THE BOUNTY: Blu-ray reissue (Orion Pictures, 1984) Kino Lorber
The third, and least successful of the talkie adaptations devoted to its maritime folly, director, Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty (1984) applies a revisionist’s take to this scandalous mutiny at sea, but ends up forfeiting character development to a cavalcade of visually arresting set pieces; some more efficacious than others. The real Bounty’s ill-fated voyage has been retold a total of 5-times. But on this costly ($20 million) remake, producer, Dino De Laurentiis damn-near lost the shirt off his back. The picture only grossed a measly $8,613,462 domestically and barely $18 million worldwide. Chiefly, the fault lay in Robert Bolt’s screenplay, or rather, the rewriting of it by Melvyn Bragg after Bolt suffered a debilitating stroke and was forced to drop out of the project. Bolt, is should be acknowledged, was a brilliant constructionist. What The Bounty might have been had he not fallen ill and stuck with it we will never know. But valiant strides were made to depict Lt. William Bligh as an infinitely more complex and not altogether tyrannical disciplinarian. Bligh (superbly rendered by Sir Anthony Hopkins) emerges as a remarkably sympathetic administrator, edgy but genuine. Bligh, however, is not about to suffer fools or mutineers. His counterpoint, Fletcher Christian, usually depicted as the noblest of men, was, in life, an opportunist by all accounts and not a very nice man. So, to cast the uber-studly Mel Gibson in the part – Gibson, at the veritable height of his manly sex appeal – is to subvert our expectations and deny Donaldson his truth to this character. As such, it remains an awkward transition as these flawed alliances, begun in friendship, devolve into sheer and abject contempt for authority. And Gibson, if only in his physical contents, parallels the masculine grace and charismatic of Clark Gable in the 1935 Oscar-winning classic, Mutiny on the Bounty. Marlon Brando’s rather effete reincarnation for the ’62 landmark picture remake, also made by MGM, has no bearing by direct comparison, though Brando’s curiously perceptive fop in officer’s britches is fascinating to watch in its own right. But had Gibson played Fletcher Christian as Brando did, then this ‘Bounty’ might have at least sailed under more auspicious tailwinds.
The Bounty’s accuracy is well noted; the depiction of the natives in all manner of naked undress, their lost innocence and manipulation by these western travelers, come to exploit and take advantage of their island hospitality, is most frankly realized herein; photographed to perfection by cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur Ibbetson. A remake of Mutiny on the Bounty had long been a passion project of director, David Lean who conspired with Robert Bolt from 1977 until 1980 to hew an original take; or rather – a 2-part epic; the first half: tentatively titled, The Lawbreakers – dealing exclusively with the voyage to Tahiti; the second: The Long Arm, focusing on the subsequent mutiny and response to it by the investigating admiralty. As early as 1979, Lean brokered a sweetheart’s deal with Warner Bros. to make this project a reality. For reasons unknown, the studio withdrew its support in the eleventh hour of pre-planning and Lean, demoralized, though not without his resources, next shopped the property around as a 7-part TV miniseries. At this juncture, Italian magnate, Dino De Laurentiis stepped in, basically, to write Lean a blank check. Tragically, Bolt suffered a massive stroke – his screenplay, as yet incomplete, handed over to Melvyn Bragg, who ended up rewriting most of it. Lean’s verve for the project was soured by this turn of events. Indeed, Bolt had written screenplays for two of Lean’s greatest masterpieces, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). To continue without his participation now was unthinkable. Hence, Lean was coaxed out, the reins given to Mel Gibson’s friend, Roger Donaldson at his behest. Possibly, Lean could take modest comfort in the knowledge at least one of the actors he had first considered for Capt. Bligh actually won the role. Lean had also favored Oliver Reed.
Despite the seemingly foregone conclusion of casting Gibson, the part of Fletcher Christian was originally offered to Christopher Reeve, then Sting and finally, David Essex. Even before casting was completed, De Laurentiis spent a small fortune on his recreation of the infamous vessel; the Bounty rebuilt to scale at whopping $4 million in New Zealand. Interestingly, given such mammoth expenditures, The Bounty actually came in under budget as De Laurentiis jettisoned Lean’s original plan to outfit the frigate Rose as a stand-in for the Pandora (never seen in the finished film). Despite its many virtues, The Bounty (both ship and the movie) are a wan ghost flower of the 1962 classic, ambitiously photographed aboard a slightly bigger than actual full-scale replica of the Bounty, with cast and crew, actually charting the same course as the real vessel, and, even more miraculously, encountering, shooting and surviving a truly horrendous gale at sea off Cape Horn. There is nothing to compare Mother Nature’s ferocity in either the ‘35 or ’84 versions; a 25 ft. replica of the Bounty’s decks instead built on a gimbal for this remake with SFX added in to recreate a perilous storm at sea. As in the ’62 version, Donaldson and company did make their pilgrimage to various tropical locales, for authenticity: Moorea, French Polynesia, Port of Gisborne, New Zealand and at Greenwich Palace, and, the Reform Club, Pall Mall, London. Virtually all of the establishing shots of the Bounty at sea were photographed against sunrises and sunsets in Opunohu Bay, where Captain James Cook had laid anchor in 1777.
