by Rick Bretz
There are at least two sides to every story, if not more. In the case of the HMS Bounty and the mutiny adventure, several different accounts can be put together to find the truth. One side is Captain William Bligh’s, another is Fletcher Christian’s, another is the Royal Naval Leadership’s, another is the Bounty’s crew’s, and still another would be the native islanders’. With any good story and book, there follows a movie.
A celluloid figure interpreted often over the past several decades is Capt. William Bligh, the leader of the HMS Bounty. Here are the performances that depict the Captain.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh
Played against Clark Gable as 1st LT. Fletcher Christian
Charles Laughton played Captain Bligh as a tyrant and cruel skipper of the Bounty. You can’t find any humanity in his performance much less a modicum of mercy. Laughton’s acting ability makes you cheer when Gable takes over the Bounty and sets Laughton sail in the lifeboat.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Trevor Howard as Captain William Bligh
Played against Marlon Brando as 1st LT. Fletcher Christian
Trevor Howard’s performance gives movie goers a business like performance to the role. He toned down the maliciousness of Captain Bligh and presented the idea that his leadership style had to be tough to keep control of the Bounty’s tough crew. He also gets points for putting up with his co-star. Historical accounts indicate how difficult Marlon Brando was during the making of the movie in Tahiti.
The Bounty (1984)
Anthony Hopkins as Captain William Bligh
Played against Mel Gibson as 1st LT Fletcher Christian
Anthony Hopkins’ performance portrayed thoughts and emotions boiling just underneath the surface with some of them reaching the tipping point and others staying hidden. As with all his roles, he can seemingly show several emotions and thoughts behind his facial expressions without saying much. Of the three actors on this list, his performance came closest to making the audience understand his point of view if not completely sympathizing with his plight.
The Real Person
We all know that Hollywood liberally applies artistic license to historical events and to the people who become vital figures during these episodes. In this case, the actors and the screen writers needed a villain and he, Capt. Bligh, was it. A closer look shows that Bligh was a superb seaman and may not have been as nasty and evil as the movie portrayals.
After the mutiny, Bligh went on to have a stellar career and was promoted several times, attaining the Vice Admiral of the Blue rank in 1814. Not long after the mutiny, Bligh returned to Tahiti to get Bread Fruit Trees and to take them to the West Indies without incident. He commanded several ships afterward including the HMS Glatton in 1801 during the Battle of Copenhagen, receiving a commendation for bravery from Admiral Nelson.
Most movies need a hero and an adversary. The worse the adversary the better the movie. A commanding and controlling Bligh fit this mold perfectly while LT. Christian and the crew were perfect as the flawed heroes. Captain Bligh followed established rules and procedures set by the British Royal Navy Leadership in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He saved himself and the other crew members that were with him on the life boat by using his navigational skills to get to the nearest port. It was an incident in history where circumstances met with the right personalities to produce an anomaly in British history.
As far as my favorite performance of the three, I like Anthony Hopkins’ version. You can tell there are more ideas and emotions working inside his brain. If you want to root for Fletcher Christian and his mutinous crew, then I pick Laughton’s performance. If you want more information on the real Mutiny on the Bounty story, check some of the links below.