How different might David Lean’s late career have been, had Ryan’s Daughter not been so eviscerated, and his confidence with it? Certainly, we know about his post-A Passage to India projects (Empire of the Sun, Nostromo), but there were fourteen intervening years during which he surely might have squeezed out two or three additional features. The notable one that got away was, like Empire of the Sun, actually made: The Bounty. But by Roger Donaldson, after Lean eventually dropped out. And the resulting picture is, as you might expect, merely okay, notable for a fine Anthony Hopkins performance as Bligh (Lean’s choice), but lacking any of the visual poetry that comes from a master of the craft.
Bligh is more sympathetic here, with the character take based on Richard Hough’s 1972 Captain Bligh and Mr Christian, in which the men are initially friends. Thus, it breaks with the previous, higher-profile iterations (where Bligh was played by Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard). Made in more liberated times, Donaldson also has liberal licence to massage the frame with topless Tahitian maidens, a task he takes to like a trooper. But despite the talent on board – Mel Gibson, Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, Laurence Olivier – The Bounty ends up feeling merely serviceable and slightly pedestrian.
One might argue that’s reflective of much of Donaldson’s career, No Way Out a few years later excepted. Indeed, it’s sobering that even Vangelis – lavishing his first score since Blade Runner – is unable to imbue the picture with that something extra (his score is great, but the images fail to rise to its challenge; it would be another eight years before a seafaring epic would do his compositions justice).
Gibson was upfront about his own failings and those of the picture itself (during the filming of which he said he went a bit nuts – funny, that – something Hopkins confirmed). He felt it should have gone further and made Fletcher Christian an outright antagonist: “But they wanted to exonerate Captain Bligh while still having the dynamic where the guy was mutinying for the good of the crew. It didn’t quite work”. Hopkins went further, calling it “a sad mess of a film, such a botched job”. Notably, he’d experienced difficulties with Donaldson and had put a lot of effort into the part, something he subsequently swore off. The Bounty isn’t anything like the wreck that assessment suggests, but it’s easy to imagine how it might have been a far superior piece to the somewhat functional film we get.
Indeed, that functionality is compounded by the framing device of Bligh’s court martial. If such a structure serves dramatic tension, it can work, but here it feels rather arbitrary, the consequence of retelling a tale that previous generations are more than familiar with. The start-stop impedes rather than advances the telling, and it’s noticeable how, by the second half, it has almost entirely dropped away.
Ant’s Bligh is seen to face a delicate balancing act in disciplining his men and allowing them leeway, his biggest failing being the hubris of wishing to round Cape Horn and circumnavigate the globe. But even then, it’s only when island life leads to the men – and Fletcher particularly – losing their naval impetus that matters truly go south. Sadly, he’s suddenly depicted as rather crazed (“This ship is filthy, Mr Christian!”). Hitherto, the worst we saw was his dealing with Day Lewis’ supremely slappable Sailing Master Fryer (Christian replaces him as Master’s Mate) and being mildly repressed, but in a self-aware way.
Even then, the bigger issue with The Bounty is that Gibbo never seems quite at ease in the role. I wouldn’t say he’s exactly bland, but he’s struggling in vain to find substance in the part. He’s just not much good at the stiff upper lip bit (it’s established off the bat that he comes from the upper classes, unlike Bligh), and when it comes to going Mad Mel in one scene (“I am in hell!”), he seems not a little OTT.
Day Lewis wouldn’t find himself in such a minor role again, so it’s interesting to see his smirking, petty Fryer, the kind of part many others would make their bread and butter. Neeson was stuck playing lumbering oafs at the time (see also Excalibur, Krull) and this is no exception, but there are also appearances by Phil Davis, Neil Morrissey, John Sessions, Bernard Hill and Dexter Fletcher. Malcolm Terris is perhaps most indelible as drunk Dr Huggan, appearing above deck at one point in a paralytic state and destined for an ignominiously trouserless fate. Generally, it’s a case of a good cast not given enough time to make something of their characters.
Which brings us back to Lean. It’s interesting to consider that this bastion of the classical epic was considering decidedly modern possibilities for pulling off the picture. He regarded the canvass as too large for one film, so he and screenwriter Robert Bolt planned The Lawbreakers and The Long Arm, two features shot simultaneously, the first dealing with the events leading to the mutiny, and second, the post-mutiny response.
That’s an inherently risky proposition, and at the time of its planning (1977), such a feat had only been pulled off surreptitiously and controversially by Ilya Salkind on The Three and Four Musketeers, and was also his approach for the then upcoming Superman. Dino De Laurentiis was going to put up the money for Lean’s voyages, but with a prospective budget of $40m for the first film alone, the producer ended up baulking. Lean then looked into repurposing the two-part feature as seven-part TV series, before reverting to one film (Pandora’s Box) and ultimately feeling compelled to abandon even that. It’s a fascinating and unlikely precursor to today’s Netflix era, though: the most cinematic of directors prepared to take an excursion into TV.
Unlike the previous voyages of the Bounty, this one failed to trouble any awards ceremonies. Gibson was another three years from becoming a bona-fide star outside of Mad Max, while Hopkins only sporadically dipped his toe in movies during the decade. The Bounty’s pedigree of performers both precedes it and leaves it curiously isolated and adrift, with a glut of talent on deck but a failure to steer them effectively.