Films about Polynesia: Scholarly Interpretations
Captain Bligh in Film
by Ed Reardon
The enduring allure for storytellers of the 1789 mutiny aboard H.M.S. Bounty is not to be found in the chronology of events that encompass it but rather in the motivation that caused Fletcher Christian to lead it. We know the facts but we do not know his motive and that is what fascinates. Christian's motive is left to posterity to interpret, "by anyone who feels like making an interpretation. Perhaps this openness is the true significance of the Bounty mutiny." (Hoblitzell/Trincoll)
Fletcher Christian's motives aside, because he seems to be a force for good fated to lead a band of mutineers, he is the obvious choice for protagonist/central character in any narrative of the event. Such is the case with the three major motion pictures developed from the Bounty narrative in the Twentieth Century. Yet each is ultimately more about William Bligh. Christian's motivation may supply the impetus for interpretation but it is Bligh and the 18th Century British Naval disciplinary code he personifies which bubble to the surface as the central issue of what has become a core myth. Furthermore, this issue invariably serves as a metaphor for significant cultural/political aspects of the social order in which the story is interpreted. With each new interpretation of Bligh comes fresh insight into the historical period reinterpreting him.
The three films are heavily weighted by the times in which the filmmakers lived and by the socio-political attitudes they themselves brought to their respective projects and communicated to their mass audiences. Rather than presenting a plausible interpretation of the motives behind a pivotal event in British Naval History, based on the events as developed in the literary sources from which they drew, these films articulate attitudes more indigenous to their own worlds.
Christian's motives and the complex personality of William Bligh remain frozen in historical ambiguity, allowing all three filmmakers to invest their filmic characterizations with angels of their own spirits, both light or dark. The unknowns concerning the historical personages on whom they are based linger like Rorschach's ink blot designs, tempting associations. The filmmakers comply by shining a light back upon themselves. That these three films about a British naval event were American-made adds another cultural layer between historical fact and filmic interpretation. At risk within each is an accurate picture of the complex and horrific world of the Eighteenth Century British sailor. It gets reinterpreted according to the subtextual ideology of the filmmaker. In the complex world of filmmaking, in which commerce and art are eternally at war, this is inevitable. Just as inevitable is that succeeding generations of filmgoers, in the absence of historicity, will accept these fictional accounts as an authentic historic portrayal of events. Such seems to be the fate of the H.M.S. Bounty and the events of April 28th, 1789, when, led by Masters Mate Fletcher Christian, twelve crew members staged the now famous mutiny, capturing the ship, and setting Lt. Bligh and his supporters adrift in the ship's launch.
Of the three American Bounty films, one is regarded as a film classic, another an earnest attempt at being historically accurate, and a third is notorious more for what went on behind the scenes than for what went up on the screen. Still, in each, the political and social attitudes expressed on-screen are more reflective of the times in which the films were made than of the institutional upheavals at play within the Eighteenth Century British Navy they portray. And, in each, these social attitudes pivot around the characterization of William Bligh.
The Challenge of Presenting History In Film
Usually the story structure of mainstream studio-produced motion pictures calls for the hero to be seen within the first few frames or at least within the first few minutes of the film. This conveys an immediate visual indication to the viewer as to whose story will be told. This is not slavishly adhered to but is the more common convention. Therefore, the fact that in two of the three Bounty pictures under discussion (the 1962 and 1984 versions) Bligh appears on-screen before Christian, suggests that he will be the focus of our attention. Another generally adhered to story element in the screenplay is “the setup” which dictates that all aspects of back story (exposition) must be accomplished within the first ten minutes of the film. The story setting, protagonist, antagonist, and the major conflict must all be introduced and the forward thrust of the story must commence within this time frame; otherwise, audience attentions will wander. (Field, 69)
Therefore, from the standpoint of story, Bligh is the more utilitarian character. As the representative for and controller of the world to be inhabited by all other characters, Bligh, through his initial dialog and actions in all three films, suggests the setting, which is the shipboard world of the 18th Century British Navy at sea. His dialog and actions also suggest his contempt for his crew. This foreshadows conflict. Once this is done, Christian's appearance visually and dramatically sets him up in opposition to Bligh and points us toward the conflict which will develop at sea. That conflict, following the sacrosanct chain of command depicted in the story, will spring from William Bligh’s actions and Fletcher Christian’s reactions to those actions. The broader actions and reactions we know from history. The more subtle human interactions and the dialog within them are thus the story’s building blocks based on conjecture and interpretation.
