Saturday, August 16, 2008

Screengrab - "Oh, there are rumblings, are there?"

Nothing - not fashion, not hairstyles, not lighting, not even Andrew McCarthy - nothing identifies a movie as coming from the 1980s quite the way a score by Vangelis does. Something inimitably 80s about those distinctive warbling synths, and even about the doomed attempt to construct through technology an equal to the sound produced by an actual orchestra. Something confined and oppressive about it to my ears, too, the unmistakeable sound of one man alone in a room as opposed to the warmth and humanity of the multitude of hands and lungs at work in a collective group working together to create a unified piece of beauty. Vangelis' work can be beautiful, of course, and in the right film, his music feels wedded to the imagery in an almost magical way. "Blade Runner" (1982) is the best and most obvious example. In Ridley Scott's film, Vangelis' romantic gloominess, and the sort of cold, electro emotion of the music, feels just right over the images of the vast future cityscape and particularly the story of the not-quite-human lovers at its centre.

His distinctive sound seems made for Science Fiction. But it can be unexpectedly effective in other genres and over a different kind of imagery. Scott made use of his talents ten years after "Blade Runner" for "1492: Conquest of Paradise", a vastly different kind of project. It seems likely he saw "The Bounty" (1984), Roger Donaldson's under-rated all-star rendition of the famous mutiny, starring Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian.

The first image of "The Bounty" is scored with a low bass pulse by Vangelis. The screen is black, then gradually we see a coastline dark against the light of dawn, the sunrise reflected in the water. Rattles on the soundtrack, then a shiver of melody, sad and exotic. Its a beautiful shot, yet that ominous synth on the soundtrack hints at the rigours of the journey yet to come. This is a far more historically accurate version of events than either of the high profile Hollywood versions that preceded it; Frank Lloyd's 1935 version with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton or Lewis Milestone/ Carol Reed's 1962 version with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, both of which are titled "Mutiny on the Bounty". It has, in a way, a far greater pedigree too - screenwriter Robert Bolt collaborated on the script on and off for a decade with his frequent partner David Lean, with a view to Lean directing. But their version was too ambitious for any studio to take a risk on allowing an aging Lean to take on, and so Donaldson inherited the project. He was fresh from the international acclaim granted his New Zealand thriller, "Smash Palace" (1981), and yet you would have imagined that working with such an intimidating cast - alongside Hopkins and Gibson there was Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, Bernard Hill, Phillip Davies, Laurence Olivier and Edward Fox - in such difficult locations on such a big canvas would have presented most directors with several problems. But judging from the film itself, Donaldson coped admirably.

For "The Bounty" is a fine film, and probably the best version of its oft-told tale given to us by Hollywood. It manages what can be seen as difficult material by making the film several different things - it is partly a thriller, leading the audience on a tense trip towards an impending showdown, and as such it is wholly gripping and involving. It is also a handsome, beautifully mounted historical epic, with some lovely location photography by Arthur Ibbetson which makes Tahiti look like Paradise and allows for an atmospheric, visceral study of life at sea in the 18th century (in which it resembles Peter Weir's superior "Master and Commander"). It also crams in some romance and action. But finally, and most importantly, it is a dual character study. The success of the film depends most heavily on the work of its two leads.

Gibson, at the time, was an up-and-coming young leading Man. The first two "Mad Max" films were internationally successful, and he had done sterling work for Weir in "Gallipolli" (1981) and "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982), which demonstrated that he could be a romantic lead. But he was not yet the megastar that "Lethal Weapon" would make him in 1987, and was probably as famous for his drunken hellraising off-set and his good looks as he was for his acting. "The Bounty" benefits from his effortless machismo - despite his beauty he has an edge to him, that spark of fury in his eyes at all times. He would later channel that into his roles - it expresses itself either as a sort of flat-eyed psychosis or as a mischevious streak - but here he seems not to have learned how to use it. He approaches Christian as if to offset this quality, making him slightly foppish, even effete. He struggles with the English accent, and his work is muted for most of the film, until he finally explodes in the last reel when he gets to go toe-to-toe with Hopkins.

Hopkins, for his part, is extraordinary. Alongside his sublime work in "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and terrifying inhabitance of "Magic" (1978), this is perhaps his greatest performance. He makes Bligh an infuriating, difficult, complex man, and yet he is also always a recognisable human being, his motivations understandable, his foibles apparent. Everybody has met somebody a bit like this man - insecure, trying too hard, proud and stubborn. His battle of wills with the crew is magnetically played by Hopkins. He has always been particularly great at playing moments of awkwardness - he might be perfectly at home in a modern UK TV comedy like "The Office" - and here his Bligh is a study in how not to deal with awkward situations. Insecure about his class status (Hopkins plays him with a Cornish accent, in obvious contrast to Gibson's aristocratic tones and what Bligh refers to as "your connections") he never seems to feel at home either among his Officers or his men. Donaldson depicts a couple of tense, claustrophobic dinners in the Officers Mess, where glances flick from face to face and Bligh nervously, woodenly attempts to make conversation with his social betters, trying not to wince as the Ships Surgeon drinks himself slowly to death. Hopkins excels at those brief instances when Bligh is lost in his head and allows it to fill his face - he looks miserable, bowed beneath the burden of command. He has no rapport with the men, either, his discipline earning him only resentment instead of respect, his motivational speeches met with blank faces or shared, doubtful glances. His social awkwardness is comic with the Tahitian natives - his avoidance of the duty to sleeping with one of the King's wives and deception about Captain Cooke are both nicely played by Hopkins, his eyes darting, his grin fixed and artificial.

