IN THE WAKE OF THE BOUNTY
by Michael Wayne
Recently, a friend and I decided it’d be fun to watch a triple shot of the three major Hollywood films of the Bounty story, starting with 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as William Bligh, then 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh, and finally The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh.
We’re all familiar with the story: while on a voyage from Great Britain to Tahiti to collect breadfruit for slaves in the West Indies, Lieutenant William Bligh loses control of his ship, the Bounty, to his first mate Fletcher Christian and a discontented crew. Bligh and his faithful are set adrift near Tonga and miraculously survive the journey to Batavia, eventually making it back to England, while Christian and some of his fellow mutineers establish a society on the uninhabited Pitcairn Island.
I thought it’d be interesting to discover how differently each film treated the subject matter, and how reflective of their respective eras each film would be. How historically accurate the films are in portraying the events we can never know for certain, but we can eventually decide which one will transplant those true events in the minds of the public as Titanic seems to have done for that event, judging by the recent Twitter fiasco.
It’s interesting that Hollywood took this very British story of resentment, shame, defiance and triumph over adversity (for better or worse) and turned it into such a demo unit for film itself in each major era of the medium. It’s also interesting that the story hasn’t been filmed since the 80s, and I think the reason for this is that the filmmaking climate and atmosphere hasn’t changed sufficiently for such a film to be made.
The Bounty of 1935 is a cookie-cutter adventure film, where we’re immediately introduced to an heroic people’s champion in Christian, and a ridiculously overblown villain in Bligh.
Bligh’s villainy knows no bounds – even death is no hiding place from a flogging. Towards the start of the film, a seaman (giggle now and get over it, we’ll be using this one a lot) accused of striking a superior (presumably Bligh) is tied to a post and sailed out beside the Bounty, which hasn’t even left port. Sometime between being tied up and reaching the Bounty, apparently a five minute journey, the seaman has died. This doesn’t deter Bligh, who insists that the man be flogged anyway, and that his crew watch and heed the example. Christian winces, but stands by his captain’s wish.
Gable’s Christian is such a righteous hero that the film’s conflict becomes tiresome very quickly. You wait for Bligh to do something unreasonably evil, like send a man up to the crow’s nest for laughing out of line, and once that happens you yawn and check your watch while Christian pauses to frown about the injustice before taking some mild action.
Sadly, like Titanic, you know how the story ends, so you know that no matter how villainous Bligh’s acts become, he won’t get his comeuppance until much later in the film. When it happens, it’s well deserved – he’s cast off the ship after a daring rescue effort of some shackled seamen by Christian, who then delivers an inspiring speech about starting a wonderful new society on Pitcairn’s Island free from the oppressive villainy represented by Bligh.
Unfortunately, that’s only about halfway through the film. The second half becomes a Moby Dick knockoff, with Bligh inexplicably making it back to land, securing himself another ship, the Pandora, and pursuing the mutineers across the ocean. He captures a few of them, shackles them in Pandora‘s brig, and then runs the ship aground on the Great Barrier Reef. He makes a miraculous escape, leaving the shackled seamen to die. It’s annoying because he hasn’t learned his lesson in any way, and even at the end, during the trial of the surviving mutineers (not including Christian) Bligh still escapes any real retribution aside from a dressing down by the Naval court. Given the exaggerated nature of his villainy, however, you just expect a little more. Christian marries his Tahitian amour and starts that wonderful life on Pitcairn’s, and apart from the horrible drowning deaths of those seamen in Pandora‘s box, it’s a happy ending for all.
The audience’s ‘in’ in this film is a fictional character named Roger Byam, a composite drawn from the wildly successful book Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Byam bears witness to almost every notable event on the voyage (and in one case becomes a victim of Bligh’s sadistic cruelty), and attempts to stop the mutiny when it happens. This places him squarely in the ‘why do it for’ basket for the audience, who by this point sorely wants the mutiny to happen. At the film’s climactic courtroom scene Byam, despite his levelheadedness, is sentenced to death when Bligh fails to note his opposition to the mutiny (because he’s evil!). After an offscreen plea for clemency by Sir Joseph Banks (!), Byam is given a reprieve – as if we care. We saw him enjoying the spoils of Tahiti, before and after the mutiny, and loving it.
