Mutiny on the Bounty and the Real Captain Bligh

By

Jeremy Wright

Heralded as one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema and certainly the most expensive one Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer had produced up to its release date, the depression era Mutiny on the Bounty is a classic piece of Thirties' film. This is NOT that movie. This is 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty, a rather cumbersome yet often entertaining picture recounting the very same events as the previous movie: the 1789 mutiny led by Fletcher Christian against the abusive English commander William Bligh. Overall a decent film, if excessive in length, this Mutiny on the Bounty is historically a relatively accurate depiction of what is probably one of the world's most infamous sea stories.

Released on November 8, 1962 Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer's Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris was director Lewis Milestone's last feature film. Shot in Ultra-Panavision 70 using the one-strip Technicolor system with six track audio, Mutiny on the Bounty features some beautiful cinematic seascapes and landscapes presented in 2.76:1 anamorphic widescreen. However, one of the most interesting and beautiful sights in the film is the Bounty itself. The Bounty was the first ship built from the keel up for a motion picture. Using copies of the original plans in the British archives, Bounty was built by two hundred shipwrights in eight months at a cost of roughly $750,000. She was built thirty feet longer, six feet wider, and ten and half feet taller than the original H.M.A.V. Bounty in order to accommodate a pair of diesel engines and a full film crew running five-hundred pound cameras that were far too heavy to lift individually, especially on the open seas.

Although it was nominated for thirteen awards in 1963, including seven Academy Award nominations, and won both a Golden Laurel for Top Song and a Golden Reel for Best Sound Editing the movie proved a “bust”in box office returns. The three hour Mutiny on the Bounty cost some nineteen million dollars to produce and only raked in a little over thirteen million in box office. Some of the major hiccups in production appear to be the work of Marlon Brando. according to Bob Thomas' Marlon: Portrait of the Artist as a Rebel, Marlon Brando apparently became upset at the firing of Carol Reed as director and began "usurping power" as Lewis Milestone came aboard as the new director. Brando is said to have persuaded the camera operator to tacitly take his directions rather than those of Milestone. Milestone eventually became so fed up he considered quitting. According to the documentary, After the Cameras Stopped Rolling: the Journey of the Bounty, it came to Brando's attention that the Bounty used on the set was actually to be set on fire and sunk on camera. He threatened to walk off the picture if that was the case. When that fateful scene came, the crew built a forty foot replica to burn and sink instead; obviously costs continued to expand.

After a lengthy and loud musical overture, the film finally begins. Standing aboard Bounty while in port, William Bligh (Trevor Howard) is introduced to his young poseur of a Master's Mate, Fletcher Christian, (Marlon Brando). Leaving Portsmouth on December 23, 1787, Commanding Lieutenant Bligh and his crew set sail for the island of Tahiti on the other side of the world on a mission to recover a large quantity of breadfruit and deliver it to Jamaica for the purposes of creating a subsistence food for slaves. Bligh immediately sets his crew on the defensive by choosing to sail around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America in an attempt to cut five months off the journey. His choice appears to be both a result of having sailed with the famed Captain Cook who chose the same path and of Bligh's desire to attract the attention of the Admiralty Board for having sped the expedition along. After the vessel was tossed about for quite some time, the near arctic conditions and onslaught of headwinds halt Bounty's progress and Bligh is forced to turn about and take the traditional path south of the Cape of Good Hope and India, through southeast Asia waters, and north of New Holland to Tahiti. Bligh decides that the failure to make headway is due to terrible seamanship, so he places the men on half rations. Throughout the journey sailor after sailor falls ill or victim to the petty issues and brutal cruelty of Captain Bligh. One man is flogged by Bligh for making disparaging remarks against his captain when he explains that the theft he was accused of was actually ordered by the Captain himself. Tensions ran high and the crew grew weary long before they reached their destination, Tahiti.

