The Bounty is given the mission of sailing to the island of Tahiti in the South Seas to secure bread plant seedlings to transplant in Jamaica as a new food source for the British Empire. The Captain of the Bounty, Lt William Bligh, is a monster; quick to take offence, harsh in discipline, jealous of authority and utterly callous of human suffering. The passage to Tahiti is a nightmare of brutality and the foppish First Officer, Fletcher Christian is increasingly sickened by what he witnesses. When the second leg of the voyage from the Polynesian paradise proves ten times worse than the one out, Christian is pushed beyond endurance and there is only one answer: Mutiny.
The Mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in 1789 is one of the most famous events in maritime history and one that still sparks controversy to this day. There have been four major film versions over the past hundred years with Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Mel Gibson starring in the role of Fletcher Christian, but the most spectacular and greatest failure has to be the 1962 MGM version starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh.
It is also the most infamous. At the time production began, Marlon Brando was one of, if not the, hottest actors in Hollywood and he was well aware of the fact. The project was already a budget-busting logistical nightmare with a replica Bounty that needed to be larger than full scale to accommodate the diesel engine to propel it when the wind wasn't cooperating, location filming in French Polynesia and the super-widescreen cameras. Add Marlon Brando to this and it's no wonder that the budget shot up to a staggering $20 million–and made back only $13 million. Brando was apparently a terror on the set and threw his weight around in a way that cursed the production. The script had been written by a revolving door of writers including Eric Ambler and Ben Hecht. Brando had Carol Reed sacked as director and effectively dismissed his replacement so that Brando did most of his scenes off his leash and takes rambled on forever. Then there was his love of method acting that took up the set like a St Bernard in a baby's cot and ended up with farces such as Brando lying on cakes of ice during his death scene so he'd shiver properly.
The irony of all this is that of the entire lead cast Brando's performance is the worst by far. Howard, despite being far too old to play the 33-year old Bligh, makes the part his own and creates a believable character. He may be nothing like the real Bligh and the script may have utterly excised his heroism, but Howard gives a performance that is three dimensional. Richard Harris as Seaman John Mills also gives a proper job and does so with an effortlessness that makes the results seem almost too easy. Brando, on the other hand and for all his method, is all over the place. His accent is laughable, his performance is erratic (he shows up in one scene in an improbable dressing gown smoking a pipe and grinning), and he utterly fails to command the stage. In fact, the moment Howard makes his exit from the Bounty the whole film loses steam and rolls to a halt. Brando, unable to carry on and without his co-stars support, looks like the talented poseur he was.
This is a shame because it is a beautiful film to watch and it did what the great films of the early '60s did best; spectacle. The widescreeen technicolor turns the voyage of the Bounty and her visit to Tahiti into a gorgeous travelogue that makes it a pity that it can't be seen on the big screen as it deserves. However, cinematography wasn't enough and the lingering legacy of the 1962 Bounty is the image of Marlon Brando in this Royal Navy costume storming out of the première after the audience started laughing at his performance.