The black and white look, although it couldn’t be helped, does nothing but date the film even further. The tropical locations all look like sets, even if they weren’t, and the ‘natives’ are about as politically incorrect as you’d expect from the 30s. Christian’s Tahitian love interest wins his heart with her English vocabulary, which consists entirely of the word ‘yes’ (so it won’t be rape). Christian and co get a good laugh out of her ‘island naivety’, with even her ‘tribal chief’ father joining in. It’s that 30s Hollywood laughter too, adding to the sickening nature of the scene.
For someone familiar with the true story, you forget that that’s what you’re watching an adaptation of. It just feels like mugging Hollywood actors barking their way through a simplistic, childish script. It’s so tailor made for audiences of the time – boo now! hiss now! cheer now! – that it’s hard to watch today. The boat, however, looks pretty authentic, and the ocean photography looks real.
As I’ve said, Bligh’s villainy becomes comical after awhile, and you end up laughing your way through a fatal keelhauling, several floggings, and the Bounty’s two rowboats being used to tow the ship when the wind dies down. We don’t get to see the Bounty’s disastrous attempt to round Cape Horn on the trip to Tahiti, nor do we get to see much of Bligh’s remarkable journey from Tonga to Batavia with the bare minimum of supplies. I presume the latter is excised because such a feat would detract from his moustache-twirling villainy, even though it would have been immediately followed up with his Captain Ahab schtick (which did not happen in real life). Gable is all Hollywood smiles and easy charm, with that stilted 30s line delivery in full force. I’ve read that Gable had to shave off his famous moustache for ‘historical accuracy’, which is ridiculous given the liberties taken throughout. Laughton proves not to be the best medicine after all, as his overblown Bligh extends beyond the reaches of acceptable reality, and arguably even beyond what’s acceptable for adult fantasy or historical adventure.
This film might have worked better if they’d changed the names and done it as a fact-inspired work of fiction, because the factual elements they chose to leave in, especially those that haven’t got to do with the main story of the mutiny, seem to stand out that much more. For instance, the Bounty’s alcoholic surgeon Thomas Huggan is included in the film, but is bafflingly renamed Dr. Bacchus (or Dr. Faggot, as we misheard in the first instance due to Gable’s clipped delivery and the hissy soundtrack). His eventual death by indolence (historically accurate) is slanderously attributed to Bligh in the film. The breadfruit plays a minimal role in this one – it’s the Macguffin they’re going to Tahiti to get, they engage in minimal bartering with the Tahitian chief to obtain the plants, and they’re thrown out of the Bounty by celebrant mutineers as Bligh is left stranded. In fact, the journey itself is just an excuse to get a lot of big personalities confined in a small space for two hours. The Cape Horn attempt is left out, and the stopover in Tahiti is dedicated to meeting the film’s ‘romance’ quota; Christian meets his wife Maimiti, as played by Mamo under extreme soft focus. Bligh doesn’t have many scenes on Tahiti, presumably because he’s off killing puppies. This film won the Oscar for Best Picture in its year, but to me this doesn’t even feel like a particularly classic ‘classic film’.
Moving on, we tackled Lewis Milestone’s 1962 lavish Mutiny on the Bounty. This one’s a true 1960s epic – big sets, big costumes, big colours, big names. This was Brando’s last big film before his star waned, and it’d take him another ten years to reclaim the spotlight – not that he seemed to care. He fell in love with Tahiti during the filming of this movie, married Tarita, who plays Maimiti in this version, and ended up buying an island in the region.
The film unfolds at first through the eyes of the ship’s botanist, charged with creating a healthy, prosperous environment for the hallowed breadfruit. There’s narration, but after a while the filmmakers forget about it, and by the end it’s not clear whose perspective we’re getting. This movie is as much of a product of its time as the Gable film was, and with a three hour running time it doesn’t let you forget it. It includes an overture and an intermission, which is great if you’re foolishly doing a triple shot like we did.
