In the Wake of the Bounty
Directed by Charles Chauvel, Scenario by Charles Chauvel, Monologue Arthur Greenaway, Film Editor William Shepherd, Photography Tasman Higgins, Starring Mayne Lynton, Errol Flynn, Victor Couriet, and John Warwick. Internet feed provided by the Internet Archive.

Commentary by Film Historian Anthony Slide
In the Wake of the Bounty is a curious hybrid, an uneasy mix of documentary and drama -- what today might be identified as docudrama -- made by an Australian director/writer Charles Chauvel (1897-1959) and, uncredited, his wife Elsa. Chauvel had formed Expeditionary Films to produce a series of travelogues and expanded his horizon considerably by following the 15,000 mile route of the Bounty from Tahiti to Pitcairn. In the process, he brought the first motion picture camera to Pitcairn, documenting the multiracial community there, and also hiring a young Australian named Errol Flynn to make his film debut as Fletcher Christian. In the Wake of the Bounty did not lead immediately to a Hollywood career for the actor, but he was persuaded to journey to England, where he appeared in a film for Warner Bros.-British, and, as a result, was signed to a contract by Warner Bros. in America. A decade or so later, Charles Chauvel launched the career of another Australian actor, Chips Rafferty.

Chauvel began filming in Sydney, Australia, in September 1932, and the film was released there in March of the following year after some censorship problems involving nude footage of Tahiti natives. Advertising promised audiences "The demoralizing debris of scented nights and tropic madness!" In the Wake of the Bounty does not live up to those expectations, and, truth be told, it is pretty awful, banal and badly acted, redeemed primarily by its anthropological value.

The film is also important as one of Australia's first sound films, and as an early effort in the career of its producer/director/writer, who was very much a pioneer of Australian cinema. In 1955, he filmed the country's first color motion picture feature, Jedda, which was also the first to cast indigenous Australians in leading roles and the first Australian production to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Like In the Wake of the Bounty, Jedda combined documentary and melodrama. According to his daughter, Chauvel wanted to show Australia to the world; he was described as "passionately Australian," and it is perhaps that passion that helps In the Wake of the Bounty continue to appeal to audiences.

Commentary by Underwater Archaeologist J. E. Ratcliffe

While paling in historical significance compared to the great mutinies at Spithead in 1797 or Wilhemshaven in 1918, the 1789 mutiny on HMS Bounty has continued to captivate the imaginations of the public like no other seaborne insurrection before or since. The story needs little embellishment to make the jump to the silver screen; it already has drama and memorable characters aplenty. Told and retold over two centuries, the story of Bounty's ill-fated voyage to collect breadfruits in Tahiti has become somewhat static, revolving around a villainous Bligh, and a noble, if perhaps misguided Fletcher Christian. In the Wake of the Bounty certainly follows this established understanding of the mutiny. We are presented with an overbearing Bligh, taking snuff in his Great Cabin, while the tars below decks fight for crumbs, and are flogged at the slightest provocation. Bligh berates the long-suffering Christian (played by a strangely wooden Errol Flynn), and castigates his crew as a lot of "thieving jellyfish." So far, so good. This is the conventional, martinet-like Bligh that we love to hate. But was the man really as bad as generations of Hollywood directors would have us believe?

The answer, if we consider more recent scholarship on the matter, is no, or at least not in the accepted understanding of the story. Greg Dening's masterful Mr. Bligh's Bad Language (1992) reveals that Bligh's voyage was actually one of the least violent Royal Navy excursions into the Pacific during the eighteenth century. George Vancouver resorted to flogging more than twice as often as did Bligh. While perhaps abhorrent from a modern viewpoint, William Bligh was one of the more humane commanders of his age, in terms of meting corporal punishment. But as the title of Dening's book suggests, Bligh was hardly an angel. He was indeed a critical, verbally-abusive captain (hence his "bad language") who jealously guarded his prerogatives as master-and-commander. Perhaps his gravest sin, according to Dening, was to assume the duties of purser aboard Bounty. Universally reviled, the purser was responsible for accounting for and dispersing rations aboard ship. Responsible to the Navy's Victualling Board, the purser was personally liable for the entire value of provisions consumed during a voyage, and was required to keep detailed accounts of all food and drink. In practice, this liability meant that pursers were always more focused on maintaining their own finances than on providing quality victuals for the crew, and as a result, their names became synonymous with thievery and double-dealing. So, director Charles Chauvet may have actually come closer to the truth than he realized when he had the men of the Bounty grumbling about short rations.

Lacking the enormous budget of the bloated 1962 rendition of the story starring Marlon Brando, Chauvet was unable to construct his own Bounty replica. (As an aside, the Bounty built for the 1962 film worked as a sail training ship for many years, until foundering off the coast of North Carolina in 2012). Instead, Chauvet relies on a pastiche of studio shots of the "Bounty" cabin or 'tween decks, occasionally enlivened with authentic footage of a square-rigger rounding Cape Horn. It is not immediately clear which film this footage has been lifted from, but it likely belongs to the subgenre of fantastic "Grain Race" films shot by Allan Villiers and his ilk during the dying days of sail. The layout of the sail plan in these shots, however, is a dead giveaway that this is a late nineteenth or early twentieth century windjammer, rather than a stubby eighteenth-century collier.

Anthony Slide is indeed correct when he calls this film "an uneasy mix of documentary and drama." The fanciful attempts at historical cinema abruptly give way to documentary-style footage of Tahiti and Pitcairn Island, shot by Chauvet and his crew in 1932. Although chiefly remembered today as Errol Flynn's first picture, the real value of In the Wake of the Bounty lies in these fascinating glimpses of life in the South Pacific, especially the hardscrabble existence of the descendants of the original Bounty mutineers on remote Pitcairn Island. One is continually impressed by the resourcefulness of these islanders, who still inhabit one of the most isolated communities in the world. We are treated to numerous examples of their ingenuity and self-sufficiency, including homes built from wreck timber, sugar and arrowroot mills, and even a homespun violin-making industry. A variety of elegant schooners, yachts, and small boats grace the second half of this film, and perhaps temporarily drew the eye of the young Flynn from the scantily clad Tahitian dancers who also figure so prominently. An accomplished sailor and notorious womanizer, he once famously remarked that "the only real wives I have ever had have been my sailing ships." And perhaps that is a somewhat fitting epitaph for In the Wake of the Bounty. As a dramatic production, it is entirely forgettable, but as a window into the bygone nautical world of the South Pacific, memorable indeed.

Further Reading:
Mr. Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty.
Greg Dening. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy.
N.A.M. Rodger. Collins, 1986.

My Wicked, Wicked Ways.
Errol Flynn. Putnam's, 1959