It follows then that elements of the world of the filmmakers, great or small, inevitably, consciously or unconsciously, will bleed into their narratives. In this instance, the medium for this is just as inevitable. It is the characterization of William Bligh. And of what is the Bligh characterization composed? It consists of the vision and enculturation of the actor, the actor's characterization based on his own research and on the screenplay put forth by sometimes one but more frequently, several writers. Most importantly, however, Bligh's characterization becomes part of an overall vision agreed to by the actor, the director, and the producer working jointly to create an entertainment that will attract an audience of their contemporaries. The viewer then sees a story taking place in an Eighteenth Century world of brutality which in turn, through Bligh’s characterization, shines a light on the societal values at work within the world of the filmmakers.
Bounty at Metro
The benchmark against which all other Bounty adaptations are judged is Irving Thalberg's 1935 production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film was developed from events recorded in Mutiny on the Bounty and Men Against the Sea, the first two volumes of The Bounty Trilogy, a 1932 best seller by Charles Nordhoff And James Norman Hall. This is regarded as one of the best nautical adventure films of all time and one of MGM's greatest classics. It also received a slew of Oscar nominations in 1935, including nominations for each of its stars, Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone. Despite all these nominations, the picture garnered Best Picture award only. Hollywood's selection process for Oscar winners in the Twentieth Century proved every bit as enigmatic as Christian’s motive to lead a mutiny a hundred and fifty years earlier.
Ironically, its 1935 Oscar and the impact Mutiny On The Bounty had on audiences from the mid-thirties onward was owed to its powerful marriage of story and star power. Credit Thalberg and his casting instincts for that. Given the Bounty story, Thalberg knew that the Bligh character was manifestly more interesting than that of Christian. Success hinged on casting a Fletcher Christian worthy of a nemesis such as Bligh. Thalberg gambled that despite his lack of a British accent, Clark Gable could carry the role of Fletcher Christian on the strength of his virility. As the pivotal character, Roger Byam, Thalberg cast Franchot Tone, a fine actor with boyish good looks. He counted on Tone's ability to first, capture a certain idealistic fervor in key scenes, and second, to augment Gable’s characterization and add star power to the picture. Unlike Tone, Gable was an actor of limited range. It made no difference. Gable carried with him a movie star magic possessed by few. Just as Fletcher Christian was gifted by privilege of birth and personal attractiveness in his world, Gable was gifted with tremendous screen presence in his. Thalberg was on firm footing with Gable playing Fletcher Christian.
However, the pivotal casting choice in the film, the one that would set its tone and insure its success, would be for the part of William Bligh. Both history and the authors of the Bounty Trilogy remind us that Bligh was a product of British Naval tradition. As such, it is too simplistic to suggest that he is "evil." Whatever portion of evil we ascribe to the man must be leavened by consideration of the system in which he functioned. Evil was inherent within it and within the traditions it spawned. Nordhoff and Hall recount the punishment of an errant seaman, captured and punished according to The Articles of War for striking an officer. The incident is related by Byam. He and Bligh are dinner guests aboard The Tigress, a ship under the command of a Captain Courtney, their dinner host and Bligh's friend. There they witness the seaman's being flogged at Courtney's command, despite the fact that he is already dead. Byam is sickened and protests. To which Courtney admonishes him, "…no laws are more just than those governing the conduct of men at sea. Not only just, but necessary; discipline must be preserved." (Nordhoff & Hall, 25)That was the way it was done, the way it had always been done, the way it always would be done. Tradition was his shield. It insured the maintenance of order. The film's Bligh would have to project the personal qualities consistent with upholding such a tradition.
Nordhoff and Hall's Bligh is a product of that tradition. Unlike Christian, the child of privilege, for whom rank was gifted, Bligh rose through the ranks, hiding behind the authority that this tradition of discipline and strictness provided. (Hoblitzell/Trincoll) Lieutenant Bligh constantly felt that he had to prove himself worthy to hold the position of captain. Consequently, he was always wary of those around him. "This unwillingness to trust those under him to perform their duties is apt to be the defect of the officer risen from the ranks."(Nordhoff & Hall, 39) To borrow from the lexicon of contemporary corporate America, Bligh's "management style," an outgrowth of his social position, necessitates his constantly demonstrating to his crew that he is in charge, that he is better than they are, and that he will maintain order. However harsh his behavior toward them, the traditions and rituals of the British Navy support him.
