully loyal to the guy who has a reputation for stealing his crew’s pay, but maybe they’re among Leslie’s creditors. Either way, Leslie is sticking up for her financial interests.

LESLIE: You said you couldn’t live without me. Well, I can’t live without the things that make a woman’s life worth living.

So you’ve probably noticed that Leslie’s character trait is that she’s greedy. Greedy greedy greedy. You’ve probably also noticed that Leslie demonstrates this character trait by saying “I want money” a lot. This could have been handled better. Maybe through a scene with Leslie carefully arranging all the fancy trinkets she brought aboard, or yelling at Hook or Redlegs for getting dirt on her expensive new dress.

Leslie’s cajoling is enough to convince Ben to go through with the mutiny. The plan is to mutiny in the Bahamas and sneak into Havana with the gold. I would’ve avoided the Bahamas if I were at war with the British, but again, dive boat in Cairns. Ben meets with the mutineers, who are keen tacticians.

REDLEGS: It’ll be dark tonight.

The plan is to strike at eight bells, and Leslie gives Ben one more pep talk just before the mutiny begins.

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But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail.

And so, we finally get the mutiny we’ve been yearning to see! And it’s… well, it’s underwhelming. Nobody scrambles up the rigging, nobody swings from a rope and kicks another guy in the face, nobody even discharges a musket. Ben conks the helmsman on the head and that’s just about that.

How does Captain Jim react? When one of his sailors reports the mutiny, Jim stands up and walks over to his pistol. Walks. He doesn’t even deploy the desultory jog you use when you’re in a crosswalk and a car is waiting on you. Not only does he amble to the scene without the slightest sense of urgency, he doesn’t order anyone else on ship to do anything at all. The only reasonable explanation is that Jim is losing his shirt on this voyage and is trying to get the ship sunk for the insurance money.

Without support, Jim is quickly overpowered and captured, and Ben takes command of the ship. He dumps the booze overboard and prepares a flogging station to try to restore order to the unruly mob. He isn’t sure about what to do with Jim, but Leslie has some ideas.

BEN: Are you suggesting I kill him?
LESLIE: If you let him live, he’ll kill you.

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Odd to suggest that Jim will be hell-bent on revenge when we haven’t seen him hell-bent on anything thus far.

When Ben goes to kill Jim, he loses his nerve in Patrick Knowles’ showcase scene. Rather than fire the fatal bullet, he shoves Jim out the porthole with a plank and tells him to get to shore. Jim is not particularly grateful.

JIM: You just hanged yourself, Ben.

And so this review ends, with Jim in the unenviable position of trying to cover fifty miles of ocean on a plank of wood without food or water. The ending (which I won’t spoil) features some atmospheric music for once and a plot device I’d completely forgotten about.

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What Works
• Angela Lansbury wrings everything she can out of her part.
• Patrick Knowles (as Ben) is able to play conflicted when he’s allowed to do so.
• The script has a few good lines.
• The model ships are well-designed (but are clearly models).

What Doesn’t
• Many of the most exciting scenes are ruined by bad day-for-nights.
• The Paradise Lost problem: the villain is infinitely more interesting than the hero.
• The music is unremarkable. The catchiest songs are the sea shanties.
• Too talky for an adventure.

Watch It If
• You’d like to see Macbeth done with the emotional indifference of a police procedural. You once fell asleep watching Murder, She Wrote and had a dream that made you feel funny.

About the author

Patrick Alexander