Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Mutiny on The Bounty


It was early in the 1960s when I received my first subscription to the National Geographic. Mutiny on the Bounty was being remade and the Geographic was covering the journey of the ship produced for the film to Tahiti. The ship and the island appeared spectacular. The island was lush and the ship spoke to a story that made an impression.

That story was of the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian against Captain William Bligh aboard the HMS Bounty. Pushed to obtain breadfruit plants from Tahiti for transplantation in the West Indies, where they would serve as a food supply for slave labor, Bligh encounters a delay due to his error in attempting to get to Tahiti via Cape Horn. He blames Christian and the crew rather than the inadequacy of the sailing technology. This results in further delay as they reach Tahiti during the dormant season for breadfruit. He has to wait months to merely dig up the plants. As the tension builds, in Bligh and the crew, the return trip results in the famous mutiny.

Hollywood has found the tale worth three major films, but I have found postmodern students getting a little distant from the story. There is a lot to learn and see in each of the films.

The more accessible films are 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty and 1984's Bounty. The former casts Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian. The latter casts Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. Both are excellent films. Both present the story in the changing terms of their production periods. The 1962 film is much more sympathetic to Bligh, but does allow its dandy Christian to develop into an honorable man. The 1984 version gives Bligh no measure while allowing Gibson to be the well-liked character he often plays in films.

From the geographic standpoint, both offer impressive views of the nature of the oceans, and the marvels of Tahiti and Pitcairn Island.

Oceans. In the 1789 the world map is mostly filled in, but the details are missing. As students think about ocean travel during the age of exploration, I am unconvinced that the time involved sinks in. I am not sure that the level of danger does either. The travel is slow, no jets. The travel conditions are poor, no pools and hot tubs. These men are undertaking a risky trip that will last for years under conditions where the boss has no human relations and safety rules to follow.

Islands. The displayed environments of Tahiti and Pitcairn are rich in detail. The famous openness of the people of Tahiti is made clear from the first. The society is organized. It has its sense of power and pride. All those playing Bligh respect the ability of the Tahitians to destroy them. They also show a massive sense of private disrespect for the "savages." The legendary sexual freedom of the Tahitians is clearly used as the sailors go wild. One gets a good view of culture, including clothing. The films do vary. The 1962 version uses carefully developed camera angles to cover the women, the 1984 version is more honest.

Pitcairn Island is shown in a very straightforward manner in both films. It is a very small [2 square miles] island. Its rugged coast and surface is an essential element of plot development. Of course, its geographic feature of greatest interest in education is that Christian is able to use it as a safe haven because its location has been mischarted on every British map. While latitude figures were long establishable, it was only after Cook's sailing in 1776 that longitude even began to have a level of accuracy. Mislocated, the mutineers could take a chance that no one would find it soon. It was too remote.

This is a story that offers great potential for discussions of leadership. Like Twelve O'Clock High, it offers leadership styles in very clear contrast. Is Bligh correct in his approach to controlling men?

The islands have very important positions in the mental life of many Americans. That push to escape the postmodern world's drive to work and consume is countered by the appeal of the simple lifestyle, one in touch with the environment. While environmental units usually stress fixing up what we have, the remote place of peace has more appeal for some people. Was, or is, that place really one of peace and communion with nature

Of course, the sad end of the Bounty, rebuilt for the 1962 film, came in 2012 when it sunk in the Atlantic while caught up in Hurricane Sandy.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: Mutiny on the Bounty. Dakota Alliance XI(2): Summer 2001: 7.

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