He has always been a fantastic shouter, Hopkins, and here he gets to scream at actors able to handle his presence in a couple of gripping, intense scenes. First he and Day-Lewis have a showdown over Bligh's insistence that the Bounty pass around Cape Horn so that they can circumnavigate the globe. Day-Lewis' Fryer is a sneery prefect, grinning smugly at the men when Bligh admits he was wrong and orders that they turn about. In the ensuing confrontation, Hopkins' volcanic shouting reduces Day-Lewis to a silent fume, cheeks tight in fury. It seems to have come straight off the stage at the RSC, these two red-faced Brits bellowing into each others faces, and yet here it feels earned by the story, by the strain felt by the characters. Hopkins signals his escalating fury with the way his face seems to reduce to a rictus of anger, and yet even here Bligh remains oddly polite, calling Fryer "Sir" as he damns him. His later conflict with Gibson's Christian only really explodes during the actual mutiny, when Hopkin's shouting reduces Gibson to a long, thunderous scream of inarticulate rage and frustration. But Bligh, even when bound and surrounded by armed men who wish to kill him, is defiantly awkward, warning them that they will hang, trying to reason with Christian even as he is set adrift, expressing his anger by hurling shouted insults and judgements at the mutineers.

Two earlier scenes between the two men are more subtle. In the first, soon after they have left Tahiti, Bligh keeps Christian back after another uncomfortable Officers dinner to talk to him about the obvious tension between them. On Tahiti, Christian has fallen in love with, impregnated and married a native girl, and partly gone native himself, learning the language, getting tatooed and losing the trappings of European Civilization Bligh has scrupulously maintained. Bligh attempts a sort of father-son dynamic, the older man educating the younger in matters of the heart :
"So, you think I'm harsh with you, hey? I've been at sea many years Fletcher, since I was 12, and in that time I've seen many men, many good men fall for island women in these waters. I've never once seen it come out well. Of course I understand the excitement and the.......but think to yourself, man. Could you bring a woman like that home to your friends and your family? No, of course you couldn't. They're not like us, Fletcher. You think I was harsh with you, but you needed someone to show you where your duty really lay, because you were at a loss, my friend. You may not thank me now but you will eventually. So, let's get the ship running again and get back to where we were before."
Throughout this speech, while Bligh smiles and attempts to charm his old friend, to reveal that he is, after all, human too, Christian sits, looking at the wall, face immobile, emotionless. When it is over he asks to leave, like a petulant, sulking schoolboy.

The second scene is just prior to the mutiny. Christian comes to see Bligh, to warn him of the discontent among the men. Donaldson shoots it all in sweaty tight close-ups in the confined space of Bligh's darkened cabin.

Christian: William, about your decision to round the Horn.
Bligh: "William"? Not "Sir", not "Captain"; "William"?
Christian: I don't think the men will have it.
Bligh: Oh, the men won't have it. Are they in charge of the Bounty?
Christian: They might be if you insist.
Bligh: Again, would you repeat that please. "The men might be in charge." What are you threatening me with?
Christian: It's not a threat, it's a warning.
Bligh: [sarcastically] Oh, there are rumblings, are there?
Christian: No, there is fear.
Bligh: Around the Horn is the easiest way, the better way, and that is how we will go. Anything more?
Christian: Don't put Adams under the lash.
Bligh: He was insubordinate, cowardly and insubordinate, he frightened the men, I did not put that fear there, he did. So he will be lashed and we will go around the Horn. Are you frightened to go around the Horn, Mr. Christian? Are you a coward too, sir?

Here, Hopkins is brilliant - his Bligh responds to the threat to his command with sarcasm and scorn, his stubbornness preventing him from understanding how real the threat actually is. He feels contempt for Christian, he doesn't take him seriously, he seems to have disregarded their past friendship. For his part, Gibson - who has seemed petulant and love sick - starts to brood, to weigh up his options, which he internalizes until he explodes during the mutiny itself. You can feel how much he wants to strike Hopkins, whose clammy leer takes up much of the screen in Donaldson's composition, and how difficult it is for him to hold his tongue.

This is the key to the film's success. In the earlier versions, Bligh was unambiguously the villain. Weak or sadistic of both, he forces Christian into his desperate actions. In "The Bounty", Bligh is the desperate man, struggling to maintain his command in the face of a crew corrupted by the easy life on Tahiti, confused by the sudden rendering of his friendship with his second-in-command, unsure of his own ability and struggling with self-doubt and insecurity in what is already a daunting mission. Fletcher is more ambiguous than in other portrayals too - less a hero than a petulant child, who falls in love and selfishly sets aside his duty to follow that love. The love story, for its part, is played out in a series of wordless sequences of the lovers embracing on beaches and in the ocean, Vangelis loud on the soundtrack , indicating the fever of their physical passion. Donaldson manages to communicate how revelatory the free sexuality of the natives must have been to these bedraggled English sailors, how they would never have met women remotely like these before, and this is plainly what Christian falls for. Gibson is good enough to portray the depth of his feeling, but beside Hopkins' mighty work his performance seems delivered in deep shadow, almost as if they are in different films. Only in their scenes together does Gibson raise his game, realising surely that otherwise he will be blown off the screen by Hopkins' power.



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