Brando’s strange take on the character of Christian isn’t entirely unwelcome, and for the most part it’s very entertaining – during the character establishment scene in which we’re introduced to various crew members while the ship is in port (with the notable omission of the drunk surgeon, who does not appear at all in this film) Brando makes a grand entrance literally dressed as a pimp, and with a girl on each arm. He looks like a pilgrim Billy Zane, and for the entire scene he never loses his broad smirk. Foppish dandy doesn’t even begin to describe his appearance and manner, and his helium voice is without any discernible accent.
Clearly, this interpretation clashes with Trevor Howard’s stern reimagining of Bligh. No longer a cartoonish villain, this Bligh is a strict authoritarian, and you really get a sense that he’s someone who’s spent years in the Royal Navy. No-nonsense to a fault, Bligh isn’t even shown to laugh for the first hour and a half, and his one laughing scene is predictably at another crewman’s expense. Brando’s antagonism of Bligh begins early, and the dynamic between the two is more like an Odd Couple situation – the uptight hardass and the carefree layabout opposed to Gable’s Fairbanksian hero and Laughton’s pantomime villain.
In this Bounty, Brando seems to be more disruptive of Bligh’s mission-minded agenda, and whatever discontent there is among the crew, led by Richard Harris, Brando is happy to fuel. There’s the token scenes of flogging and torture, but Howard concentrates his punishment on a select few rabble rousers rather than subjecting the entire crew to misery, and this of course is ultimately his undoing.
The Bounty replica is very impressive this time around, and the rich colour of the film not only does it justice, but the South Pacific locations as well, which look fantastic (when they’re not AstroTurfed sets). The attempt to round Cape Horn is shown in all its soggy glory, and is genuinely gripping. Howard conveys the sense that he’s a worldly seaman who could have made it with the right crew, and his rage at the crew’s failure seems justified. Brando’s hardly the man of action Gable was, and during these scenes of Hornbloweresque high sea adventure he just seems out of place, serving only to antagonise Bligh with his flippancy and smug aristocratic manner.
When the crew finally reaches Tahiti, we get more of a look at the native Tahitians – tribal rituals are shown, including an amusing scene where Bligh is persuaded to dance with the chief’s daughter. Bligh’s spasmodic dancing is met with derision by the crew, which is of course the reason he’s reluctant to do it – but if he doesn’t, he won’t get the breadfruit.
It’s little scenes like this that make the psychological nature of the mutiny that much more credible – it’s a constant power struggle. Brando’s physique was constantly fluctuating during production, and as a result his Christian never has a shirtless scene like in the other films. This wouldn’t be a big deal if he didn’t look so ridiculous rolling around on the sand with Maimiti in full Naval uniform, having abandoned his pimp suit by this point.
The crew are shown enjoying the freedom of the island, but Bligh is shown in several instances to violently reject the island ways, further building on the ‘us vs him’ dynamic. Howard’s Bligh still has moments of unreasonable sadism – there’s another keelhauling, another scene of rowboats towing the Bounty, and plenty of flogging.
But things reach boiling point when Bligh is informed that the breadfruit won’t survive the journey from Tahiti to the West Indies without fresh water – to solve the problem, he cuts the crew’s water rations. It’s the last straw, and one that sends Brando from puffing on a pipe while wearing a silk sleeping cap in one scene to booting Bligh up the ass and starting the mutiny in the next. Harris’ sailor taunts and goads Brando into rising up against Bligh, but in the end the mutiny is an impulsive reaction to a particularly brutal instance of Bligh’s cruelty (Bligh kicks a ladle of water en route to a man delirious from drinking seawater out of Brando’s hand) more than anything else.
Once Bligh and his faithful are set adrift, Brando’s take on the Christian character changes completely. Gone are the smirks, the posing, the capes – they’re replaced by excessive brooding in dimly lit cabins, albeit with the pimp outfit still visible in the background. With Bligh gone, he’s at a loss – and this seems credible. Christian’s impulsive act wasn’t thought through, and although the crew is keen to get back to the hedonistic pleasures of Tahiti, Brando becomes desperate for guidance.
