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The best of friends, the worst of enemies
on 8 November 2007
How could a film with Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day Lewis and Liam Neeson sink without trace? That was the fate of Roger Donaldson's 'The Bounty' back in 1984 when none of them were exactly box-office certainties. Indeed, the third dramatization of the British Navy's most infamous act of piracy (excluding the semi-documentary 'In the Wake of the Bounty') and is perhaps best remembered today as the flop that David Lean nearly directed before falling out with Dino De Laurentiis (UA studio boss Steven Bach infamously greenlit 'Heaven's Gate' instead of a Lean version!). It certainly deserves to be better remembered, boasting a superb screenplay by Robert Bolt (originally intended as two films: the second, dealing with the aftermath was quietly dropped after this tanked) that owes a lot more to history than previous versions despite its occasional inaccuracies.
A young Mel Gibson impresses as the weak-willed Fletcher Christian, drawn into rebelling more by place and circumstances as well as by a crew of thugs with dirty mugs than a clichéd catalogue of tyranny, but it's Anthony Hopkins' film all the way. Before his irretrievable descent into ham he was a much more restrained screen actor, and his Captain Bligh is a much more interesting creation than you suspect he'd manage today. Fighting his own demons in a permissive place that rips away the moral repressions of his crew and creates a culture of defiance and inertia that he is unable to combat by either understanding or discipline (if anything, Bligh's fault here is that he is too slack on the men for too long before disastrously overcompensating on the return voyage), the film is punctuated by images of his desperately haunted face as he is faced with the realization of his escalating failure and impotence. Yet it is ultimately Bligh who triumphs and is vindicated in this version, with Christian and his mutineers left at each other's throats as they are cast out of paradise and stranded on a barren shore.
It's impressive, powerful stuff, even more so today for its reality. No cgi, few model shots, they built a real ship and took it to sea for real (even 'Master and Commander' was almost entirely shot in a studio tank in Mexico), and the hardships and efforts pay dividends on screen. Donaldson's direction is better than anything he's done since, Arthur Ibbetson's cinematography impressive and even Vangelis' much maligned score has some of the psychological savagery you can find in Alex North's work on 'Spartacus'. Only a hammy Edward Fox (sparingly used, thankfully) and a superannuated Laurence Olivier strike the odd bum note in the court of inquiry scenes that provide the film's solid framework. I for one would love to see the second Bolt script, 'The Long Arm,' finally make it to the screen some day - hard to believe, but it's a much better tale by far.
Sadly, Prism's extras-free DVD is a less than impressive transfer: if you have a multi-region player you'd probably be better off seeking out the US or French DVDs instead.