The Bounty (1984) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

There have been several well-known film versions of the mutiny on board the HMS Bounty during the return portion of an expedition to Tahiti in 1789. Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutineers, has been played by such screen legends as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlon Brando. This particular version of the story features Mel Gibson in the Christian role, and Anthony Hopkins as William Bligh, the legal commander of the ship. The impressive supporting cast also includes Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson.

Ambitious? You bet. It not only features big stars, but a big story as well. The historical details of the story are so complex that Nordhoff and Hall required three books to tell the whole tale. The first volume told of the actual mutiny. The second recounted Captain Bligh's sail to safety in an open launch after he was set adrift from the Bounty. This was one of the most miraculous acts of seamanship in history. Bligh managed to traverse 3600 miles of open sea in an overcrowded boat, with nothing but a sextant and a watch, and he lost not a single member of his 18 loyal crewmen at sea.  The third Nordhoff/Hall volume followed the fate of the mutineers after their insurrection, including the establishment and ultimate failure of their new society on remote, uncharted, unpopulated Pitcairn Island.

The 1984 film uses as a framing device the hearing in which the Royal Navy examined Bligh's responsibility for the loss of his ship. Various and assorted admirals and other stuffy old bewigged fellows huff and puff about while Bligh pleads his case. This hearing was not based on a presumption of irresponsibility on Bligh's part, but was an automatic proceeding under British law, and Bligh was ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing after he told his story, which we see in flashbacks. Somehow we also manage to see something of Fletcher's men post-mutiny as well, although Bligh could not be narrating their story to the court. The story ends with the mutineers burning the Bounty, symbolically separating themselves from England forever. Their ultimate fate is not addressed, not are the fates of the other men, loyalists and mutineers alike, who stayed behind on Tahiti to face their eventual courts-martial in England.

This version is generally believed to be the closest any film has come to the historical truth. The earlier versions of the story were based to some degree or another on the Nordhoff/Hall works, and those tended to portray Bligh as a ruthless taskmaster in contrast to Christian the compassionate hero. That inaccurate perspective is basically the result of Christian's brother having won the public relations battle with William Bligh back in England. Although the courts sided with Bligh, and he is considered to have been a fair man and a rather lenient disciplinarian by the standards of the day, he was an acid-tongued individual with few friends while (as the Wikipedia entry states) Edward Christian was a "celebrated barrister and brother of Fletcher. He wrote an impassioned screed defending his brother and had it appended to the court-martial proceedings of the 10 prisoners from the Bounty that had been captured in Tahiti and brought to London for trial. Although Bligh wrote a defense of his character supported by statements from crewmen on the Bounty and other vessels, Bligh lost the public opinion war. Thus was created the popular myth of the villainous Bligh and the noble Christian." In reality, Bligh was not only acquitted by the hearing, but went on to a long a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, eventually rising to the rank of vice-admiral!

The 1984 film is not based on the famous Nordhoff/Hall books, but on a 1972 account called "Captain Bligh and Mister Christian," written by Richard Hough. Lacking the "Christian as hero" conceit, the film takes a very unusual approach to the central character of Christian. It turns him into a virtual bystander. He rarely speaks. (I wonder if this always part of the character, or whether it was changed to accommodate Mel Gibson's uneasy British accent.) While the other Fletcher Christians of cinema have been tortured souls (Brando) or men of derring-do (Flynn and Gable), Gibson is simply a man of derring-don't, an enigmatic and taciturn figure guided by inertia, a reluctant leader who seems to offer his men neither leadership nor counsel, and never offers us a clear idea of why he chose to betray his friend, a man he had sailed with twice previously without incident. In fact, Christian was Bligh's protégé, and gladly signed on for the third voyage, during the early part of which Bligh promoted him over another officer to second-in-command. It seems to me that any version of this story needs to offer some explanation of how their friendship could have turned around so quickly.

Richard Hough's source book does offer that explanation, but the movie dropped it. Hough hypothesizes that Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian were really gay lovers, and that their intimate relationship explains why Bligh was so jealous of Christian's love affair with his Tahitian girl, why he rode Christian so hard after they sailed from Tahiti, and why he was in such a foul mood in general from the time Christian took on his native lover. Although that hypothesis supplied the motivation which the film was lacking, I'm glad the screenplay dropped the homosexual angle, although I have to admit that it might have been entertaining to see some sex scenes between Mad Max and Dr. Lecter. It is, however, quite interesting to watch the film after finding out that the source book had posited this theory, because there are some sequences that make more sense if you accept the gay subtext. In particular, there is a long sequence in which Bligh fidgets, fusses, and sleeps fitfully on the ship while Christian romps with his native lover, and the sequence could easily be interpreted to imply that Bligh is thinking of Christian and missing him romantically, although one would not draw that conclusion without knowing the theory in advance, or at least I didn't when I first watched the film. I assumed that Bligh was worried that his friend was "going native" and would be hard to re-civilize, and I felt that Bligh was perhaps a bit jealous because of his own seeming inability to enjoy his stay in Tahiti while Fletcher was just having such a good time.

Although the script didn't make Fletcher Christian gay, it did make him a bit of a weakling and so passive as to be virtually non-existent, and that makes the film uninvolving. As you watch this, you might share my strong dislike for both men. You may also feel that too much of the film's running time is occupied by spectacles which do not advance the story: the long, long greeting party in Tahiti; the long, long native ceremonies; the long, long period of storms wracking the ship as it tries to sail around the Horn. And after all that, the film still seems to end in the middle of the story.

The Bounty splits critics and audiences. Critics loved it. Roger Ebert and the BBC gave it perfect scores. 92% of the reviews linked from Rotten Tomatoes are positive. Yet the film opened on a weekend with three other big releases, and finished last among the four. It also lost out to some carry-overs. When the smoke had cleared, the total gross was a mere $8 million, despite the big budget and superstar cast. Critics may go to the theater for a history lesson, and may view a balanced and accurate film positively, but very few moviegoers give a whit for accuracy. Hey, I know the Gable/Laughton version was bullshit, but it was very entertaining bullshit. The main question moviegoers tend to ask is this: is the story fast-moving and involving enough to entertain? Based on the box office, this one was obviously not. 

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  • widescreen anamorphic, 2.35
  • no significant features



Tevaite Vernette is topless throughout the film, as are many other actresses playing native Tahitian women.

Book DVD

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: all four stars out of four. Roger Ebert 4/4, BBC 5/5.


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It bombed. It grossed only $8 million. In its opening weekend, it finished last among the four new releases. It then had the steepest second week decline of the four.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C. Nicely produced, beautifully acted, thoughtfully written to represent the truth as well as possible ... and bor-r-r-r-ing!

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