WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: At an Admiral’s Court of Inquiry, Lieutenant William Bligh is asked to give an account of how and why his ship The Bounty was taken by the crew in a mutiny led by Fletcher Christian. As events unfold, Bligh is shown to be less than a hard-hearted monster, while Christian’s naive idealism leads him into some very rocky waters.
If your understanding of what happened on board The Bounty comes solely from the celebrated Clark Gable vehicle Mutiny on The Bounty, you will no doubt be of the opinion that Bligh was a lying tyrant who deserved everything he got and Fletcher Christian a salt-of-the-Earth character who did what he had to do to earn dignity and respect for the ordinary sailor. Roger Donaldson’s version of the story, claiming the high ground of historical accuracy, corrects some of these false impressions; whether or not it can claim the high ground of being a better film as a result is a different matter entirely.
The Bounty begins not at sea but on land, with Lieutenant (as he was) Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) facing a Court of Inquiry into the events surrounding the loss of the ship during a mission to take breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica. Once this frame is established, we travel back to the start of the mission and find Bligh troubled not so much by Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson), a good friend whom Bligh has asked to come on board The Bounty, as by designated First Mate Fryer (Daniel Day-Lewis). Tension on board the ship is largely limited to the lower rank sailors and mostly initiated by troublemaker Churchill (Liam Neeson), and Bligh doesn’t ruffle many feathers until he reveals his ambition to confront the dangerous seas around Cape Horn. Fryer, rather than Christian, shows insubordination and a month of failure to round the Horn sees Christian promoted when Bligh reluctantly admits defeat. The ship eventually reaches Tahiti where the crew are enthusiastically welcomed by the semi-naked natives and King Tynah (Wi Kuki Kaa), Fletcher’s eye taken by his beautiful daughter Mauatua (Tevaite Vernette).
The freedom of island life is a world away from that on The Bounty, where Bligh retains his strict, stuffy orderliness, and the situation becomes too much for Churchill and others to bear. Christian’s love for Mauatua and the harsh treatment of deserters, plus Bligh’s renewed determination to round Cape Horn, drive Fletcher to mutiny, and Bligh is put on a launch where only his faith, endurance and seafaring skills keep him and those loyal to him alive; Christian, meanwhile, finds his deeds met with horror by King Tynah and he and his new wife are banished. They set off with the mutinous crew to find an acceptable home, but all discover that life on the run is far from idyllic.
There are plenty of things to be said in The Bounty’s favour. It’s a handsome-looking film, with a handsome-looking ship at its heart, and it’s clear that no expense has been spared to recreate the events of the time – there are no back-projections here, and no CGI either. The screenplay concentrates on making recognisable men out of the lead characters and the actors do well in portraying their complexities; Hopkins is particularly good as Bligh, whose self-assurance is seen to be borne out of experience rather than arrogance, though his quest for glory as a circumnavigator eventually undoes him. While Gibson is less forceful, his moodiness is also more realistic than Gable’s bluff charms, and we can easily believe that Christian acted out of love for a beautiful woman rather than a selfless determination to see the Navy do right by its men. In smaller roles, actors like Bernard Hill and Phil Davis also impress, while it is nice to see newcomers such as Laurence Olivier make a cameo appearance.
Why, then, the middling score? Well, while Roger Donaldson captures some very pretty pictures, he fails to invest the film with much in the way of excitement or momentum, a problem immediately demonstrated by the stuffed wigs in the Court of Inquiry, a framing device which serves to restore Bligh’s reputation but doesn’t do anything for the film’s pacing. When the mutiny does come, it’s late on in the film and overly shouty, its imminent arrival heralded with clumsy musical stings (more on the music shortly). Also, while I will forego my usual dig at Dino de Laurentiis productions and concede that the partial nudity is probably historically authentic, The Bounty does itself no favours by lingering on the bodies of the Tahitians (where are all the chunky ones, or ones with bad teeth?). By intercutting Christian’s sexual relations with Mauatua with the sweating face of Bligh (he has previously pored over a portrait of his wife), the film is given a psycho-sexual subtext that it really doesn’t need. Incidentally, sex provides The Bounty with one of its rare comic moments when Bligh is expected to sleep with one of Tynah’s wives; the film would have done well to take itself less seriously, follow Mutiny on The Bounty’s lead and include more light relief.
And then there is the music. I praised Vangelis for his spacey score for Blade Runner, which suited the futuristic mood of the film perfectly. However, Vangelis also provides a mostly spacey score for this story of 18th Century seafaring and not only does it fail to liven up the drama of the film, it feels entirely out of place. Synthesisers really don’t sit well amongst the costumes and customs of life at sea, and I will have to watch Chariots of Fire again to see if something inherently makes the modern music work better for that film; here, the broad synth pads that accompany long shots of the boat merely make you wonder why both were not cut to save time.
The Bounty certainly deserves credit for its overall presentation, offering more balanced portrayals of both Bligh and Christian than other cinematic versions of the story, and facing up to the truth about what happened to Christian and his violent band of mutineers (the closing caption stands as a direct rebuke to Mutiny on The Bounty’s opening one). But in its quest to be even-handed, the film forgets to say anything decisive and drifts for long stretches in the doldrums. This, together with Vangelis’ very middling score, explains the middling score.