This much we know for sure.
On October the 15th, 1787, the HMAV Bounty set out on a mission to acquire breadfruit from Tahiti for transport to Jamaica.
We know that the Bounty never completed its mission because on April 28th, 1789, first mate Fletcher Christian led a mutiny against the ship’s captain, Lt. William Bligh.
Beyond those bare facts, however, the true events surrounding that mutiny have been the subject of over two centuries of debate. The mutiny on the Bounty has been the topic of dozens of books and as many or more documentaries, and there have been five separate Hollywood adaptations including the most recent version: 1984’s The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Bligh.
The Bounty marks its territory separate from the rest of this extensive cannon by being the truest to the historical events, and as such is the only film version that at all tries to humanize Bligh. Previous iterations (featuring notables Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard in the Bligh role) cast the Captain as cruel and imperious, seeming to delight in his capricious torture of the men. Bligh is portrayed as singularly villainous, and Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable and Marlon Brando, respectively) by extent singularly heroic in defiance. This oversimplification is Hollywood gloss at it’s shiniest and the truth, as is so often the case, is a much murkier affair.
The earlier films show Christian and Bligh as strangers, meeting for the first time at the Bounty’s launch, with Howard’s Bligh going so far as to take an instantaneous dislike to Brando’s Christian. “So, I’ve had a career fop pawned off on me as a first mate?” he sneers as he watches the aristocratically attired Brando exit his carriage. Historically this couldn’t be further from the truth. Bligh and Christian were good friends initially; they had sailed to the West Indies together twice before, and it was the 33-year old Bligh that taught the 24-year old Christian how to navigate. Christian was so motivated to work under Bligh that he initially agreed to undertake the voyage on a volunteer basis as one of the ship’s “Young Gentleman.” Before the voyage departed, however, Bligh decided to give his young protégé an officer’s salary and sleeping quarters, promoting Christian to Master’s Mate. During their voyage to Tahiti Bligh promoted Christian yet again, making him Acting Lieutenant – essentially first in command behind Bligh.
The Bounty is the only film to actually examine this relationship, depicting the dissolution of these men’s friendship and the growth of their contempt for one another in a more adult way than its predecessors. Some might say in a very adult way – The Bounty takes as its source material Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian by Robert Hough, a lurid revisionist take on the story that goes so far as to postulate a homosexual relationship between Bligh and Christian. This is, after all, the “Rum, sodomy and the lash” period of British naval history and The Bounty contains more than one scene where this interpretation can be read subtextually on to the action. The film however never makes these suppositions literal and ultimately that’s not a focus of the narrative.
“Christian versus Bligh has come to represent rebellion versus authoritarianism, a life constrained versus a life of freedom, sexual repression versus sexual license,” writes Dea Birkett in her book Serpent in Paradise, an account of her visit to Pitcairn Island, the place that Fletcher Christian eventually landed after leaving Tahiti for the last time. The Bounty does attack these themes head on, however it doesn’t wholly segregate all the liberation to Christian’s side and all the constraint to Bligh’s. Instead the film shows that these battles are constantly being waged within each man; that both have desires and obligations that they are forced to choose between.
Hopkins and Gibson embrace the task of complicating these characters and eschewing the easy hero/villain roles that Gable/Laughton and Brando/Howard fell so patly into. Gibson plays Christian as wild eyed and emotional, and some of historical Christian’s impetuousness comes through in the portrayal. Despite all the attempts at making Fletcher Christian a darker character though, it’s still Mel Gibson in the roll – and in his full-on heartthrob peak no less. Gibson himself is quoted as saying that he thinks the film should have gone farther in showing Christian’s dark side, however there is no way an audience could accept the worst sides of the historical Fletcher Christian.
Even if Christian was morally justified in leading the initial mutiny, there really is no possible justification for the fact that after that incident he kidnapped a contingency of Tahitians for the purpose of using them as raw material for the founding of his own colony. Christian later marooned six elderly women of that group on a separate island because he didn’t view them as useful in his world-building scheme. That’s hardly hero material, leaving mothers to die alone after forcibly separating them from their families, many of whom were probably still aboard Christian’s boat. Once the outcasts settled on the uncharted Pitcairn’s Island, Christian soon fell out of favor with the natives, in part due to the European’s insistence that the Tahitians were their property – and their taking of all the liberties that that entails. While accounts of Christian’s death vary (with some optimists insisting he eventually made his way back to England), the common assumption is that the Tahitians became fed up with Christian’s oppressive rule and overthrew him. The cruel irony is that the real-life Christian became every bit the tyrant that the movie Christians fought against and for it he was subjected to the same treatment that he afforded his deposed king.
While the Captain Bligh character is humanized by Hopkins, his meta-role in the film is harder to pin down; Bligh is neither hero nor villain, both protagonist and antagonist. What the veteran actor brings to the roll is a real feeling of the motivations behind Bligh’s disciplinarian tactics; he’s not a sadist, he’s the man in charge of making this voyage happen. He’s seen as more competent in times of trial than in moments of calm, able to navigate any waters but unsure of how to keep a crew of men under his control when they’re faced with the temptations of easy island life. It also bears mentioning that in Bligh’s life following the Bounty he was given command of another ship and another crew. That crew also mutinied against him. Following that second mutiny Bligh was given command of another ship and another crew. That also mutinied against him. After that third mutiny, Bligh was wisely taken off the seas and instead made Governor of New South Wales – where he was overthrown in the infamous Rum Rebellion of 1808.
