The Bounty Review
The story of how Lieutenant William Bligh’s ship, The Bounty was taken over by a gang of mutineers, led by his former friend Fletcher Christian, is a famous legend, although perhaps more for the Hollywood portrayal of the event in the 1935 Charles Laughton and Clark Gable account, which had Gable’s Christian as a heroic idealist and Laughton’s Bligh as a bullying sadist, than for historical fidelity. After a very weak 1962 version of the story, directed by an ailing Lewis Milestone after Carol Reed pulled out and starring a hideously miscast Marlon Brando as Christian, it was left to David Lean to reintroduce a sense of intelligence, psychological depth and epic sweep to a genuinely fascinating tale. Multiple production problems later, the film ended up being directed by Roger Donaldson; however, it is to his credit that it is difficult to imagine the film being appreciably better had Lean himself directed it.
There is an obvious lack of scope for narrative deviation, given that the central events of historical fact are so well known; however, the script by Robert Bolt, Lean’s normal collaborator, does a fine job of dovetailing historical fact and more questionable speculation. Opening with a flashback structure of Bligh (Hopkins) being interrogated by an Admiralty Commission, led by Admiral Hood (Olivier) and Captain Gresham (Fox), the journey is soon re-enacted, as the narrative follows the gradual mental and moral disintegration of the men on their way to Tahiti, where they have been dispatched to retrieve breadfruit. When Christian (Gibson) falls in love with a native princess, then, inevitably, trouble is in store, especially given Bligh’s repressive approach to this new world.
While any sea-bound story such as this would appear, at first glance, to draw on a rich variety of literary sources, from Melville’s Moby Dick to Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey books, the dominant influence here is probably Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and, more specifically, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, another fine film about the lure of the unknown. Bolt’s intelligent script is the first account of the mutiny to have a balanced view of both Bligh and Christian; Bligh is shown as a deeply repressed man given to acts of pettiness and blinkered stubbornness, but also as someone courageous and fundamentally decent. Christian, meanwhile, is portrayed as an upper-class dilettante whose mind and conceptions are utterly distorted by the sensual freedom that he encounters on Tahiti, leading him to all but betray Bligh, and the ideals represented by him, in favour of pure self-indulgence. Not, of course, that the objective of the ship’s voyage in the first place was innocent; Bligh had been dispatched to fetch breadfruits to act as cheap nourishment for slaves at Jamaica, furthering the purpose of imperialism in the process. All these layers of ambiguity add up to make the film far from the simplistic tale of heroes and villains than it had been before; tellingly, this is the first account of the story to devote as much time to Bligh’s subsequent journey for thousands of miles on board a tiny, cramped boat to eventual safety as it does Christian’s subsequent return to Tahiti, and eventual stranding on Pitcairn Island.
The film could hardly be described as a stirring action-adventure; there is little action, other than a storm sequence and a brief skirmish with some hostile natives, and the adventure is as much psychological as physical. Donaldson’s direction may lack the poetry that Lean or Ridley Scott might well have brought to the tale, but it is never less than assured, intelligent and picturesque; his subsequent career has sometimes lived up to the promise that this indicated (Thirteen Days, No Way Out) and sometimes plunged down into the realms of mediocrity, albeit enjoyable mediocrity (The Getaway, Species). There are occasional minor flaws, such as the opening scenes in England feeling slightly inconclusive as a guide to the characters of Bligh and Christian in their natural environments; the film sets up a potentially fascinating class conflict situation between the upper-class Christian and the professional sailor Bligh (who, it is briefly implied, never rose above Lieutenant on account of his humble origins), but then fails to fully exploit it. However, this is a minor overall flaw, and does not detract from the film in an especially noticeable fashion.
The cast is quite staggering, and most of the actors are absolutely superb. Hopkins here begins to explore the character of the repressed Englishman that he later perfected in Remains of the Day, and manages to make Bligh a surprisingly sympathetic character, especially when faced with Gibson’s charismatic, if slightly dubiously accented, performance as Christian. Day-Lewis is suitably sneering as Fryer, a faintly cowardly officer, Neeson is fierce as the insubordinate Churchill, and Fox and Olivier both do their patented upper-class Englishmen turns as the investigators into how the mutiny occurred. There’s some slight amusement to be gained from seeing which actors went onto bigger (if not always better) things, such as Day-Lewis and Neeson, and which ones headed for a career in television; Neil Morrissey, Phil Davis and John Sessions all appear in small roles here. Meanwhile, Vangelis’ score is appropriately brooding and lush by turns, with the apparently anachronistic use of synthesizers working as well as it did in Chariots of Fire a couple of years below.
It’d be hyperbolic to describe this as ‘the classic time forgot’, as it lacks the truly epic sweep that classics would appear to demand, but this is still a well made, intelligent look at a genuinely fascinating story with fine performances from an exceptionally good cast, which is rather more than can be said of Titanic, for one.
A 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is provided, to mixed effect. There is a disappointing softness to some of the print, as well as occasional excessive blackness in the night-time scenes that makes it difficult to make out subtle details. However, there is little print damage, other than the occasional small bit of imperfection, and the print frequently looks glorious in the panoramic scenes of Tahiti and the other tropical islands.
A 5.1 remix is on the disc, to mixed effect. There are some good uses of surrounds, and Vangelis’ score (which, for some reason, has yet to be released on CD) is presented extremely well, but there are some occasional, and very obvious, problems with lip sync, with begs the question as to whether the original stereo track from which this mix was taken might have done a better job at times.
For a small independent production house, Sanctuary have done a good job with the extras here, covering most of the bases and providing a genuinely interesting look at the film’s production. Firstly, it’s worth mentioning the superb 28-page liner booklet enclosed in the disc, written by historical expert Stephen Walters; not the usual platitudes here, this is a fascinating look at the production’s history when David Lean was involved, showing its eventual evolution into the film as it now is, and featuring some of Lean’s original storyboards for some key sequences. Walters is also involved on one of the two commentary tracks, and discusses the film from his perspective as historical adviser on the production lucidly and intelligently, with occasional touches of humour that make this less dry than might be expected. The other track features Donaldson, the producer and the production designer, and this proves to be a more technically oriented track, albeit with some good insight into how they managed to assemble such a strong cast at comparatively short notice. Both are well worth taking the time to listen to.
The other main extra is an original 45-minute making-of documentary, hosted by Edward Fox, sounding like Edward VIII 18 years ago as well. Unfortunately, the picture and sound quality are atrocious, something that a disclaimer apologises for at the start of the feature, and there is an unfortunate tendency towards the promotional. Nevertheless, there are some good insights into the film’s production from some alarmingly young-looking actors, including Gibson and Hopkins, as well as yet more comments from Walters as to the historical accuracy. The last substantial extra is an interesting look at the development of the Bounty’s story on film, featuring, among other pieces of interest, an audio interview with Errol Flynn detailing when he was asked to play Fletcher Christian. Again, this is narrated by Walters, whose erudition shines through once more. A trailer rounds off the extras, and is a pretty straightforward piece of marketing.
A fascinating and intelligent look at one of the most famous naval events in British history is presented on a disc which, although not perfect technically, is still a pleasing effort from an independent company, who must be commended for making an effort with a title that many distributors would have sold for £9.99 in a 4:3 transfer with stereo sound and no extras. I shall certainly look forward to Sanctuary’s next special edition title with interest, especially if the technical presentation is a notch above what we have here.