The Great Unmade? Trouble In Paradise: David Lean’s Bounty


Popular myth, partly propagated by the great director himself, would have it that David Lean withdrew completely from film-making after the critical drubbing he received for Ryan’s Daughter, only to emerge, reputation restored in 1984, with A Passage To India. In fact, he spent four years trying to make an epic two part film, to be shot back to back, of the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty, and its repercussions. The project would founder on the shores of expense and ambition, jealousy and ill health, to emerge as a shadow of what could have been: Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty. (as Lean’s project was never filmed, this piece will be illustrated by stills from The Bounty).

It was at the National Society of Film Critics evening in the Algonquin Hotel in New York, shortly after the release of Ryan’s Daughter, that David Lean was “ambushed” by acerbic critics Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel. As Lean recalled, Schickel stated of the overwhelmingly poor reaction to the film; “What they’re trying to say, Mr Lean, is that they don’t understand how someone who made Brief Encounter could make a piece of bullshit like Ryan’s Daughter.” Lean was stunned, and took what the other parties insist was a lively cut and thrust debate, as a personal insult.

He confidence shaken, he unsuccessfully tried in 1971 to get his biopic of Gandhi off the ground, before taking a hiatus with his then partner and fifth wife to be, Sandy. In 1973, he retreated to the South Pacific island of Bora Bora to adapt Richard Hough’s recent revisionist account of the infamous Bounty saga, Captain Bligh and Mr Christian. David Lean went on to spend four years, partly subsidised by Warner Brothers and Dino De Laurentiis, wrestling a screenplay into shape with his writing partner from previous epics, Robert Bolt.

Lean was surprised by the difference between Hough’s account and the received wisdom to date. The Bounty tale, previously dramatised on screen, with Charles Laughton then Trevor Howard as Bligh, and Clark Gable then Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian, showed Bligh as a flogging, disciplinarian brute. “I think he was a terrific chap,” Lean stated, “though he had no sense of humour. Christian was a young man (and Bligh’s friend) who just got swept away by the South Seas. Robert (Bolt) and I worked on this script and I think we nearly got it. It was a story of the seduction of men who come in from the sea and who land in paradise, where the women are only too easy to sleep with. And then, when the men had to go home, they couldn’t bring themselves to return to England.”

The story encapsulated themes already touched on with Lawrence of Arabia, namely Empire building, exploration and duplicity towards those deemed inferior. Scenes of the indolent sailors in the Tahitian idyll were to appeal to the youth culture of the early 1970’s, and the drug culture of the day. Tropical paradise and the navigation of stormy seas in planned vista vision could have been as spectacular as the “beyond the infinite” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The first script, The Lawbreakers (the second, The Long Arm, would deal with HMS Pandora’s hunt for the men) began with a space launch to demonstrate that 17th and 18th Century maritime explorers were the astronauts of their day.

Robert Bolt, despite early caution, soon got swept up with excitement at the themes and conflict within. “Bligh believed that without order, duty, self-abnegation, factual precision and foresight, life is impossible. Christian believed that without spontaneity, freedom, self-expression and emotional gratification, life is not worth living.” This conflict within the souls of men would, he said, “raise our film to the level of tragedy.” Characteristics that could almost apply to Star Trek’s Mr Spock and Captain Kirk, to return to the space exploration analogy, who at least managed their warring opposite tensions.

Pretty soon, the story began to expand. Lean wanted to begin with Bligh’s commission to sail and collect breadfruit (as a cheap form of food for slaves in Jamaica) and fitting out the newly commissioned Bounty, before attempting to round the stormy Cape Horn, a short cut to Tahiti. The story, as in Donaldson’s film, would also deal with his court-martial upon his return to England, after Christian cast him and a small loyal band off with scant provisions. A replica ship was to be built from scratch in New Zealand at great cost. Warner Brothers were however, beginning to get nervous about committing to a two picture lock in. Rumours also began to circulate about Leans supposed grandiose behaviour. They agreed in principle to one $25 million picture focussing on the mutiny, with an option to consider a second expanding on the story if it did well. Lean and his partners walked away when by chance his producer Phil Kellogg was given a ride back to LA by Dino De Laurentiis in his private jet. He had  coincidentally been staying on Bora Bora, and offered to back the project. The rug was pulled from under Warner Brothers feet, and the Bounty hunters were back in business, on their terms.