Upon arrival the sailors fall in love with the morally relaxed culture of the island. The "hedonistic ways" of the Tahitians — as Bligh puts it — grow on the sailors and create new problems. Eventually the men depart Tahiti only to find that water for the breadfruit plants has run short, and, as a matter of course, Bligh puts a limit on water rations so strict that one dizzy sailor dies from a fall at the top of the ship's main mast. Water rationing causes another sailor to hoard and drink seawater and become deathly ill. For Christian, the turning point from loyalty to treason comes when Bligh chastises his subordinate for giving water to the sick man, thus, triggering the actual mutiny.

Christian acts in what is perhaps the moral way but definitively an illegal way by seizing the ship and removing the captain. Captain Bligh is pushed off in a launch with a set of charts, a sextant, and a dozen and a half disagreeable albeit non-mutinous sailors. While the Bounty makes its way back to Tahiti, Bligh, against incredible odds, sets a hard course for distant Timor and eventually England.

Meanwhile, the mutineers take on probably twenty or so Tahitian men and women and sail off to find a place to hide from authority in the oceanic middle of nowhere. In an effort to escape a nearby British warship during cover of night, Christian finds that his Bounty is approaching Pitcairn Island, which has been charted inaccurately by over 170 nautical miles. The mutineers disembark and make camp on the island.

Meanwhile, after one of history’s most amazing feats of navigation, Bligh reaches England but must face an Admiralty investigation. Ultimately he is absolved of any guilt in the loss of the ship, but he is harshly reprimanded by the Admiralty Board:

Your methods, so far as this court can discern, show what we shall cautiously term an excess of zeal. We cannot condemn zeal. We cannot rebuke an officer who has administered discipline according to the articles of war but the articles are fallible, as any articles are bound to be. No code can cover all contingencies. We cannot put justice aboard our ships in books. Justice and decency are carried in the heart of the captain, or they be not aboard. It is for this reason that the Admiralty has always sought to appoint its officers from the ranks of gentlemen. The court regrets to note that the appointment of Captain William Bligh was, in that respect, a failure.

In the Pacific, in an effort to stop Fletcher Christian from trying to take them back to England to testify against Bligh in their own defense, the mutineers set fire to the Bounty. Christian's Tahitian wife, Maimiti, wakes him, and he assembles a group of officers to board Bounty and rescue vital navigational equipment. Christian is severely burned, carried back to shore, and the audience suffers through the longest death scene in what is probably all of film existence, past, present, and future in all of space and every possible dimension. The audience awakes mercifully some time later to the words "The End."

The excruciatingly endless death scene is not the only strange and overly extended point in the movie. For example, earlier when the men arrive in Tahiti, the picture has taken on a new tone. It is then that the film shows its heritage as a 1960's motion picture. It becomes very oddly sexual, abnormally comic, and well beyond too long. The dancing, seducing, and loving really take up far too much of the time spent on the island and probably add more than fifteen minutes of unnecessary footage and pointless dialogue. In an effort to make much more interesting supporting characters, there is also a tendency throughout for the minor characters to spend too much time performing tasks, repeating actions, and sailing past the same places. There is much to be said for the ability of a good editor and a clever director to condense the feeling of time in a film.

Yet surprisingly, despite the overall length and the particularly long awkwardness of the pace of the film, it, like the ship, does glide agilely along, in part, perhaps, because the film is quite pretty to look at. The very fine grain the 70mm Ultra¬Panavision stock provides really shows off the gorgeous ocean sunsets, the lush tropical islands, the excellent craftsmanship of the Bounty itself, and the actors in typically accurate and vivid costumes provide for sharp contrasts. The few times when the illusion of the film becomes spoiled tend to be a result of green screen work and matte shots. While it is a clever way to get pick-up shots under a time crunch, early green screen work just looks too primitive until front projection was developed about six years after this film. But just when an illusion seems lost, Trevor Howard appears in time to save the scene or Brando manages to simultaneously butcher British English and still perform brilliantly. Brando does tend to do well in the role, but his interpretation requires an open mind. Brando's Christian is a foppish dandy as the film presents him, and although this is not the "traditional" heroic role, the approach makes for a mildly interesting dynamic between him and Howard's Bligh in a movie sometimes light on truly interesting character interactions. Trevor Howard's performance as Bligh also proved strong and original.

