Critical Essays Movies Based on The Mutiny on the Bounty


Some books or novels lend themselves to movie adaptation. Often, these books are romantic or adventure stories, such as The Three Musketeers or Mutiny on the Bounty. Since the historical mutiny aboard the Bounty in 1789, there have been three highly successful books about the incident: (1) Captain William Bligh's The Mutiny on Board H.M.S. Bounty, (2) Nordhoff and Hall's Mutiny on the Bounty, and (3) Robert Hough's The Bounty. Likewise, there have been three highly successful movies based on the incident: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard; and The Bounty (1984), starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Each movie follows its source book to some extent; likewise, each movie digresses from its source book in some instances. All of the movies, however, have one thing in common: they give a much more important role to Fletcher Christian than do any of the books; not surprisingly, each movie features a popular matinee idol of the time.

Of the major movies, the first one follows the Nordhoff and Hall novel the most closely, especially in the latter sections of the novel. The most recently released movie, The Bounty, follows the general plot, yet differs greatly in that the narration is told from Bligh's point of view. The 1962 version focuses on the adventure of the trip to Tahiti — the trials and tribulations of getting there, and the arrival at these idyllic islands. After the mutiny, the men discover Pitcairn Island, where Christian is accidentally killed because of the indiscretion of the mutineers.

A key difference between the movies and the books on which the mutiny is based lies in the motivations for the mutiny itself. The books are more complex and somewhat more believable for most readers; for others, the films are more believable in that the reasons for the mutiny are graphically presented: (1) the captain, maniacal in his pursuit of a short cut to the West Indies, would have carried his men and his ship to an almost certain death, and (2) the men wish to return to their women in Tahiti and to their idyllic existence there.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Clark Gable, Hollywood's all-time favorite matinee idol, and Charles Laughton.

This movie is closely based on the Nordhoff and Hall novel; however, one should be aware of the differences between the novel and the movie. First, in the movie, the sailors are "impressed," or forced, into service aboard the Bounty and thus have no feeling of allegiance to Bligh. In the novel, the sailors actively petition the captain of the ship for the honor of service aboard the Bounty. Therefore, the mutiny in the movie is not carried out by loyal British seamen who are respected members of the navy but, instead, by the scum of the bars and jails, men who have no interest in anything but themselves. Perhaps the director erred; the mutiny is a much more grave and serious affair when it is committed by loyal seamen than when committed by low-class riff-raff.

Another difference concerns Tinkler; in the book, he is punished by being placed in the topmast until he is almost frozen; in the movie, this punishment is meted out to Byam. Since the focus of a two-hour movie cannot develop many of the various individuals who are in a long novel, it must logically center its episodes on key characters.

In the novel, the antagonism between Bligh and Christian is gradually developed. In contrast, in the movie, Christian and Bligh are set up immediately as polar opposites. From the very first scene, Christian sees himself as a defender of the underdog and defies Captain Bligh's unreasonable demands. True, Christian is the man who "kidnapped" the men from the saloons, but he was simply following orders from the tyrannical Captain Bligh.

The movie presents Bligh as a villain from the very first scene. It does not show him as having a single redeeming quality. He is a satanic creature, bound to have his way; he delights in imposing suffering on the common seamen, as well as on his ranking officers. Bligh is sadistic in his punishment and totally authoritarian in his absolute rule. The audience dislikes him immensely — partly due to Charles Laughton's superbly villainous performance.

This is the only movie to include scenes showing the return to England and the trial of Byam, even though the role is capsulated, compared to the novel. Some fifty years after its making, this early Bounty movie is still a powerful motion picture.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), starring two-time Academy Award winner Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris as "Mills."

This version of the story of the Bounty differs from the Nordhoff and Hall novel and also from the other movie adaptations in that the plight of Fletcher Christian, once he leaves the prisoners on Tahiti, after seizing the ship and setting Bligh adrift, is presented in its entirety. While Nordhoff and Hall's Mutiny doesn't follow Christian's escapades once he leaves Tahiti in search of an uninhabited island, this movie does. Christian anchors at Pitcairn Island, an island in the South Sea, positioned incorrectly on the official British sea charts.

The major emphasis in the movie is on the different social classes which Bligh and Christian come from. Bligh, a low-brow who understands nothing of the gentry, feels that all upper-class people are spineless and ineffectual; he is characterized as a complete opposite of Christian, who, as the ultimate gentleman, respects the laws of the king but will not let any man debase his character. Indeed, the strong contrast between the two men's characters is an added catalyst to all of the climactic events in the movie — from the squabbling the two men do while journeying to Tahiti to the actual act of mutiny itself.