To what degree then can Bligh's behavior be judged evil? Conversely, to what degree is his behavior a manifestation of basic human insecurity. In Bligh's situation, overt insecurity would probably have been read as weakness, not a healthy trait for a naval officer to display. As veterans of "The Great War," Nordhoff and Hall would have understood this. Better to project oneself as the Devil Himself than to have orders questioned and risk rebellion in the ranks. They suggest that Bligh was harsh because the system made him harsh. What they find more damning in his character is his corruptness. Their experiencing of a war in which millions were sent into battle to die needlessly for reasons never fully explained beyond honoring outdated alliances causes them to damn Bligh for his corruptness before all else.
Aside from this, they do in fact remind us that Bligh had a distinguished naval career, that he was a distinguished navigator and cartographer, admired by Captain Cooke with whom he sailed. In their narrative, they have Sir Joseph Banks tell Byam that "…there's not a better seaman afloat. I am told that he is a bit of a tartar at sea, but better a taut hand than a slack one, any day!" (Nordhoff & Hall, 12)
Thalberg's choice for Bligh was Charles Laughton, a British actor of considerable range, with an acting career of legendary proportions. Educated at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Laughton was a consummate artist, achieving great success both on stage and film, as well as for his many staged readings, particularly of the works of George Bernard Shaw. Laughton brought a patina of English class to MGM's literary adaptations of the early to mid 1930s. (Imdb) Given his range as an actor, why then did he invest Bligh with a demonic quality that has frozen this character in the American psyche as the personification of evil. Whatever possibilities existed for shading this quality and investing the character with even a modicum of humanity are absent. Why Laughton's interpretation is limited in this way has more to do with the other creative forces brought to bear on it and concerns among the filmmakers that irrevocably shaped the production in significant and far-reaching ways.
Bounty Vs. The Studio System
Hollywood studio politics of the 1930's was truly Machiavellian. Screenwriters worked in packs stabled on the studio lot and there was no guarantee they'd get screen credit for their labors. Actors who directly influenced American tastes and behavior and made their respective studios millions of dollars at the box office, were signed to iron-clad, seven year studio contracts that made them the professional equivalent of indentured servants. Even the great directors of the day were regarded as little more than temporary, hired hands serving at the pleasure of the studio heads. Associate producers were required to show absolute fealty to the studio bosses under which they functioned. A handful of powerful studios dominated the industry. Most of these were ruled over by what Hollywood historian Neal Gabler called "the Jews who made Hollywood." (Dening, 348) Most came from humble, mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrant backgrounds. These were men who loved America, the whole idea of it. They loved it so much, they set about reinventing it on movie screens according to their hopelessly idealized view of what it should be. But so powerful was the medium by which they conveyed these distorted visions, that audiences bought into it as reality or viewed it as a reprieve from the less desirable reality they were living.
Within the oppressive studio atmosphere of the day, more akin to the Eighteenth Century British Navy than "the melting pot" of early Twentieth Century America, relationships at the top were tenuous and predicated on loyalty to the studio. Among the most volatile was that between producer Irving Thalberg and studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg, second in command at Metro, was the force that shaped "Mutiny on the Bounty." The clash between Christian and Bligh, which Thalberg was to shepherd onto movie screens, paralleled his relationship with Mayer. It was murky and complicated and reflective of their respective world views. Mayer was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant with that already mentioned immigrant's ideal of how America should look. As Greg Dening suggests, "he made movie versions of Norman Rockwell stills." (Dening, 348) MGM movies of the period had a surface realism that belied the skewed ideology at work below the surface. Good always triumphed over evil and happy endings were sacrosanct.
Thalberg, Mayer's American born boy genius, was born in New York City of German immigrant parents. He had a bad heart and was plagued with other ailments all of his life. Thalberg was quite intelligent and had a curious mind, but, convinced that he would never see thirty, he skipped college and became, at 20, a high-level executive at Universal Studios. In 1924 became number two man under Mayer at MGM, the biggest film studio in the world. His fragile health finally gave out and in 1936, he died (Maltin, Imdb) but not before making a sizable imprint on American motion pictures and American popular culture.