To state that filming in these far-off places put a strain on the cast would be something of an understatement; particularly as Mel Gibson frequently indulged his predilection for strong drink at a local watering hole; on one account, getting into a formidable skirmish, resulting in a bashed in face that required the considerable artistry of a makeup man to conceal its outward ravages. Gibson – then, something of a raging alcoholic, and Anthony Hopkins – long since a reformed one, were to develop a mutual friendship as shooting progressed. Perhaps, Hopkins empathized with Gibson’s affliction a little too closely. Still, both actors had nothing but good things to say about the other, with Gibson acknowledging his co-star as a highly “moral man” and Hopkins attesting to Gibson as “a wonderful fellow with a marvelous future.” One of the minor revelations in this remake is William Bligh and Fletcher Christian were, in fact, very good friends at the time they agreed to sail on the Bounty. They had already made several voyages together, with Bligh promoting Christian on this voyage, leaving even more unanswered questions about how such a steadfast and lifelong camaraderie could so easily unravel into such adversarial disdain.
As characters in a movie, Bligh and Christian have oft been depicted as villainous and virtuous respectively. It makes sense, as drama – particularly of the action/adventure ilk – functions better with a clear-cut hero at the helm. However, as real men aboard ship, the truth to their character was far less clear-cut and perhaps even a little disconcerting. The real Fletcher Christian was barely twenty-two at the time of the mutiny, but acted more like a teenager than a man. By contrast, the real William Bligh was barely thirty-five when he took command, but behaved as a sage of the seas. If anything, the role of hero and villain have been reversed in all subsequent re-telling’s of the Bounty’s voyage on celluloid, with Bligh’s reputation having suffered egregiously, remade as the maniacal threat to the sanity and safety of his crew. Speculation has since arisen that perhaps Christian had fallen ill from a condition known as ‘island fever’ – a mania that, given his inflated ego, helped to propel his delusions in taking over the ship. For The Bounty, director Donaldson endeavors to rectify this slight on Bligh’s good name. The miscalculation is that he never does as much for the character of Fletcher Christian. Indeed, Anthony Hopkins, although well beyond Bligh’s actually years, presents us with a William Bligh as loving and devoted husband/father, and, valiant – even compassionate – captain; firm, but considerate of his men’s’ need for diversion from the monotony of the sea, and yet, quite unwilling to let things get entirely out of hand without applying discipline where needed. Previous incarnations of Capt. Bligh, formidably played as a portly baddie by Charles Laughton in 1935, and more subtly nuanced despicable by Trevor Howard in ’62, have nevertheless made the assertion Bligh was not only a bad captain, but also a wicked lot, wholly – or at least, mostly – to be blamed for his own downfall. Yet, this, quite simply is not the case.
Alas, Donaldson’s correction of the historical record is hampered by our built-in expectations to accept Bligh as wicked and Christian, as the crew’s liberator from his tyranny. The casting of Mel Gibson does not help Donaldson either as, excluding Shakespeare’s footnote about he that smiles also harboring less than inward perfection, Gibson’s matinee idol good looks denote his Fletcher Christian as the obvious victor of this seafaring piece. Donaldson and Gibson do attempt to portray Christian’s mania, teetering on teary-eyed foolishness, as he orders Bligh and his officers into a longboat at the point of a sword. But the net result is still that of a ‘basically good’ man, sacrificing tolerance to a terrible influence; Bligh, deviously inflicting needless pain to beat Christian’s common sense to its breaking point. Having it ‘both ways’ does not work – either dramatically or as a chronicle devoted to the historical truth. So, we are left with a sort of faux history, again massaged out of proportion for the movies, yet even less satisfying as it now offers audiences no clear-cut tale of heroism. Life is full of grey areas and people who are undefinable as either purely good or evil. But movies are all about well-delineated conflict and resolution. This can only be achieved satisfactorily on screen when undiluted good vs. evil persists, with virtue – desirably – vanquishing vice before the final fade out.
