The Bounty (1984)
“They were friends through hell. They became enemies in Paradise.”
The Bounty (1984)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Cast: Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier
Synopsis: The story of the most infamous mutiny in British maritime history.
The way in which the 1984 version of the most notorious mutiny in British maritime history refrains from demonising Lieutenant Bligh in the same way that earlier (1935 and 1962) versions did adds a new dimension to a familiar story, and casts the formerly heroic figure of Fletcher Christian in an altogether more ambiguous light. While neither Christian nor Bligh emerges from the story with much credit, it’s because of Christian’s immature behaviour in succumbing to his own selfish desires once The Bounty lands at Tahiti that the uncompromising Bligh earns the majority of audience sympathy. It was a brave departure from a story with which most of the audience was already familiar – a bit like making a wealthy businessman the hero of a horror movie – but one that paid off, thanks to a magnetic performance from Anthony Hopkins, and accomplished, unfussy direction from Roger Donaldson.
The Bounty sets sail from England in December 1787 on a not-so-glamorous mission to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica. It’s captained by Lieutenant Bligh (Hopkins – The Elephant Man, The Silence of the Lambs), a stern but broadly fair officer, whose second-in-command is the upper-class John Fryer (Daniel Day-Lewis – Gandhi, My Beautiful Laundrette). Before setting sail, Bligh sought out his old friend, Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson – Mad Max, Braveheart) whom he found on the point of entering into a wager over whether a drinking companion is dead or just unconscious. Finding Christian in such a situation might have caused some men to reconsider their suitability for a position of responsibility, but Bligh thinks so highly of the younger man that he persuades him to sign on for the voyage as Master’s Mate. However, when Bligh’s decision to sail around the turbulent Cape Horn nearly costs the lives of his crew and ultimately adds weeks onto the voyage after he finally concedes defeat, the fierce criticism he receives from the enraged Fryer prompts him to demote the young officer and replace him with Christian.
Despite the air of tension this swapping of positions creates on board ship, it’s only when The Bounty sails into Tahiti that the relationship between Bligh and Christian – and the crew – really begins to deteriorate. The idyllic Polynesian island offers a welcome refuge from the hard slog of life on board The Bounty, and the mistake Bligh makes is to allow discipline to slip as his men sample the delights of an island paradise populated by nubile women who all seem to be under the age of twenty-five, and a male population that is entirely unconcerned by the fact that their women are being stolen away by a rowdy bunch of white guys. He may, perhaps, have expected his new second-in-command to keep an eye on the crew, but young Christian is arguably the worst of the lot; not only does he go native, but he also impregnates the Tahitian king’s daughter, and deliberately delays the harvesting of the breadfruit so that he can watch her belly grow. No wonder he and Bligh have a major falling-out when the Lieutenant finally puts his foot down…
The sympathetic portrayal of Bligh is explained by the film’s framing device, which sees him giving evidence to a naval hearing into the mutiny. This, together with the casting of Mel Gibson, who was still quite pretty back in ’84, and given very few lines compared to Bligh, might explain why Christian frequently comes across as a spoiled man-child who sulks like a schoolboy when correctly reprimanded by his superior officer. However, that doesn’t explain why Bligh would present himself in such a bad light when recalling the days leading up to the mutiny, during which he mercilessly bullied Christian after his attempt to hold out an olive branch was sniffily rejected. Either way, Hopkins gives a big, worthy performance without going over the top, and more or less relegates Gibson to the sidelines for most of the picture. Gibson’s one big scene occurs during the mutiny itself as he struggles with his conscience while holding Bligh at swordpoint, but rather than providing an insight into Christian’s inner turmoil, his overwrought performance simply reminds us of his antics as Martin Riggs, the semi-deranged cop from his Lethal Weapon movies.
The two big guns are supported by a quality British supporting cast which, in addition to a young Daniel Day-Lewis, includes Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil), finding a rare decent role during the ‘I’ll-appear-in-anything-for-money’ phase of his career, a fresh-faced Liam Neeson (The Dead Pool, Schindler’s List) as one of the mutineers, Edward Fox (Gandhi, The Dresser) as a snobbish, sceptical member of the panel at Bligh’s hearing, Philip Davis (Alien 3, In the Name of the Father) as a fellow officer, and Bernard Hill (Gandhi, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) as The Bounty’s Bosun. It probably didn’t look quite as distinguished back in 1984, but it’s enjoyable to see many of its cast at the beginning of their careers. Even Neil Morrisey of Men Behaving Badly fame pops up as a shipmate who, as you’d expect, comes runner up in a fight with Neeson.
The Bounty is one of those rare ‘based on fact’ movies which does manage to adhere quite closely to the truth – or, at least, the truth as we know it, given that Christian’s version of events was never recorded. Such faithfulness to facts often results in a dull movie, but The Bounty still manages to hold audience interest, even when the story slows during the Tahitian paradise scenes. Whether Gibson is one of the film’s positives is open to debate, but his shortcomings are more than compensated for by a fascinating performance from Hopkins that should have earned him the kind of attention he only received after he began eating census takers.
(Reviewed 22nd January 2016)