Thalberg believed in making quality pictures that would bring status and prestige to what was still a fledgling industry. He understood talent, could communicate with them, win their loyalty, and deftly cast them to their best advantage in his boss's picket fence dramas. But as Thalberg, barely past thirty, graduated toward becoming his own man, be tired of Mayer's simplistic point of view. They clashed. Perhaps as a result, Thalberg suffered a heart attack. In the midst of his falling out with his mentor, he went to Germany to convalesce and undergo a tonsilectomy. Dening writes that "In Germany he [Thalberg] saw violent anti-Semitic demonstrations outside his hotel and discovered that his German doctor was reluctant to operate on him, fearing the consequences should an internationally famous Jew come to harm under his knife." (Dening, 348)
In "The Historical Significance of The Mutiny on the Bounty," Jack Hoblitzell in Trinity College Review, posits an interesting chronology of events to suggest what finally shaped Laughton's villainous portrayal of William Bligh:
Thalberg's visit comes just before the Nazi's rise to power in 1932. The movie was released in 1935. By this time, the Nazis were in control of Germany and within four years the Germans would be at war with the world for a second time. As a Jew, one wonders why Thalberg went to Germany in the first place. That is beside the point, however. Since he was Jewish, one would be surprised if the trip did not leave an impression of some sort on Thalberg. The 1935 "Mutiny on the Bounty" is Thalberg's social commentary. Bligh's character is strikingly Hitleresque. (Hoblitzell/Trincoll)
Parallels abound between Hitler and Thalberg's Bligh, just as they do between Thalberg and Mayer. Working from this characterization as masterfully delivered in Laughton's performance, Bligh (like Hitler) is given to irrational outbursts, extraordinary brutality and fundamental distrust of those below him. There is justification for this. Neither Bligh nor Hitler were well bred. Bligh worked himself up through the ranks. Hitler started out as a house painter. Working from this context, Laughton's Bligh becomes less flesh and more symbol. "All the brutality that Nordhoff and Hall place on institutions and traditions is firmly transplanted onto Bligh's shoulders in the film." (Hoblitzell/Trincoll) Bligh becomes the embodiment of fascist evil. He must be stopped.
But Christian's mutiny and his casting Bligh adrift in Bounty's launch does not provide satisfactory punishment. Bligh/Fascism is spared by Bligh's extraordinary voyage to Timor. However black his heart, the conduct of the tyrant Bligh in saving himself and those loyal to him on this thirty-five hundred mile exodus is truly admirable, remarkable and unmistakably courageous, character traits detracting from his villainy. To offset this, the film emphasizes Bligh's threat to Christian as the launch is cast off:
Casting me adrift thirty five hundred miles from a port of call. You're sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you're wrong, Christian! I'll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I'll live to see you - all of ya -hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet! (…Bounty, MGM, 1935)
The film excludes his earlier plea, "Mr. Christian!…for the last time I beg you to reflect! I'll pawn my honour--I pledge you my word never to think of this again if you will desist. Consider my wife and family!" (Nordhoff & Hall, 131) Absent this and we are left with the sight of a man consumed with a vengeance as frightening as his impending journey proves to be remarkable. Vengeance is what fuels his survival. The tyrant lives and is plotting. Past or present, we must be wary of such men.
To reinforce Bligh's all consuming vengeance, the filmmakers revise history as recounted by Nordhoff and Hall to have Bligh reappear as Captain of the Pandora, the ship sent to hunt down the mutineers. In the novel, Pandora's Captain's name is Edwards and the results are the same. Byam is placed in irons protesting his non-participation in the mutiny. But having Edwards do so deprived Thalberg and company of an opportunity to reinforce this theme of evil and vengeance personified by Bligh.