After a series of moodily lit tropical landscapes, set to an inappropriately brooding synthesizer score by Vangelis (whose Oscar-winning contemo-soundtrack for Chariots of Fire instantly made him numero uno hot stuff in the picture biz), The Bounty begins with the arrival of Commanding Lieutenant William Bligh at the admiralty inquest to determine his responsibility in the mutiny that caused him to lose control of his ship. The presiding judge, Admiral Hood (Laurence Olivier) is strong-minded, yet willing to listen to Bligh’s account, cribbing from his own log book. We digress, in flashback, to the hour when Bligh approached his good friend, Fletcher Christian with the prospect of sailing to Tahiti to collect ‘breadfruit’ pods to plant and grow for Britain’s slave colony in Jamaica. In brief, we are privy to Bligh’s family, his wife (Sharon Bower) and their two daughters, and Christian’s warm regard for all of them. Bligh has already accepted John Fryer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as his second in command. But Christian will be valued among the lesser-ranking officers. And so, Bligh and the Bounty set sail from Great Britain in 1787, on an expedition to circumnavigate the globe and bring back this prized potted plant. At first, all goes according to plan, despite some below decks’ badinage involving the crude and violent seaman, Charles Churchill (Liam Neeson) who, among his many other short-fused bouts of conflict, does not take kindly to anyone sitting in his seat at dinner time.
One of the most frustrating aspects about Donaldson’s faux epic is that he repeatedly takes us out of the central narrative with digressions to Bligh’s inquest – relatively pointless insertions that stall and delay the next chapter in our story. We return to the Bounty as she prepares to travel around Cape Horn; an ambition of Bligh’s, despite the Cape’s well-documented unpredictable weather conditions. At first, entering a brief period of latency, a bank of low-lying clouds ominously backlit by the sun, this calm before the proverbial storm is short-lived erupting into a hellish gale that threatens life and limb aboard the Bounty. Tossed like a cork, the ship narrowly escapes total destruction, forcing Bligh to take the longer eastern route. Already, certain crew members have begun to question Bligh’s ability to command in lieu of his ego and objectives which seem more personally than professionally motivated. Arriving in late October on the isle of Tahiti, the Bounty is afforded a warm welcome by the native inhabitants who sail out to meet her. The reception by King Tynah (Wi Kuki Kaa) is even more encouraging, Tynah presenting Bligh with a portrait of Capt. James Cook, given to him by Cook some years before. Inquiring about Cook, Bligh lies to Tynah, telling him Cook is in excellent health and sends his warmest regards, when, in fact, Cook was murdered in Hawaii. Having heard this too, Tynah questions Bligh again. But Bligh persists in his lie, uneasily accepted by Tynah before the official ceremony.
That evening, as the islanders indulge in a fertility dance, Christian meets Mauatua (Tevaite Vernette) the King’s daughter. Unlike the rest of the crew, who regard the natives as mere savages to be exploited for their own sexual pleasure, Christian is legitimately smitten with Mauatua and vice versa. The two fast become lovers. As the cultivation of the breadfruit will take many months, Bligh’s mission is delayed longer still by wind conditions. Bligh, a pious man, is fairly disgusted by his crew’s slacking discipline. They have become soft and unruly in their taste for these easy pleasures. Inflicting his own judgement and morality, Bligh is increasingly resented by his men, particularly Churchill and Christian. Shortly before departing Tahiti, Christian learns Mauatua is carrying his child. She justly fears never to see him again. Ordered by Bligh aboard the Bounty, Christian complies with grave reluctance. Meanwhile, Churchill – having made an effort to escape with two cohorts – is recaptured and taken aboard ship as she pulls out of harbor. Mercilessly whipped for his insubordination, the steadfastness of Bligh’s cruelty causes several of the crew to grumble that the vessel would best be served if Christian took over from Bligh’s command. Motivated more by his eagerness to be reunited with Mauatua, Christian incites mutiny. The crew is with him. Bligh and his officers are corralled into a longboat and lowered into the sea, given but a few days’ rations and a compass – seemingly a death sentence. And yet, Bligh adamantly vows to avenge this indignation.
Christian and the crew sail back to Tahiti. While King Tynah is deeply disgusted by the mutineers’ actions, he bitterly gives up his daughter to Christian after she expresses her desire to accompany him on the next length of their journey to Pitcairn Island, as yet uncharted by the British and likely to remain so for some time, thus making it the perfect spot to remain autonomous and begin anew. Against all odds, Bligh and the small contingent that have survived on such scant rations, lumber into port in the Dutch East Indies. Bligh’s exceptional tenacity is noted. Indeed, in the present, the tribunal at the inquest salute Bligh for his courage, excellent seamanship in the face of death and leadership, taken only by force and unjustly. And although Admiral Hood infers that Bligh’s sense of discipline may have exceeded the limits of the ship's company, he cannot fault his exceptional survivalist tactics. Bligh is exonerated of any wrong doing and reinstated to his rank. Meanwhile, after some consternation, even the threat of another mutiny against their newly appointed captain, Christian and his mutineers arrive safely at Pitcairn Island. In the penultimate moments, the crew elect to set the Bounty ablaze and sink her into silence. As Christian and his men look on with bittersweet regret, the movie’s epilogue, writ boldly across the screen, explains how, some years later, a British vessel did venture onto the island, only to discover but one of the Bounty’s original crew having survived, with many of their descendants long since dwelling in harmony. However, whatever became of Fletcher Christian remains a mystery to this day.