Here, the motivation for the mutiny is manifold, including the meager half-ration of water which the men are allowed while taking the breadfruit trees to the West Indies, the sadistic punishment Bligh hands out, and the apparent enjoyment he gains from it. Three men are killed in this Bounty movie, whereas in the novel, not one man perishes in the journey before the mutiny occurs, and the explosive incident which finally sparks the mutiny occurs when Bligh kicks a ladle from Christian's hand while Christian, disobeying a direct command of Bligh's, attempts to give fresh water in the name of humanity to a man delirious after drinking salt water. This scene does not occur in the novel.

Here, we clearly see the distinction between Bligh's and Christian's social backgrounds. After Bligh has kicked the ladle out of Christian's hand, Christian immediately knocks Bligh to the deck in outrage. Bligh orders Fryer to imprison Christian for striking a superior officer, and it is at that moment when Christian gathers arms and seizes the ship. It should be noted that Mills, who has a much larger role in the movie than in the novel or in the other two movies, has been goading Christian to seize the ship ever since the Bounty set sail from Tahiti.

This Bounty movie covers much more fully the events of Christian's flight after the mutiny than do the other two movies and the books, and, in doing so, it presents a deeper understanding of the motives behind Christian's actions. It is Christian's gentlemanly intention from the first moments after the mutiny to return to England and be tried for mutiny in order to bring public attention to the sadistic and ruthless conditions that captains such as Bligh submit their men to. Hopefully, his testimony will rid the world of such tyrants forever. However, when Christian reveals his plan to Mills and the other mutineers on Pitcairn Island, the men are alarmed. Their deaths are virtually assured if they return to England. That night, Mills and some of the other mutineers burn the Bounty, and Christian, trying to save his sexton from raging flames, is badly burned from a falling mast. His followers pull him from the ship and try to resuscitate him, but their efforts fail, and Christian dies on the beach.

The Bounty (1984), starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.

Director Roger Donaldson's The Bounty is adapted from Richard Hough's novel, and it differs from the novel and from other adaptations in that the story-line is told to the viewer by Bligh himself (Bligh is a lieutenant in the movie and hopes to become a captain after he successfully delivers the breadfruit trees). One serious flaw in Bligh's narration is that he could never have known what became of the Bounty or the events which took place on the Bounty after he was set adrift, yet the Bounty's plight after the mutineers set Bligh adrift is examined closely in this movie.

The difference in point-of-view is a major factor when comparing this movie to the two earlier ones. The scene of Bligh's being court-martialed by Admiral Hood and the tribunal begins the movie, and it is Bligh's flashbacks which constitute the "meat" of the movie. Bligh is being tried for conduct unbecoming an officer; the emphasis is not on how or why the mutineers took the Bounty, but, rather, on why Bligh lost the ship. For the modern audience, this is more believable than the original plot-line.

Another difference in this movie, when compared with other works associated with the incident, is the personal relationship between Bligh and Christian. Cordial yet stiff in the original novel and in the other, earlier movies, a friendship exists here between the two men before the Bounty sets sail, and it lasts throughout the ship's journey to Tahiti. It is not until after the Bounty reaches Tahiti and Christian is allowed to go ashore that the relationship between the two men becomes strained. Bligh is intensely jealous of Christian — particularly of Christian's relationship with the Tahitian women. Subtle overtones of Bligh's latent homosexuality exist in Hough's novel and are incorporated into the movie which was adapted from the book. Early in both works, the two men are on a first-name basis with each other, but once Bligh becomes jealous of Christian's sexual behavior on the island, proper names and ranks are used henceforth in bitter, sarcastic tones.

In this particular movie, Lieutenant Bligh is seen in a much more sympathetic light than in the earlier adaptations from books. This is brought about by a number of factors, including the narrative's being told from Bligh's perspective, the absence of overt and useless violence in the journey before reaching Tahiti (the only instance of violence occurring when two men are gagged by Master Fryer's orders, and it is Bligh himself who gives Christian the order to untie the two men), the heroic struggle to reach England in a small launch, which Bligh and his followers are allowed to use (Bligh gives up his food so that others who are delirious may have a better chance to survive), and the final scene of the movie, which focuses on the emotional Bligh, exonerated of all crimes charged against him, weeping before the tribunal.

The motivation behind Christian's seizing of the Bounty is more plausible in this movie than in many of the other associated works. It is after Bligh informs the crew and the officers that he is planning to circumnavigate the globe by going around the Cape of Good Hope, just as he unsuccessfully attempted during the journey to Tahiti, that Christian and his followers seize the ship. Also, the bond that many of the men aboard the Bounty form with women on Tahiti (Christian falls in love the daughter of the island chief and she becomes pregnant) are critical factors in the decision to seize the ship. The conditions on board the Bounty and the treatment of the men by Bligh are only minor reasons for the men to seize the ship, but, coupled with Bligh's plan to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and the yearning of the men to return to Tahiti, mutiny seems inevitable.

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