The legendary tale of William Bligh, whose cruelty forced his crew, led by his first mate Fletcher Christian, to mutiny and cast their overthrown leader, and those loyal to him, adrift in the Pacific. As Christian evades British retribution, Bligh begins an epic voyage to take his tiny boat to some kind of safety.
With David Lean overcome by ill health and creative prevarication, Robert Bolt’s script, a third retelling of the true-tale of Mutineers on the triple-rigged ship The Bounty, fell into the disappointingly serviceable hands of Roger Donaldson. The result is what you might expect given the ingredients, an impressively researched, speculated and psychologically evaluated script solidly handled by a director without the visual gifts to take it quite where Lean might have.
Certainly, the film takes a more even hand with a story made straightforwardly Hollywood by two previous adaptations in 1935 and 1962. For instance, William Bligh was never a captain, his humble origins prevented it and such precision provokes issues of class resentment between Anthony Hopkins’ complicated Bligh and Mel Gibson’s Christian, an upper-class dilettante, driven less by reason than a sensual self-purpose. Their conflict, the absolute heart of the story, is not one of innate good versus the crushing effects of abused power, but one of two diverging viewpoints between former friends.
An intense Hopkins grasps Bligh’s immediate dichotomy: a repressed and inflexible man disposed to rash bouts of temper, but at the same time a brilliant seaman aware that necessity can outpace decency. His devotion to Queen and country, the strict guidance of his orders, also reveals Bolt’s familiar themes of imperialistic civilisation versus native disorder. Gibson, in one of his best performances, interprets Christian not as natural leader but a fool to the moment, his love of a Tahiti princess one of his guiding motives. And unusually the script goes on to compare the subsequent effects of the mutiny as Christian’s earthly paradise breaks down through disease and lack of leadership, while Bligh finds his way, by some miracle, to safety and the Admiralty.
Such quality and intelligence, however, is undermined by Donaldson’s rather measured technique. His film is elegant but never beautiful, a pretence at Lean’s magnificence contradicted by a lavish but anachronistic score by Vangelis score. It is the words and performances, including a crew of soon-to-be famous British actors, which excite; their director is out of his depth.
Very watchable version of the Mutiny story with a handsome young Mel Gibson.