The Bounty (1984) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
There have been several well-known film versions of the mutiny on
board the HMS Bounty during the return portion of an expedition to
Tahiti in 1789. Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutineers, has
been played by such screen legends as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and
Marlon Brando. This particular version of the story features Mel
Gibson in the Christian role, and Anthony Hopkins as William Bligh,
the legal commander of the ship. The impressive supporting cast also
includes Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson.
Ambitious? You bet. It not only features big stars, but a big story as well. The historical details of the story are so complex that Nordhoff and Hall required three books to tell the whole tale. The first volume told of the actual mutiny. The second recounted Captain Bligh's sail to safety in an open launch after he was set adrift from the Bounty. This was one of the most miraculous acts of seamanship in history. Bligh managed to traverse 3600 miles of open sea in an overcrowded boat, with nothing but a sextant and a watch, and he lost not a single member of his 18 loyal crewmen at sea. The third Nordhoff/Hall volume followed the fate of the mutineers after their insurrection, including the establishment and ultimate failure of their new society on remote, uncharted, unpopulated Pitcairn Island.
The 1984 film uses as a framing device the hearing in which the Royal Navy examined Bligh's responsibility for the loss of his ship. Various and assorted admirals and other stuffy old bewigged fellows huff and puff about while Bligh pleads his case. This hearing was not based on a presumption of irresponsibility on Bligh's part, but was an automatic proceeding under British law, and Bligh was ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing after he told his story, which we see in flashbacks. Somehow we also manage to see something of Fletcher's men post-mutiny as well, although Bligh could not be narrating their story to the court. The story ends with the mutineers burning the Bounty, symbolically separating themselves from England forever. Their ultimate fate is not addressed, not are the fates of the other men, loyalists and mutineers alike, who stayed behind on Tahiti to face their eventual courts-martial in England.
This version is generally believed to be the closest any film has come to the historical truth. The earlier versions of the story were based to some degree or another on the Nordhoff/Hall works, and those tended to portray Bligh as a ruthless taskmaster in contrast to Christian the compassionate hero. That inaccurate perspective is basically the result of Christian's brother having won the public relations battle with William Bligh back in England. Although the courts sided with Bligh, and he is considered to have been a fair man and a rather lenient disciplinarian by the standards of the day, he was an acid-tongued individual with few friends while (as the Wikipedia entry states) Edward Christian was a "celebrated barrister and brother of Fletcher. He wrote an impassioned screed defending his brother and had it appended to the court-martial proceedings of the 10 prisoners from the Bounty that had been captured in Tahiti and brought to London for trial. Although Bligh wrote a defense of his character supported by statements from crewmen on the Bounty and other vessels, Bligh lost the public opinion war. Thus was created the popular myth of the villainous Bligh and the noble Christian." In reality, Bligh was not only acquitted by the hearing, but went on to a long a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, eventually rising to the rank of vice-admiral!
The 1984 film is not based on the famous Nordhoff/Hall books, but on a 1972 account called "Captain Bligh and Mister Christian," written by Richard Hough. Lacking the "Christian as hero" conceit, the film takes a very unusual approach to the central character of Christian. It turns him into a virtual bystander. He rarely speaks. (I wonder if this always part of the character, or whether it was changed to accommodate Mel Gibson's uneasy British accent.) While the other Fletcher Christians of cinema have been tortured souls (Brando) or men of derring-do (Flynn and Gable), Gibson is simply a man of derring-don't, an enigmatic and taciturn figure guided by inertia, a reluctant leader who seems to offer his men neither leadership nor counsel, and never offers us a clear idea of why he chose to betray his friend, a man he had sailed with twice previously without incident. In fact, Christian was Bligh's protégé, and gladly signed on for the third voyage, during the early part of which Bligh promoted him over another officer to second-in-command. It seems to me that any version of this story needs to offer some explanation of how their friendship could have turned around so quickly.
Richard Hough's source book does offer that explanation, but the movie dropped it. Hough hypothesizes that Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian were really gay lovers, and that their intimate relationship explains why Bligh was so jealous of Christian's love affair with his Tahitian girl, why he rode Christian so hard after they sailed from Tahiti, and why he was in such a foul mood in general from the time Christian took on his native lover. Although that hypothesis supplied the motivation which the film was lacking, I'm glad the screenplay dropped the homosexual angle, although I have to admit that it might have been entertaining to see some sex scenes between Mad Max and Dr. Lecter. It is, however, quite interesting to watch the film after finding out that the source book had posited this theory, because there are some sequences that make more sense if you accept the gay subtext. In particular, there is a long sequence in which Bligh fidgets, fusses, and sleeps fitfully on the ship while Christian romps with his native lover, and the sequence could easily be interpreted to imply that Bligh is thinking of Christian and missing him romantically, although one would not draw that conclusion without knowing the theory in advance, or at least I didn't when I first watched the film. I assumed that Bligh was worried that his friend was "going native" and would be hard to re-civilize, and I felt that Bligh was perhaps a bit jealous because of his own seeming inability to enjoy his stay in Tahiti while Fletcher was just having such a good time.
Although the script didn't make Fletcher Christian gay, it did make him a bit of a weakling and so passive as to be virtually non-existent, and that makes the film uninvolving. As you watch this, you might share my strong dislike for both men. You may also feel that too much of the film's running time is occupied by spectacles which do not advance the story: the long, long greeting party in Tahiti; the long, long native ceremonies; the long, long period of storms wracking the ship as it tries to sail around the Horn. And after all that, the film still seems to end in the middle of the story.
The Bounty splits critics and audiences. Critics loved it. Roger Ebert and the BBC gave it perfect scores. 92% of the reviews linked from Rotten Tomatoes are positive. Yet the film opened on a weekend with three other big releases, and finished last among the four. It also lost out to some carry-overs. When the smoke had cleared, the total gross was a mere $8 million, despite the big budget and superstar cast. Critics may go to the theater for a history lesson, and may view a balanced and accurate film positively, but very few moviegoers give a whit for accuracy. Hey, I know the Gable/Laughton version was bullshit, but it was very entertaining bullshit. The main question moviegoers tend to ask is this: is the story fast-moving and involving enough to entertain? Based on the box office, this one was obviously not.
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