Meanwhile, Bligh is shown in part making his journey from Tonga to Batavia on the rowboat, but the film cuts from this to Bligh stepping out of a carriage back in England without any exposition. Once again, he’s exonerated by the Naval court but told off in front of everyone for being an asshole. At this point Bligh leaves the picture, and the rest is all Brando. He makes his way to Pitcairn’s Island after discovering it on a map, but he’s still filled with regret for his actions. He discusses taking the Bounty back to England with Harris and the other mutineers so as to illuminate Bligh’s villainy (how heroic), but they’re quite happy to live like kings on the island – happy enough to burn the Bounty so that Brando doesn’t spoil their future.
In a ridiculous, fictional ending borne of the writers writing themselves into a corner, Brando races aboard the burning ship to save the sextant just in case he ever manages to get hold of another boat and feels like heading home. He sustains fatal injuries (!) and has a Hollywood death scene on the beach. There’s some heavy handed parallel imagery of the boat sinking as he dies, and even the ever-mutinous Harris is shown looking regretful.
You might have noticed that I’ve referred to ‘Brando’ more than I have ‘Christian’, and that’s because the man overshadows the character. It’s just the impression I’m left with, just as much as Gable’s matinee-idol charisma almost completely eliminated any attempts at creating a character. Howard and Laughton fare much better, with Howard especially disappearing into the role in a subtle way. Bligh’s character in this version is a man under what he feels is extreme duress. He’s a man at war, as he says, with bad weather, bad currents and bad sailors. The film does well to show all of these things affecting him, and although he doesn’t exactly begin the film as a warm figure, you at least feel some sympathy for him – at least until the keelhauling. We can understand his motivations, and so can Brando, and that adds to Christian’s conflict following the mutiny. 1962’s Bounty has a dour yet silly ending, but it’s more satisfying than the 1935 film. I think the filmmakers must have felt that Brando had to die because he really had done the wrong thing, whereas Gable had been completely righteous. It’s an interesting insight into changing sensibilities, and the start of a trend toward darker, bleaker storytelling in Hollywood.
By the time we got to Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty, we were starting to get sick of the formula. Evil captain, reluctant hero. Mutiny. Natives. How did a third film on the same subject have any chance at freshening things up?
Well for starters, this film doesn’t draw from the Nordhoff/Hall novel as the last two did. Instead, it’s inspired by Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian by Richard Hough, which was renowned upon its 1972 release as the most historically accurate account of the mutiny published to that date. The book’s major difference was that it presented Bligh and Christian as friends at the start of the voyage, which had basis in historical fact – they’d sailed on voyages before the Bounty.
What’s interesting is that The Bounty‘s producer Dino DeLaurentiis had previously produced Hurricane, based on a novel by Nordhoff and Hall. This adaptation, written by Robert Bolt, was originally going to be directed by David Lean as two films: one for the mutiny and one for the aftermath. Lean’s stock in Hollywood had fallen after the disastrous reception received by Ryan’s Daughter, and this, coupled with the increasingly large budget, tricky logistics and a stroke suffered by Bolt during pre-production, caused Lean to exit the project. When Mel Gibson ended up being offered the role of Christian, he asked his friend, Australian-born, New Zealand director Roger Donaldson to direct.
During Lean’s time on the film, Anthony Hopkins was one of the names touted for the role of Bligh, and this decision was retained for Donaldson’s film. Rather than inventing a character to be the eyes of the audience, or half-heartedly putting us in the shoes of the ‘impartial’ botanist and forgetting about him a third of the way in, this film frames its story with Bligh’s post-mutiny trial in England, so for most of the film we’re given his perspective of events. It’s ridiculous to imagine this kind of film working in any way if you’re only familiar with Laughton’s Bligh, but Hopkins gives such a careful, considered performance as Bligh that it’s a pleasure to take the journey once more.
Likewise, Gibson takes the brooding aspect of Brando’s performance and combines that with a character who was written as a reactive observer. Nothing escapes Christian, and Gibson’s eyes convey much of his inner struggles. Bligh and Christian, in this film, are men with strong yet wildly different senses of right and wrong, and it comes across thanks to decent acting and directing that allows for subtlety in both performances.
You can sympathise with both, making this one much more of a tragedy than either of the previous movies. The friendship, the optimism, odd little character moments along the way (such as Bligh’s reluctance to get it on with the Tahitian chief’s daughter) all come together to paint a far more realistic portrait of what went on on the ship. The crew don’t start off hating an evil captain, but they’re slowly turned into mutinous dogs by a series of what they believe to be injustices (the failed bid to round Cape Horn, excitingly shown in this film, the unnecessary cruelty of the ship’s first mate Fryer, the unexpectedly long time spent in Tahiti cut short by a jealous Bligh).
Bligh’s story to the admiralty in England suggests that the crew was corrupted by the hedonistic Christian, but we’re allowed to see how Christian himself became that way. Bligh in fairness blames the tropical location itself as being part of the problem, and it shows – in having to stay for far longer than originally expected thanks to the delicate nature of the breadfruit, the crew becomes accustomed to the decadent lifestyle afforded them by the Tahitians…a lifestyle Bligh wants no part of. Bligh, constantly surrounded by his loyalists – the sneering Fryer, the drunk surgeon Huggan (correctly named this time), the ship’s flog-master Cole – appears to become jealous of Christian, who himself is constantly in the company of topless Tahitian women. It’s not something that’s explicitly stated, but it’s a latent feeling that builds as the film goes on.
Eventually, Bligh grows to resent Christian and they go from a first name basis at the start of the film to short and sarcastic uses of their full titles, wielded like weapons. But that doesn’t make Bligh the sadistic pirate of the past – only two floggings are issued on the voyage, and both stem from a desertion attempt by a few particularly surly crew members. No keelhauling, although the ship’s first-timer is dunked into the ocean as the Bounty crosses the equator.
Every now and then, the underlying tensions reach a boiling point and there’s a shouted confrontation, which makes the actual mutiny that much more shocking, as it’s not like steam wasn’t being let off throughout the trip. One such shouting match following the disastrous Cape Horn attempt results in the first mate Fryer replaced with Christian by an angry Bligh, who blames his crew for the failure. The catalyst for the mutiny this time is fictional, but a prime example of a time when taking license works. Bligh, still envious of his crew’s excesses in Tahiti, seeks to claim some glory of his own from the journey by going through with his desire to circumnavigate the globe. The only way to do this is by rounding Cape Horn on the trip from Tahiti to Jamaica to deliver the breadfruit. He announces this to the crew, and understandably, they’re a little upset – or as Mel puts it, ‘the men won’t have it’. For Christian, this is beyond reasonable. He sees it as Bligh’s passive aggressive punishment of the men for their decadence, and one that puts everyone’s life at risk simply for Bligh’s glory. Incited to mutiny by the officer Ned Young, Christian takes the ship in a rage.
Of all the tensions amongst the crew, Christian’s by this point have been the most suppressed. He’s formed a connection with a Tahitian princess (and gotten her pregnant), he’s learned the Tahitian language, he’s been heavily tattooed…he has no want to return to England, but has no idea what to do about it. As he says, he is in hell. The mutiny isn’t a sudden boiling over of emotions and anger, like Brando’s, nor is it a long-awaited heroic act like Gable’s. It’s extremely personal for Christian, something his brutish accomplices don’t understand.
They set Bligh adrift, but Christian makes sure Bligh is given the navigational equipment he’ll need for his journey. From here, the film leaves behind Bligh’s narration and focuses on the diverging paths, and the repercussions of what seemed like a simple and necessary decision for Christian.
A lot of criticism I’ve read of this film attacks it for presenting events, particularly in the second half, from Bligh’s perspective that he could have no knowledge of. I disagree – the film’s presentation of Bligh’s memories are completely different from Christian’s solo scenes, and a lot of credit for this goes to Gibson’s expressive features. We can tell that we’re not getting any of it through Bligh’s eyes.
