Oh, poor Captain Bligh.
For those who recognize the name, it’s probably because they’ve either read a book or seen a film that portrayed him as being the tyrannical captain of the HMS Bounty. In 1787, William Bligh and the Bounty set off on a mission to Tahiti. When, after ten months at sea, the Bounty arrived in Tahiti, the crew immediately fell in love with the relaxed pleasures of island life. When Bligh ordered them to leave Tahiti and continue with their mission, his own second-in-command led a mutiny. Bligh and the few men who remained loyal to him were set adrift in a lifeboat while Christian and the mutineers eventually ended up settling on Pitcairn Island. Against impossible odds, Bligh managed to make it back to civilization, where he faced both a court-martial and a future of being portrayed as a villain.
Though most historians agree that Bligh was a knowledgeable and talented (if strict) captain and that the mutiny had more to do with Christian’s desire to remain in Tahiti than Bligh’s treatment of the crew, most adaptations of what happened on the Bounty have laid the blame for the mutiny squarely at Bligh’s feet. Personally, I think it has to do with the names of the people involved. William Bligh just sounds evil, in much the same way that the name Fletcher Christian immediately brings to mind images of heroism. In 1935’s Mutiny On The Bounty, Charles Laughton portrayed Bligh as being a viscous sadist. In 1962’s Mutiny in the Bounty, Trevor Howard portrayed Bligh as being an overly ambitious martinet, though ultimately Howard was overshadowed by Marlon Brando, who gave a bizarrely mannered performance in the role Christian.
In fact, it would seem that there’s only one film that’s willing to give William Bligh the benefit of the doubt. That film is 1984’s The Bounty.
The Bounty opens with Bligh (played by Anthony Hopkins) facing a court-martial for losing the Bounty. That the admiral presiding over Bligh’s court-martial is played by Laurence Olivier is significant for two reasons. Olivier’s stately and distinguished presence lets us know that the mutiny was viewed as being an affront to British society but it also reminds us that Hopkins began his career as Olivier’s protegé. Much as how William Bligh was a star of the British navy, Hopkins was (and is) a star of British stage and screen. One gets the feeling the scene isn’t just about the admiral judging Bligh. It was also about Olivier judging Hopkins as the latter played a role that had already been made famous by two other great British thespians, Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard.
By opening with Bligh on trial, The Bounty allows itself to be told largely through Bligh’s point of view. We watch familiar events play out from a new perspective. Once again, it takes longer than expected for Bligh and the Bounty to reach Tahiti and, once again, Bligh’s by-the-book leadership style alienates a good deal of the crew. However, this time, Bligh is not portrayed as being a villain. Instead, he’s just a rather neurotic man who is trying to do his duty under the most difficult of circumstances. Bligh knows that the crew blames him for everything that goes wrong during the voyage but he also knows that the only way their going to survive the journey is through maintaining order.
In fact, the film suggests that Bligh’s biggest mistake was promoting Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) to second-in-command. Christian is portrayed as being good friends with Bligh and one gets the feeling that Bligh promoted him largely so he would have someone to talk to.
The film does a good job contrasting the dank claustrophobia of the Bounty with the vibrant beauty of Tahiti. When the crew first lands, Bligh proves his diplomatic skills upon meeting with the native king. However, it quickly becomes apparent that, while Bligh views the stop in Tahiti as just being a part of the mission, the majority of the crew view it as being an escape from the dreariness of their lives in Britain. For the first time in nearly a year, the crew is allowed to enjoy life. When Bligh eventually orders the crew to leave Tahti, many of the men — including Christian — are forced to abandon their native wives.
Unfortunately for Bligh, he doesn’t understand that his crew has no desire to return to the dreariness of their old life, either on the Bounty or in the United Kingdom. Bligh’s solution to the crew’s disgruntlement is to become an even harsher disciplinarian. (Bligh is the type of captain who will order the crew to clean the ship, just to keep them busy.) However, Bligh no longer has Christian backing him. When the inevitable mutiny does occur, Bligh seems to be the only one caught by surprise.
Anthony Hopkins gives a performance that turns Bligh into a character who is, in equal amounts, both sympathetic and frustrating. Bligh means well but he’s so rigid and obsessed with his duty that he can’t even being to comprehend why his crew is so annoyed about having to leave Tahiti. Since Bligh can’t imagine ever loving anything more than sailing, it’s beyond his abilities to understand why his men are so obsessed with returning to Tahiti. Hopkins portrays Bligh as being not evil but instead, rather isolated. He knows everything about sailing but little about emotion or desire. Ironically, the same personality traits that led to him losing the Bounty are also key to his survival afterward. By enforcing discipline and emphasizing self-sacrifice, Bligh keeps both himself and the men who stayed loyal to him alive until their eventual rescue.
Interestingly, Mel Gibson portrayed Christian as being just as neurotic as Bligh. In fact, if Bligh and Christian have anything in common, it would appear to be they’re both obsessed with what the crew thinks of them. Whereas Bligh is obsessed with being respected, Christian wants to be viewed as their savior. When the mutiny finally occurs, Christian gets an almost messianic gleam in his eyes. While Christian is not portrayed as being a villain (and, indeed, The Bounty is unique in not having any cut-and-dried villains and heroes), Gibson’s portrayal is certainly far different from the heroic interpretation offered up by Clark Gable.
(The rest of the cast is full of familiar British character actors, along with a few future stars making early appearances. Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson appear as members of the Bounty’s crew. One remains loyal to Bligh while the other goes with Christian. Watch the movie to find out who does what!)
The Bounty is best viewed as being a character study of two men trying to survive under the most trying of conditions. Just as Bligh’s personality made both the mutiny and his survival inevitable, the film suggests that everything that made Christian a successful mutineer will also make it impossible for him to survive for long afterward. Whereas Bligh may have been a poor leader but a good diplomat, Christian proves to be just the opposite and the king of Tahiti makes clear that he has no room on his island for a bunch of mutineers who will soon have the entire British navy looking for them. Whereas Bligh makes it back to Britain, Christian and the mutineers are forced to leave Tahiti a second time and end up settling on the previously uncharted Pitcairn Island. (Of course, no one knows for sure what happened to Christian after the mutineers reached Pitcairn Island. The last surviving mutineer claimed that Christian was murdered by the natives who were already living on the island.)
The Bounty has its flaws. There are some pacing issues that keep the film from working as an adventure film and a few of the actors playing the crew aren’t quite as convincing as you might hope. (If you only saw him in this film, you would never believe that Daniel Day-Lewis is a three-time Oscar winner.) But it’s still an interesting retelling of a familiar story and it’s worth watching for the chance to see one of Anthony Hopkins’s best performances.