One reviewer mentioned that perhaps historically biggest criticisms of the film came from the simple fact that it was not the original, referring to the 1935 Laughton-Gable production. Frankly though, the original is not really even the real original. Prior to the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, two other Australian films took on the subject, one silent and one a talkie starring an as yet unknown Errol Flynn, but these were not widely known to American audiences. Paul Brenner also mentions in a review that when this version of Mutiny on the Bounty was released Clark Gable had recently died and the critic suggests that movie-goers, sentimentally but unrealitically, expected an homage to Gable approach. Whether this is accurate or not is difficult to tell, but Brando made the role of Fletcher Christian uniquely his own, perhaps to the chagrin of the 1962 audience.

Indeed, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty is largely distinctive and historically accurate. Some license was taken with character behavior; much of Fletcher Christian's documented history takes place on Bounty, so for any actor imaginatively pulling together how he might have acted seems a necessity. Bligh, however, had a long military record from which an actor can draw. Based on these records, Trevor Howard likely came very close to capturing the real Captain Bligh. In particular, his rough language and blustering arrogance seem to be reflected in Admiralty records and in the
often repeated admonishments from his superiors.

Mutiny on the Bounty shows a grand and fashionably late entrance by Fletcher Christian and his first meeting with an irritated Captain Bligh. The truth is that Captain Bligh knew Fletcher Christian personally; they had sailed together on a previous occasion and were considered friendly colleagues. In fact, Bligh demoted another officer and raised Christian up to Master's Mate during their voyage on the Bounty. The film shows, however, many physical punishments inflicted on the crew to be the catalyst for the mutiny including the keel-hauling of and resultant death via shark attack of a sailor. It was the harsh verbal abuse by Bligh, combined with physically demeaning punitive actions that caused the real mutiny. In truth, keel¬hauling was not only illegal and not actually used by Bligh, but there is little or no record of keel¬hauling aboard any British royal navy ship; it was generally a Dutch naval practice. In deed, Bligh's use of corporal punishment was well under the average for British Navy commanders. Yet, he would face a court-martial investigation again in 1805 and was reprimanded for abusive language in a wholly separate case. Without question, Bligh was a hot tempered, sharp tongued commander at times.

After his return to England in 1790 and his subsequent enquiry, Captain Bligh was defamed as "the Bounty Bastard." This moniker stuck with Bligh throughout his career. It just so happens that this nickname came from pamphlets produced and circulated by Christian's brother attempting to tell the other side of the story and was largely based upon testimony by Midshipman John Mills.

Part of the historical problems with the film rests in faulty editing and lack of focus for a coherent story. As a result, over and under emphasizing of events confuse or bore the audience. On points of accuracy, Bounty did, in fact, waste the five months claimed in the film attempting to round Cape Horn. It did arrive in Tahiti after tedious months at sea, it did have to remain in Tahiti for six more months until the Breadfruit was at a stage that was safe to travel, and the ship did eventually die a fiery death off the coast of Pitcairn Island, where some of its remains were still visible in the twentieth century.

However, Captain Bligh did not instantly arrive in England, as the film seems to imply. It took him roughly over a year to return, Yet, remarkably, during a journey in a small boat over crowded with eighteen loyal sailors, (only one of his men died in a brief violent skirmish with natives on the island of Tofua) Bligh navigated 3,600 miles of open sea to land safely in Timor and then make the lengthy voyage to England.

Having said that, why then — if the director and editor find it acceptable to jump from Bligh just being kicked off the ship to immediately traversing thousands miles to a court room in England — didn't they edit down the rest of the three hour long film? Especially that overture and that death scene!

Historical inconsistencies, confused edits, egotistical actors, and a less than stellar critical reception: in all, this is, nevertheless, an interesting movie. The camera work only falters once, and the green screen scenes pass rather quickly. This movie has some majestic qualities that seem only to be found in nautical films. Marlon Brando's performance might pale slightly in comparison to Trevor Howard's, but only barely; they are both really quite decent and intriguing contrasts, if not great performances. MGM's 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty deserves much credit for effort— they built the real Bounty from the keel up after all! If it sounds like an interesting story (and mostly it is), So … clear your day planner and start watching! And that's merely for that overture!