What we do get through Bligh’s perspective is a much more involved and brutal account of his against-the-odds journey to Batavia, including a particularly disturbing scene where his starving party lands on an island full of hostile natives. Never before in any of the films has the concept that British soldiers and sailors look so out of place in the tropics been presented so well than in this scene. Bligh struggles to barter with the savages, giving them his hat in return for meagre supplies, but the natives are far too worked up to conduct civilised proceedings like the Tahitians. One crewman makes the mistake of attacking them, and is brutally murdered. In their sailor hats and heavy coats, it’s clear such sailors were never meant to be in tropical paradises like the archipelagos shown here. It’s a distant death, and one that sticks. It gives you a strong impression of just how far away from home they are, and how far they have to go.
Meanwhile, Christian is discovering that his crew weren’t as satiated by the mutiny as he thought. When they land back at Tahiti to pick up their women and supplies, he’s told in no uncertain terms by the chief that Christian is to leave, because otherwise the British navy will unleash hell on the island in retribution. Christian’s face indicates he hadn’t considered that, just as it does when told by several crew members that they’d prefer to stay in Tahiti than go with him. Silently, he leaves with his scant few loyalists, who are more loyal to the freedom afforded to them by the mutiny than Christian himself.
As they drift aimlessly around the South Pacific in the Bounty, the crew lose faith in Christian’s idea that they’ll happen upon an inhabitable island. It culminates in a scene where Christian’s forced to train a gun on the discontented crew while they steer the boat in search of Pitcairn’s Island, which he’s found on a map, with his wife waking him every time he drifts off to sleep. Being the leader isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
At the same time, Bligh and his crew are wasting away (and adorned in fake beards) when they finally arrive at Batavia. He’s able to make his way from there to England, where we find him at the end of his trial. The admiralty places the blame for the mutiny on Christian, and Bligh is pardoned. He tears up as he leaves the courtroom. Christian has by now found Pitcairn’s Island, and he and the Bounty’s crew watch the ship burn in the island’s bay. The look on their faces suggests they’re unprepared for an uncertain future, and that the one thing they’re sure about is that they’ve reached the point of no return.
This movie, made in 1984, is indicative of that era’s shift towards darker, more psychological storytelling applied to familiar tales, and for mine, it succeeds. The photography is beautiful, and feels more natural than the overblown colours of the 1962 film. The music, an electronic score by Vangelis, is a far cry from the bombastic sailor tunes and sweeping overtures of the past, and does well to establish a sinister vibe and feeling of isolation. Hopkins and Gibson are a great pairing, and their dynamic is excellent. Neither is afforded more screen time over the other, and neither comes out a clear ‘winner’. It’s morally ambiguous, and the first of these films to truly challenge the audience. For that I think it should be commended.
By the end of the three films we were pretty much Bountied out, but it was nice to end on the most satisfying film as opposed to most trilogies. Each film provides a different experience, no prior film is made redundant by its successor, and I think that’s commendable. So many remakes or retellings seek to replace the former in the public’s mind, and for that reason so many fail.
These films are star driven – the audience is likely to make the 2-3 hour commitment based on the stars involved rather than the story, which is certainly the sort where you think ‘but I know how it ends’. The 1984 film does the best at shattering expectations (although I was surprised by Brando’s silly death scene), and also, arguably, does the best at delivering on its star promise. It’s arguable because fans of Gable and Laughton probably won’t be disappointed by the 1935 film, but fans of the story probably will be. Fans of subtlety will be absolutely devastated by it, that’s for sure.
I’m not sure that Brando’s performance in his film was among his best, although it’s interesting, and despite not having ‘fans’ in the traditional sense, Trevor Howard puts on a good show for anyone watching the film for him.
Gibson and Hopkins absolutely deliver, and both make you want to see sequels involving Bligh’s rum rebellion in NSW or Christian’s struggles on Pitcairn Island – and that’s something you can’t say about the older films. As I’ve said, the films are very much products of their time, and in this way the 1984 film holds up best. We can only await and dread the inevitable Disney/Pixar version set in space in the distant future, or the gritty Michael Bay horror reboot, or Mutiny on the Bounty by Zombies naff comedy remake. I am in hell, sir.