Those two main combatants aside, the rest of The Bounty’s crew features a pretty heavyweight roster of performers. A very young Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis both have supporting roles, as does a very old Sir Laurence Olivier. Combined, Hopkins, Gibson, Neeson, Day-Lewis and Olivier have won seven Oscars and been nominated for another 18. Olivier (who accounts for three of those wins and ten of the nominations) plays Admiral Hood, the chief officer presiding over Bligh’s trial. Olivier brings an obvious gravitas to the role (after all, who else has the power to render judgment over Sir Anthony Hopkins but a fellow Knight Bachelor?) but he also shows a lively sense of humor and seems to enjoy playing into the stodgier, more absurd realities of the British Admiralty.
Other than Olivier, at the time the film was made the rest of those actors had yet to take any of their career defining turns. As experienced as Hopkins was The Bounty comes before his Oscar win for Silence of the Lambs. It’s before Gibson found gravitas with Braveheart, pre-Schindler’s List for Neeson, and it’s the very first major film for Day-Lewis who has since gone on to place more Best Actor statuettes on his mantle than any other individual in history. Day-Lewis is smug, calculating, and model good-looking as the demoted Lt. Fryer, and Neeson shows that he’s paradoxically somehow gotten better looking with age. The craggy face of the malcontent Churchill is the butt of several jokes, but Neeson’s fiery stare and burly, intimidating presence are on full display, showing glimpses of the action star to come.
The Bounty was helmed by Roger Donaldson, who came on board only after original director Roger Lean stepped away from the production. Donaldson, Gibson, and Hopkins are all reported to have clashed on the set, with Gibson being popularly quoted as saying “I went mad. They would hold their breath at night when I went off. One night I had a fight in a bar and the next day they had to shoot only one side of my face because the other was so messed up.” Gibson’s drinking led to confrontations with Hopkins, though they seem to have resolved amicably and Gibson credits Hopkins with being “terrific” and “good to work with”, and Hopkins for his part called Gibson “a wonderful, wonderful fellow with a marvelous future.” Hopkins and Donaldson, despite all of their friction on set, did choose to rekindle their working relationship on the set of The World’s Fastest Indian in 2005.
There was at least one other Oscar winner involved in the production of the film: the score was written and performed by the electronic musician Vangelis, famous for his 1981 win for the Chariots of Fire theme. The previous film versions of the mutiny story both feature more traditionally period-appropriate scores, with each choosing to use orchestral derivations of “Rule, Britannia!” as their main themes. The Bounty, however, boldly goes for the 80’s glory with a synthesizer-heavy score that can at times be discordant with the action it overlays. Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson (himself an Academy Award nominee for 1970’s Anne of the Thousand Days) has his slow pans of the South Seas marred by swelling electric chords that at the time must have seemed bold and modern but now mark the film as a period-period piece; an artifact interpreting an artifact.
It’s tempting to wonder if Hollywood will ever be seduced into one more retelling of history’s most famous mutiny. It’s been over 34 years since the last iteration, but yet another Bounty movie may be a hard sell. Of the major three movies, only the 1935 film was profitable, with each succeeding version costing more and netting less. The Bounty was made for $25 million (and did actually come in under budget – a rarity for water pictures) but took home less than $9 million.
The Bounty’s original mission to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica where it will be cheap, plentiful food for slaves is hardly the type of mission contemporary audiences can get behind. Breadfruit was an appealing choice because, though bland, it’s higher-yield, higher in fiber, and higher in calories than bananas, the most common staple food for Jamaican slaves at the time. In essence, Bligh and Christian’s mission was to bring blander, less expensive food to the slaves because their current food just cost too much, and it’s hard to imagine that “noble” quest playing well in a socially conscious era. Add that to the previously mentioned concerns about rape, kidnapping, and the general exploitation of the Tahitian people, and it’s easy to see the mutiny films as relics of a Hollywood that no longer exists.
The Bounty attempts to be mature in it’s take on these more problematic topics by attempting to show things as they happened, slavery profiteering and all. There is never really any complication of the “correctness” of those actions, however, and earlier versions conveniently side step these concerns entirely. In the 1962 version the voyage is cast as a “mission to bring cheap food to the poor of the world” – an approach that would not stand up against the scrutiny of an internet culture that can instantaneously ascertain the facts of the matter.
Or, at least, some of the facts of the matter.
Ultimately at this point we must conclude that we will never know “what actually happened”. There are so many different accounts now that the preponderance of conflicting narratives makes any decisive interpretation impossible. There is Captain Bligh’s initial account, which he even turned into a bestselling book casting himself as the hero. There’s Nordhoff and Hall’s novelization of the events that posit Christian as the hero and later served as the (loose) basis for the 1935 and 1962 films. There’s Hough’s Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, and The Bounty after it, which try to present a version of the events whose bias falls somewhere in the middle, though the book is given at times to wild speculation and The Bounty, like its cinematic predecessors, takes further dramatic liberties on top of its source material’s speculation. Every account is partisan in some way, and doubtless the real events of the HMAV Bounty fall somewhere in and around all of these retellings.
Long ago two men set out together as friends, then parted ways as enemies.
That much, if nothing else, we know for sure.
Birkett, Dea. Serpent in Paradise. Anchor Books (1998), New York.
Hough, Richard. Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian: The Men and the Mutiny. Bluejacket Books (2000), Dayton, OH.
Minogue, Tim. The Independent. “Blighs vs. Christians, the 209-year feud”. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/blighs-v-christians-the-209-year-feud-1151674.html
Nordhoff, Charles and Hall, James. Mutiny on the Bounty. Little, Brown (1932), New York.
Siler, Julia Flynn. ‘Food of the Future’ Has Just One Hitch: It’s All But Inedible. Wall Street Journal. Nov 1, 2001. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203752604576645242121126386