Reflected in MGM's "Bounty" is another concern of major proportions to movie moguls such as Mayer controlling the studio system of the '30's. The siren's song of unionization and worse than that, Communism, was attracting the struggling pool of creative talent on whom their industry depended. Studio heads saw each as a threat to their absolute control. As a result, Thalberg's "sense of a world in tension between Fascism and Communism was to give a decisively strong political dimension to the sort of representation 'Mutiny On The Bounty' came to be." (Dening, 349). Mayer, dogged by the spectre of organized employees, had a real problem with a picture in which mutineers are cast as heroes. Anglophile that Thalberg was, he settled on the British Navy to resolve the problem for both of them. Bligh's fanatical lust to avenge the loss of his ship supplants as evil the Navy's traditional need to punish mutineers. A clever piece of historical manipulation has been accomplished. At his court-martial trial in England five years after sailing from Portsmouth, Midshipman Byam, already sentenced to hang, discloses Bligh's cruelties. Then, in a speech which drew applause on the set for Franchot Tone's impassioned delivery of it, Byam suggests an alternative to flogging:
These men don't ask for comfort. They don't ask for safety...They ask only the freedom that England expects for every man. If one man among you believed that - one man! - he could command the fleets of England. He could sweep the seas for England if he called his men to their duty, not by flaying their backs but by lifting their hearts - their..., that's all. (Dirks/filmsite.org)
Before Byam's sentence is carried out, the King pardons him with a reprieve, and he is triumphantly returned to service in the British Navy. The British Navy, the very institution that so cruelly wronged him, has become Byam's savior and by association, that of all the other seamen in the Navy. Bligh's/Fascism's evil, which has risen beyond the comprehension of even the most wizened of high ranking officers, is now exposed for what it is. The Navy recognizes this and changes its ways to end the abuse of those like Bligh. Thus Fascism is banished from the fleet, Communism is dealt a subtle blow and unionization is held in abeyance. Reinforced is the initial message of the film delivered as text scrolling down the screen at the beginning of the film, "…this mutiny, famous in history and legend, helped bring about a new discipline, based upon mutual respect between officers and men by which Britain's sea power is maintained as security for all who pass upon the seas." (…Bounty, MGM, 1935)
The Bounty Vs. Brando
The ill-fated 1962 Bounty remake starring Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando reflects how much the world in general and the world of filmmaking in particular had changed since the days of Mayer and Thalberg. The major studios were in disarray. They had been divested of their chains of movie houses and distribution operations. To make matters worse, their actors were now unionized and mostly functioned as independent agents contracting their services for individual projects. The epitome of the renegade actor was Marlon Brando. Trained at the Actor's Studio, Brando was a practitioner of The Method, a theatre-based departure from acting styles of the 1930's. Also, where movie moguls like L.B. Mayer once reigned supreme, power in Hollywood was now a shared domain. The surviving major studios (MGM among them), certain well-heeled independent producers, and what came to be called "A-list" actors now began to shape Hollywood's output. A-list actors demanded and got huge salaries and larger percentages of box office receipts for the movies in which they appeared. They could make outrageous demands based on their importance to the film. To finance mainstream Hollywood movies, at least one A-listed actor had to be attached.
The source material used for the 1962 MGM remake was basically the Thalberg-Gable-Laughton production of 1935. So deeply ensconced was this classic piece of storytelling in the American psyche that it now passed for historical fact. On-screen writing credits list only Nordhoff and Hall, the authors of the original novels. Yet seven screenwriters contributed to this production. Also uncredited both as writer and director is Carol Reed, an esteemed British producer/director whose brainchild this project was. These omissions alone gave warning of the fiasco taking place behind the scenes. (Imdb)
In 1962, Brando was a top box office attraction in Hollywood and an indispensable component of the ambitious picture Carol Reed envisioned. It would be a huge undertaking, "far different than the tight, controlled, personal dramas with which he [Carol] was most comfortable."(Blackstar/britmovie) Reed's other star was the British actor Trevor Howard, with whom Reed had worked often and successfully in the past and with whom he had a harmonious relationship. The initial script was written by Eric Ambler, a specialist in the type of entertainment Reed understood best.
From the start, the project was plagued with calamity. A $750,0000, full-scale replica of the Bounty encountered delays on its passage to Tahiti where the bulk of the movie was shot. Production, scheduled to begin in October, was postponed to December when the ship finally arrived. There were three deaths among the film's personnel, a key Tahitian actress left the production midway through filming, and the Tahitian rainy season set in before shooting was finished, throwing the whole production into an expensive hiatus. (Blackstar/britmovie)
However, the movie's biggest catastrophes were man-made. Brando was unhappy with Ambler's screenplay and insisted the concluding episode on Pitcairn Island be revised to incorporate his ideas about 'man's inhumanity to man'. Before shooting was completed, five more writers would arrive and depart in the attempt to create a script with the philosophical thrust Brando wanted. This slowed production to a crawl and sent the film millions of dollars over budget. Meanwhile, Brando lived in splendor in a Tahitian villa while tempers flared on the set where actors found it impossible to work with him.
