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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .