The Bounty is the kind of production that falls into the “tradition of quality” school of filmmaking. Like other products of that school (Lawrence of Arabia, for example, or Doctor Zhivago) The Bounty is big, expensive, serious, ambitious, wonderful to look at – and also strangely incomplete. There’s a tendency, when making a spectacle like this, to lose the human beings in the grand pattern of the story. I think that’s what happens in The Bounty, so that at the end there’s just a trace of pointlessness about the whole movie.
I didn’t invoke Lawrence and Zhivago by accident. David Lean, who directed those award-winners and was much in the forefront of quality film making in the 1950s and ’60s, was long involved with The Bounty. Lean’s long- time collaborator, playwright Robert Bolt, wrote the literate script.
At some point, Lean jumped ship (so did his Fletcher Christian – Christopher Reeve), and was replaced by Roger Donaldson, a New Zealander with just two features to his credit. Donaldson’s Smash Palace was impressive enough to give hope that he’d invest plenty of intensity in The Bounty.
That hope has not been sorely let down. The Bounty is fairly riveting in unspooling its tale, the facts of which are well-known. It’s told as a flashback during the trial of Lt. William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins). We see that it’s friendship that sparks Bligh to pick young Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) as mate for the arduous, globe spanning voyage, a voyage that seeks to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica, where the food will be used as a staple for slaves.
In case you’ve forgotten (or don’t remember the previous film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty – Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in 1935, Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in 1962), the tyrannical Bligh terrorizes the Bounty crew. When they finally limp into Tahiti, and sample the pagan pleasures there, the young sailots find it a not unthinkable alternative to returning to England.
After they leave the island, Christian leads a mostly unplanned mutiny, and Bligh set adrift with loyal seamen. Christian and his men are doomed to wander in search of a hospitable resting place.
In this version, the story itself maintains its fascination. Bligh has been slightly humanized, and Christian steered closer to the edge of insanity. There’s been an attempt to make their relationship more complex, but the tension of the story still springs from the basic excitement of their showdowns.
Any version of the mutiny on the Boumty rises and falls with its lead actors. Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson are fine and believable, though rarely more than that. The supporting players – especially the rowdy, unkempt crew – are unusually well-cast. Of special note is Wi Kuki Kaa, who plays the Tahitian king with understated dignity.
Donaldson and his cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson have made the film exceptionally handsome. The contrast between the rigidity of British systems and the looseness of Tahitian paradise is visualized by Donaldson in the cool blues and polished hardwood of the British sections, compared with the warm, lush greens and yellows of the island. The eerie credit sequence, composed of shots of Tahiti, gives a sense of the spell that the island will cast (Vangelis’ evocative music helps, too).
There is much to admire here. In fact, I’m not so sure I didn’t underestimate the film on first viewing. It still seems oddly unmoving, and a little too stately, but it’s been staying with me in the days since I’ve seen it. The lure of the promise of paradise and the overthrow of tyranny is a powerful one. I’m looking forward to another trip aboard The Bounty.
First published in the Herald, May 1984
Still a movie that’s easy to watch for a while if it goes by on TV, to the extent that movies still “go by” on TV. The sailor cast included Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Dexter Fletcher, and Phil Davis, among others, so yes, it was pretty good. A bio of David Lean reveals just how long he spent working on the screenplay, or possibly just hanging out in the South Seas while dreaming about the trade winds and breadfruit. Finally, Gibson’s fervenet reading of the line “I am in hell, sir!” has been bandied about through the years by a select group of people in the know.