I live in a city with quite a nautical history. I’ve seen the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” in the Charlestown Navy Yard (spoiler alert: not actually made of iron). Every once in a while, there’s some interesting ship that comes into Boston Harbor, and I’ve toured a couple of them. That includes a nineteenth century whaleship – so I’m somewhat familiar with the kind of wooden ship in the era the Bounty comes from. They are teeny tiny boats for a few dozen dudes to ride around in for two years.
Based on how commonly-referenced the story of the mutiny is, I’d have guessed that I would have a better sense of what happened and why. But I genuinely knew next to nothing about it, and it’s a really interesting story. More fascinating, I’d say, than is given justice in the film.
The year is 1787, and Captain Bligh is assigned to set out on a trade mission to Tahiti on the British naval ship the Bounty. As was apparently common practice for the navy at that time, sailors were conscripted from local pubs to fulfill a two-year mission overseas, which probably explains why so many of the reluctant seamen were so eager to volunteer for a mutiny later. Bligh does not treat his crew well, punishing them willy-nilly with floggings and half-rations and grumpy scowls.
They land on Tahiti, and obviously all the native women fall in love with the white guys, and the white guys explain civilization to them in condescending ways. (As a side note, I would love to know if there exists narratives from the perspective of indigenous peoples during this time period of European exploration/exploitation, because it seems pretty hard to come by.) Shortly after they leave, Bligh’s second in command decides he’s had enough and leads a mutiny.
In some way, we see the mutineers as heroic, or at least justified in what they did. Particularly in the movie’s portrayal, Captain Bligh is a terrible guy who punishes his men in severe ways for minor transgressions. When he’s set adrift in (an even tinier!) boat with some of his loyal men, basically left for dead, you kind of feel he deserves it. I mean, let’s just start with the fact that the entire trip was initiated to obtain breadfruit plants to transport to the Caribbean “as a cheap food source for slaves.” I’m not gonna cry if that little expedition misses its mark.
At this point, the film seems to get itself mixed up with Moby Dick, because Bligh comes back on an even bigger ship, searching for the escaped mutineers, who returned to Tahiti. There’s a high-speed boat chase (not really), and Bligh’s obsession with capturing his crew leads to the destruction of yet another ship. In actuality, this part did not happen exactly like that in real life Bligh made it home alive, but didn’t chase after the Bounty – though the mutineers did end up on Pitcairn Island.
As a side note, on the DVD, there was a bonus “documentary” about Pitcairn Island today, made in the 1930s, which was interesting/hilarious as a historical document. The descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian wives/kidnapped women? still eke out a living there.
And that’s the film, too – interesting as a historical document, impressive for its time in its special effects (the special-est effect being water, which to be fair would probably be added as CGI today). Ultimately, though, I’d rather read a book that went into more detail about the nuances and realities of the situation. And what role did those Tahitians play in the whole shebang? Movie, why you gotta leave me hanging?
Theme: On a Boat
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Saying, unironically, “we’re all in the same boat.” Twice.