In the summer of 1984, I was ready for The Bounty. Though I still can’t tie a knot of any description, don’t know one bit of canvas from another, and have sailed only as a passenger and on relatively sheltered waters, I’ve always been a sucker for a good sea story, and there are few cinematic images as stirring to me as a shot of a tall ship outward bound on a glittering sea. Still, there was skepticism: Here was another prestige-bid from Dino de Laurentiis, who’d tortured many a classic into contemporary shape in hopes of making a respectable name for himself.
No worries, though: The Bounty delivered everything a great sea story should, and provided in the bargain an intelligent and provocative rethinking of the ideology of the Bounty mutiny.
The 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty located the mutiny in political upheaval: Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian was a champion of the oppressed lower orders, making a plea for justice in the face of Charles Laughton’s martinet Bligh, abuser of the powers and privileges of social rank. In the 1962 version, Trevor Howard’s Bligh was a chip-on-the-shoulder middle-class officer, raised by his own bootstraps and miffed at the foppish, privileged aristo that was Marlon Brando’s Christian. Social and personal tensions, not political and economic differences, led to the rebellion.
In The Bounty, superbly scripted by Robert Bolt and based on Robert Hough’s Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, the rebellion is an act of passion against the rule of reason. To be fair, Bligh has passions—and demons—of his own that lead him into error and severity. But he is a reasonable and defensible figure in the face of a mutiny that is more spontaneous than planned, and explodes with the released libidos of barely-civilized men dropped suddenly into an erotic paradise that offers a freedom they have never known before. The moment of rebellion comes almost accidentally, and is rooted in Christian’s own unwillingness—or inability—to resubmerge the primitive sexuality released by the visit to Tahiti.
Anthony Hopkins’s Bligh is at the center of the film, and rightly so, since part of the purpose of book and film is to vindicate Bligh from his ill treatment at the hands of popular history. This is his story; his trial frames the film-proper. There is the slightest suggestion that Bligh is a little less than masculine, and feels a certain jealousy at the heterosexual delights of Christian and the other (younger) men in their Tahitian adventure. But what Hopkins makes of this is nothing short of marvelous: an intimate portrait of a tortured man whose sexuality is not so much in doubt as agonizingly controlled.
Control and loss of control are, of course, what the Bounty story has always been about, and why it continues to fascinate. Opposite Hopkins’s Bligh stands Mel Gibson’s Christian—the first portrayal of Christian to remind us that he was 22 at the time of the voyage—young, impetuous, easily and utterly changed by the upsurge of the primitive. As deprivation from what he has known for too short a time in Tahiti becomes too much for him, he shouts at Bligh, “I am in hell, sir!” and Gibson’s hoarse, boyish hysteria is disarmingly iconoclastic, shattering both the traditional view of Fletcher Christian and the sexual coolness of Gibson’s own screen image.
Under Roger Donaldson’s sure-handed direction, the film is fast-paced, action-packed, grounded in concretest imagery, and spectacular without ever being epic. At 130 minutes, it’s the shortest and tightest film version of the Bounty story, always breathless with drama, suspense, and sexual tension. But for all its blunt physicality and lush indulgence, The Bounty is finally a film about ideas—leadership vs. licence, discipline vs. desperation, pride vs. passion, civilization vs. nature, ego vs. id, reason vs. romance. That’s what finally makes it the best Bounty movie and one of the best films of 1984. It stimulates the senses, but it keeps the mind alive and questioning; and for all that the eyes and ears take in, the mind is still the most adventurous part of the human animal.
Robert C. Cumbow is the author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone. Several essays he originated on 24 Lies a Second were reintroduced and archived on The House Next Door. His home base is the Seattle film blog, The Parallax View.