It is 1887. The Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty sets sail from Portsmouth in England, commanded by Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) in his first command, bound for Tahiti to load thousands of breadfruit plants for Jamaica as food for plantation slaves. First Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) is Bligh’s first officer.
Other key figures onboard include young midshipman Ned Young (Tim Seely), Mills the gunner’s mate (Richard Harris), gardener William Brown (Richard Haydn) and various officers and able seamen played by Hugh Griffith, Noel Purcell, Chips Rafferty, Eddie Byrne, Ashley Cowan, Percy Herbert, Duncan Lamont, Keith McConnell and Gordon Jackson.
On the voyage, conflict develops between spit-and-polish middle-class disciplinarian Bligh and Christian, who was raised a gentleman and believes that obedience – and disobedience – are “a question of degree”.
As matters worsen – with a torrential storm and a shortage of drinking water added to the captain’s increasing use of floggings, chains, assorted tortures and even a keelhauling – Christian is forced ever closer to the side of the rebellious-minded crewmen.
Tahiti provides a merciful respite, and the sailors relax for a while into an idyllic paradise, demonstrated in the film by feasting, sinuous maidens and the Polynesian Twist. Christian meets Maimiti (Tarita), and – after the captain gets his breadfruit and reluctant crew piled onboard – events take their inevitable tragic turn.
Christian Fletcher seizes command of the Bounty; Bligh and 18 of his loyalty-split men are cast adrift; the Bounty returns to Tahiti for supplies and willing women, and the ship then voyages to remote Pitcairn Island where the survivors revolt against Christian when he urges them that returning to England and giving themselves up is “the rightful course of action”.
Instead, they burn the Bounty – and Christian, horribly seared, dies clutching the symbolic sextant (although historically, his fate is unknown). Alas, the death scene is one of the more tedious in an industry noted for tiresome death scenes.
Inevitably compared to the 1935 film starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, this film took nearly three years to prepare, shoot and edit, chewed through six different scriptwriters and two top directors (the first director, Carol Reed, walked off the film because he could not see eye to eye with Marlon Brando and producer Aaron Rosenberg), and involved taking 125 crew members to Tahiti – all of which contributed to the final record budget of $18,500,000.
Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian as an upper-class English fop was always destined to be controversial. Brando built the character in an unhurried way that made his violent outburst into mutiny seem slow in coming – swiftly followed by repentance for having had to violate his officers’ code, facing in honesty the consequences of his act.
But the result – more than three hours worth – was one of the most stirring and colourful sea dramas ever filmed, with the Ultra Panavision 70 screen filled to absolute capacity with the sight and sound of high adventure on the high seas – winds swelling 10,000 square feet of sail; a three-masted sailing ship surging through sunset oceans, and brilliant seascapes guaranteed to stir the nautical yearnings in even the most confirmed landlubbers.
MGM built the replica of the Bounty in Nova Scotia at the cost of $750,000. Immediately after shooting for the film wrapped, the vessel was sent off on a two-year 40,000-mile publicity tour. The ship was used again in the films Yellowbeard (1983), Treasure Island (1989) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and in a 1965 episode of the television show Flipper.
The ship eventually sank off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy on 29 October 2012. Two of the crew died – the Captain, Robin Walbridge, and Claudene Christian, a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian.
1st Lt. Fletcher Christian
Captain William Bligh
Seaman John Mills
Seaman Matthew Quintal
Seaman Edward Birkett
Seaman William McCoy
Midshipman Edward ‘Ned’ Young
Comptesse de Brissac