In the autumn of 1962, two years and $27 million dollars after it all began, MGM's remake was released. It was 178 minutes long, just short of an hour longer than most exhibitors preferred. It was a critical and commercial failure and ended the career of Lewis Milestone, who took on the project as director after Reed, exhausted and depressed, gave it up. (Blackstar/britmovie)
L.B. Mayer's worst nightmare has come to pass. It seemed the lunatics really were in charge of the asylum. And yet, despite the turmoil, subsequent analysis of this film shows it to be much better than the press it generated when first released:
The Howard-Brando movie was even put down nastily and unfairly by critics, partly because of Brando's mannerisms, his temperamental behavior during the filming and the movie's 3-hour length. Yet except for one's initial discomfort with Brando's artificial, foppily patrician British accent (one gets used to it), this film is much better than its reputation, fairly complex, lavishly produced, and well worth watching as drama and as superbly produced spectacle….(Jahiel/prairienet.org)
Trevor Howard's Bligh is a saving grace in a failed movie. His Bligh is initially affable and approachable. He plays Bligh's flaws of character such that they fall subtly like pebbles. There is nothing blatant about the man. His is a Bligh who hints at his consummate contempt for the crew. Witness his first command on boarding The Bounty in Portsmouth. "I'd like my chest brought aboard," he tells Fryer. "…if you have a sober hand you can trust not to desert(…Bounty, MGM, 1962). Unlike Laughton's two-dimensional Bligh, driven by a fiendish (Hitleresque) lust for vengeance, Howard's post-WWII Bligh is cool, efficient, pragmatic, amoral and buttoned-down. He is a corporate middle-manager whose eye is always on the bottom line; in this case, ostensibly breadfruit; ultimately his rise up the corporate ladder. It is Bligh the technocrat who can justify a brutal flogging over two pieces of cheese by suggesting that "cruelty with purpose is not cruelty. It's efficiency."(…Bounty, MGM, 1962) He dances with a Tahitian girl to the pleasure of King Hitihiti while inviting mockery from his crew because it aids his procuring the healthy breadfruit he came for. He compromises his sense of morality by instructing Christian to make love with Hitihiti's daughter for that same purpose. "In a civilized society," he tells him, "certain lewd intentions toward the female members of one's family would be regarded as…well, as an insult….But in Tahiti, the insult lies in the omission of those intentions. Manners that would offend a dockside harlot seem to be the only acceptable behavior…. The success of our mission," he concludes, "depends on retaining the good will of Hitihiti." When Christian disingenuously sidesteps the hint, Bligh, the pragmatist, tells him to "make love to that damned daughter of his!"
For all its flaws, including Bligh's premature exit toward the film's resolution, the 1962 Bounty remake has moments of brilliance. For all his behind-the-scenes ego-rattling, Brando is fun to watch. By giving Christian a foppish veneer at the outset, he allows himself a broader canvas on which to work. His Christian unfolds within a character arc that takes him from self-serving detachment to heroic engagement and does so such that we believe the journey. But the measured, nuanced performance Trevor Howard gives as Bligh, invests his character with a complexity probably closer to the historical Bligh than Laughton's characterization in MGM's award-winning original. More to our purpose, in it are encapsulated traits that undeniably place him at the midpoint of the Twentieth Century.
A Kinder, Gentler Bligh
A departure from the earlier Bounty films in its source material and focus, The Bounty was independently produced in 1984 and distributed through MGM. It is adapted from Richard Hough's 1973 narrative history, Captain Bligh & Mr. Christian. In this version of the Bounty saga, Bligh possesses more complexity than in either of the other two (major) incarnations. In fact, his image as a harsh disciplinarian is gone. He is morally relativistic as opposed to evil. He is depicted as a caring husband and loving father. Enroute to Tahiti, he shows genuine concern for the welfare of his Bounty crew. His primary motive as Captain of the Bounty is simply to circumnavigate the globe, thus making a name for himself.
