Skip to main content

The sooner we are seamen again, the better.

The Bounty
(1984)

(SPOILERS) How different might David Lean’s late career have been if Ryan’s Daughter hadn’t 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 licence to massage the frame liberally 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, and 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 (during the filming of which he said he went a bit nuts – funny, that – something Hopkins confirmed) and those of the picture itself, which he felt 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 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 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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.