Even setting aside its historical inaccuracies, made chiefly to indulge artistic license (as virtually every version of this iconic story has preferred fiction to fact), The Bounty is the flimsiest of its cinematic re-tellings. Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson’s portrayals of Bligh and Christian respectively are as incomplete as unsatisfying. The elemental ‘chest-thumping’ confrontation between these two roughhewn martyrs is repeatedly insulated by director, Donaldson’s ‘friendship’ backstory – also, the director’s empathy for Bligh. However justly deserved, denying audiences an iniquitous Bligh and intrepid Christian flops. While Donaldson’s disquieting depiction of Bligh is likely much closer to the truth of the man, it fails to gel as pure entertainment because it straddles an impossible chasm, or rather, real grey area, trapped between treachery and altruism. It should also be noted Mel Gibson’s Christian is given precious little to do, apart from one or two moments of testosterone-injected rage he more oft than not translates into simpering petulance. The picture belongs to Hopkins, leaving Gibson to a series of silent reactions. At intervals, Fletcher Christian seems to disappear into the background; even, inconsequential to our story. Finally, Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson are wasted in near cameos; Fryer or Churchill, nothing beyond cardboard cutouts.
Undeniably, The Bounty is elegantly produced and exquisitely photographed. Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography is gorgeous. But the picture lack the narrative impetus and characterizations to translate to a truly remarkable piece of biographical/celluloid fiction. Upon repeat viewings, The Bounty just seems like a slimmed down account or Coles’ Notes version of director, Lewis Milestone’s '62 road show extravaganza; albeit, with far more nudity (accurate, I suppose, but unnecessary) and far less backstory. Brando’s Fletcher Christian in the ’62 version was a very queer duck; a real dandy, prone to deliciously flawed ego trips. Nevertheless, this interpretation of the character worked – partly, because it is Marlon Brando, and partly because his Fletcher Christian, after a rocky start, nevertheless appealed to a higher ideal and his better angels. The Christian we encounter on this voyage is hardly motivated by the good in him. And sadly, there are no other characters aboard this Bounty to take the place as our champion. Instead, we have an assortment of the spurious and the ruthless, drawn truer to life - perhaps, but ever-more ineffectual as we peer through the 'looking glass' proscenium, charting a parallel course with life, as in life at the movies.
The Bounty gets reissued to Blu-ray via Kino Lorber after first arriving 2-years earlier as a limited edition from Twilight Time. The 1080p transfers are – regrettably – identical and flawed. Despite the more recent inclusion of the refurbished MGM logo, what follows is still the same tired ole print master suffering from the same age-related artifacts. They are everywhere and rather heavy at times; dirt, scratches, nicks and chips. Also, the Orion Pictures logo that once preceded the main titles is missing. Aside: United Artists acquired the Orion catalog, later to be absorbed by MGM into MGM/UA, and finally, bought outright as a subsidiary of 2oth Century-Fox and Fox Home Entertainment. In most recent days, the venerable Fox has been sold to the Walt Disney Company. So much for corporate mergers. Aside: personally, I would like to hear a little more glamorous talk about what all this means for the future of film preservation and restoration! There is no excuse for The Bounty to look as careworn as it currently does on home video; certainly, not in hi-def! Colors retain their exceptional brilliance and flesh tones have been accurately rendered. Contrast is solid. Fine details abound, although, arguably, could also have been improved with a new scan created off the original camera negative. The 5.1 DTS is engaging, particularly during the storm sequence. But I still contest the ’62 version, with its 70mm 6-track magnetic stereo, has better sound, despite the antiquated recording techniques used to author it. On occasion, The Bounty’s Foley can sound exceptionally thin. Extras are limited to two audio commentaries, carried over from the previous TT release: the first, featuring Roger Donaldson, producer, Bernard Williams, and production designer, John Graysmark; the second, from historical consultant, Stephen Walters. Of the two, Walters gets my vote for being more comprehensive and engaging. We lose TT’s isolated score and, of course Julie Kirgo’s fabulous liner notes. Bottom line: The Bounty on Blu remains a middling effort at best. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)