Tuesday, May 8, 2012


The Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on The Bounty came out in 1962. It was a three hour movie with an intermission in the middle, a long dramatic telling of the famous story of the mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty caused by the sadistic cruelty of Captain Bligh (played in this film by Trevor Howard.) The film was well along in a line of others made on this topic. The historical event has had a perennial allure; the dramatic mutiny at sea, Captain's Bligh's success at returning to England, and the subsequent settling of Pitcairn Island by the mutineers who created their own tropical paradise. 

I was a small girl when this film opened. It comes with a painful memory of my separated parents both buying tickets to take my brother and me to see it--one night apart. I swore my brother not to tell my father, thinking we'd just sit through it twice, but the truth managed to slip out. We went, but when it became clear we'd already seen it, we left at Intermission. I was completely heartbroken, afraid my father was disappointed. I don't know how he felt about it, really. In any case, the movie is enmeshed with my memory of him, and has a power over me like no other film. My father looked very much like Marlon Brando, and when I sat next to him in the theater, I kept looking back and forth between the two. As a result, I wrote a series of poems at a later date of being a girl disguised as a cabin boy on the voyage, and living on the island.

The islands--the glancing version of them portrayed in the film had the most indelible effect. I have never been to Polynesia, but part of me lives there at all times. I once told my grandfather I wanted to move there and he said "People who live in hot climates never amount to anything." I guess this affected me, too, because here I am in a cold spring, trying to amount to something. I still want to go there, but probably never will.

I know the film by heart, every line. I have watched it twice in the last two days as I went through all the papers piled up in my office. It is a wonderful piece of writing, apparently accomplished by six people. The mutiny is thrilling; Fletcher Christian, as a gentleman, simply can't take it anymore! Bligh, in his latest bit of horror, has decided that if the men want a sip of water, they must climb up to the yardarm, fetch a ladle, bring it down and drink one, only one, ladle full, and then carry it back up. A seaman is dying from drinking sea water. Fletcher decides to give him a sip of fresh water.
Bligh: "You'll give no one water without my permission. Take that ladle below."
Fletcher: "Yes, Sir." But he gives the water to the delirious seaman anyway.
Bligh kicks it out of his hand and Fletcher backhands Bligh onto the deck!
Fletcher: "You bloody bastard! You'll not put your foot on me again."
Bligh laughs. "Thank you. Thank you. I've been puzzling for a means to take the strut out of you, you posturing snob...." Bligh says Fletcher will be confined until a court martial can be convened in Jamaica.
Flecther grabs a sword from one of the men and announces, "Ship's company, I'm taking command of this ship!"
Bligh countermands him. Fletcher stabs Bligh through the arm! Yikes!
The mutiny proceeds. Lots of fisticuffs. The mutineers arm themselves. Bligh and Fletcher are staring at each other like big cats.
Bligh says to Mr. Brown, the botanist: "You, too, Brown? You join these swine?"
Brown: "A man like yourself Sir leaves me no choice."
The men want to kill Bligh, but Fletcher won't let them. "There will be no more killing aboard this ship and that includes Captain Bligh."
Bligh: "If that's an attempt to earn clemency I spit on it!"
Fletcher: "You remarkable pig. You can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you haven't quite turned me into a murderer."
The captain's followers are put in the long boat.
Fletcher: "As you know Tafoa is due west forty leagues. You have your compass, and this book is sufficient for its purpose. The sextant is my own so you know it to be a good one. Now Mr. William Bligh..."
Bligh: "Quite polite and formal of you. Playing the gentleman again, you bloody traitor?"
A bit more action among the seamen as everyone settles into their respective camps.
Here are the final parting words between Bligh and Fletcher.
Bligh (to the mutineers): "Has your murderous friend told you what to expect, or is he going to keep you in the dark? Now hear the truth. The King's navy will not rest until every mutineer is captured and executed. Wherever you go, wherever you hide, a thousand ships will search you out."
Fletcher: "Will you step into the boat, or will you be thrown in, Mr. Bligh?"
Bligh: "I'm not leaving you, Mr. Christian. Not ever. Got to the dirtiest little corner in the world and I'll be there right behind you with a rope in my hands."
Fletcher seems as if he is going to flog Bligh with the cat 'o nine tails, but he decides against it, and drapes it over Bligh's shoulder instead. "Take your flag with you." (Meaning the whip. Snap!)
Bligh pulls it off and wraps it up, and tosses it onto the deck. "I don't need a flag, Mr. Christian. Unlike you, I still have a country. What a big price to pay for a little show of temper."

This whole sequence takes about ten minutes. These dramatic lines are perfectly embodied by Brando and Trevor Howard. Something happened! These is a big scene, played out to the max. Not one possibility for conflict or character nuance is left out, for Bligh and Christian or for the many supporting characters we have come to know by this point in the film. (This scene happens slightly after the 2 hour mark.) It is difficult to stay in a big scene, not to rush. But such scenes are so so satisfying when they are given the amount of space and time that they require for a reader/viewer to respond with full emotion.

At the end of the film, Fletcher dies. My father died not much later.
Are they in paradise? I don't know.

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