Fresh discoveries about the Bounty saga not available in the 1920's and '30's and exhaustively researched by Hough, add dimensions to Bligh and Christian which in turn provide more avenues of approach for the actors portraying them. Of importance in that regard is Hough's characterization of Bligh as "…a difficult man! I would go through hell and high water with him, but not for one day in the same ship on a calm sea." (Hough, 303) Of Christian, Hough concludes, "[he] was no leader. Where Bligh had moments of magnificence as a leader, Christian had none….There was just not enough fibre in him to endure the harsh treatment and the humiliations he suffered under Bligh…." (Hough, 304) But earlier in the narrative, he suggests that "…these two made what we call today a highly strung pair…their relationship may well have been intimate as well as passionate, certainly until the Bounty's arrival in Tahiti." (Hough, 302)
The film, starring Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, followed Hough's lead. It deals primarily with the relationship between the two men. It plays up the potential for homosexuality between Bligh and Christian. Unlike the book, however, it does not argue that a relationship of that nature is inevitable. That it leaves up to its audience to decide. Is Bligh a spurned lover? Is he jealous that Christian (on Tahiti) is enjoying a relationship while he is alone 10,000 miles from his family. To focus on their relationship, Fryer becomes the harsh one on the ship. All the issues regarding discipline that the 1935 film attributed to Bligh are now put on Fryer's shoulders.
What, then, is the nature of the relationship between Bligh and Christian? We know from the beginning that they are friends and have sailed together before. This fact implies that Bligh thinks highly of Christian as both a sailor and a person. On the voyage to Tahiti nothing seems to be out of the ordinary between the two of them. Bligh even promotes Christian just before they give up on their attempt to round the tip of South America. It is on Tahiti where their relationship begins to go awry. Christian spends more and more time ashore with his Tahitian woman. Meanwhile, Bligh stays on the ship overseeing the transplanting of the breadfruit trees. The first real break in their relationship comes when Christian shows up late for dinner with officers and is not dressed properly because of the tattoos that he has received. Bligh's disapproval is obvious, and one assumes it is because he believes Christian is not behaving as an officer in the British Navy should behave.
During and after the Bounty's stay at Tahiti, Bligh becomes increasingly temperamental. It is as if he's losing his mind. On leaving, he is more prone to outbursts of anger, most directed at Christian. The crew becomes more and more uneasy with Bligh and they let Christian know that they will follow him should he choose to mutiny. It is now up to Christian to choose between staying loyal to Bligh or taking over the ship. In any case, Bligh grows mentally unstable. Christian and the crew soon reach the breaking point and it is here that the mutiny occurs. "The Bounty" suggests that Bligh's insanity is what causes it, but there is still room for conjecture. Since this is a commentary on the inner workings of the human mind and on the nature of human relationships, areas where nothing is clear, conjecture is invited.
The resulting problem this produces in the dramatic structure of the film is unavoidable. The film tries to be both about Christian and Bligh and consequently becomes about neither. The story lacks the dramatic clash of substantial opposing forces. Fletcher Christian's motivation to mutiny is reduced to Bligh's being a nag; a distraction from the abundance of creature comforts of which he has availed himself. Ultimately, the movie wants to be about Bligh, for he is far and away the more interesting character but Bounty fact and fiction won't allow it. Hough's Christian, as described above, is not a protagonist worthy of a William Bligh but Bligh, as presented, is not a character with whom one can empathize. Their relationship may make for interesting psychological study but it is not especially riveting as a story.
The concept was to make Bligh and Christian more human. Both Gibson and Hopkins do that. They also avoid the archetypal shadings that fueled the narrative in the past. Gibson's Christian is a young man of enormous physical charm but with little direction in life. We see reflected in Hopkins' Bligh some of the sexual confusion among contemporary males resulting from evolving gender roles in contemporary society. He presents a glimpse of where we are and who we are at this historical juncture. Yet, both leave us wondering who to root for in their world. In a good story we always know that.
Each film depicting the Mutiny Saga has invariably become a commentary on the times in which it was made. The Bounty saga with its attendant ambiguities still resonates with audiences. Above all, the characterization of William Bligh remains an enigmatic Rorschach ink blot begging definition. Bligh, the product of a repressive tradition that nourished him as enigma, does not provide answers to questions so much as insights into human behavior, both his and our own.
Black Star Homepage, Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962, Review, 1998, http://www.britmovie.co.uk/
Dening, Greg, Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Dirks, Tim, Reviews By Tim Dirks - Specializing in Classic Hollywood/American Films, www.filmsite.org, www.greatestfilms.org
Field, Syd, Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, New York, Dell, 1984
Hoblitzell, Jack, "The Historical Significance of The Mutiny on the Bounty," Trincoll Review, http://www.trincoll.edu/zines
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