De Laurentiis budgeted two films at at $40 million, and Lean would have creative control and final cut. Construction of the Bounty commenced as planned. This sounded like plain sailing, but stormy waters were ahead. De Laurentiis was famous for his extravagance. He splashed out $3 million on luxury accomodation for the crew on Bora Bora. This, plus other ongoing committments, left him stretched, with no overhead for an extended shoot, and he refused to budge on his own fee. Paramount, his distributor, would not tolerate his original deal, so he began to squeeze Lean, withdrawing his promise to give him creative control. Eventually, a bitter turn around deal was thrashed out – David Lean had sixty days to find another backer, or the rights would revert back to Dino De Laurentiis. Lean hawked the project around several interested parties, at one point returning to Warner Brothers, before De Laurentiis would eventually regain control. During this period David Lean and his Bounty films were known in Hollywood as “the old man and the sea.”

Lean and Bolt also clashed over the second script. It was now 1979, and Robert Bolt was still writing The Long Arm. In this draft, the film would open with black and white images from the previous The Lawbreakers, reminding audiences of the events around the original mission and the mutiny. It then fades to colour as Bligh is later feted by the Royal Society for the Advancement of Knowledge, for his exploration prowess, then embarrassed by the stage play of the mutiny, The Pirates! The script also cuts around the mutineers burning of The Bounty on Pitcairn Island to evade detection, and Captain Edwards and HMS Pandora’s pursuit. Lean and Bolt fought over every scene, Lean feeling it lacked drive, and was “way below standard.” Bolt, already overweight and in ill health, ended up hospitalised with heart trouble, which led to a stroke. Melvyn Bragg, novelist, producer and presenter of London Weekend Television’s The South Bank Show, was drafted by new backer Sam Spiegel (replacing the inexperienced Phil Kellogg) on the strength of his script about the ballet dancer Najinsky, although Lean hadn’t felt he was right for it. By now Lean reluctantly agreed to condense the material down to one film, now renamed Pandora’s Box. Bragg read the original Bounty log as preparation, and was excited to be a part of it. His opening was entirely new. The title page reads:


The screen is filled with a vast shot of the Pacific Ocean. This is taken from such a distance that we can see the curve of the earth. The camera moves closer through dissolves to frigate birds hovering in the sky. We follow them as they make for their objective – a black tip of land, where they loudly and excitedly beat their wings.

CUT underwater. Suddenly silence in this rich, tropical sea embroidered with so many glittering colours and shapes. here too, though, is a sense of panic as the thousands of fish speed and flick towards the camera as if fleeing something.

CUT to a woman’s face under the water. It is the face of a smiling, slant eyed nymph. The painted face of the figurehead of the PANDORA. Tiny, brilliant fishes dart about her. A  pair of chained hands come across her mouth and grab her shoulder.

CUT to a wider shot. We see the full figurehead – the woman holding a box (which has been smashed) and the name PANDORA on what we recognise as the bow of a sunken ship. The man’s feet are chained together as are his hands. he is young, we can see, and almost naked. He is covered in cuts and we see that his head has been badly hurt, which is why he is moving desperately slowly trying to get some leverage to push himself to the surface. He finds a foothold on the box; it gives way as he pushes himself to the surface.


This is a dramatic and enigmatic opening, focusing on the sinking of the Pandora upon the coral reef, and the fate of the poor prisoners, mutineers and innocent crewmen alike, entrapped in its infamous box. Unfortunately Bragg was caught in the middle of simmering poor relations between former friends Spiegel and Lean. David Lean nursed resentment, feeling Spiegel had cheated him out of royalties for Lawrence Of Arabia, and felt the script was being ruined. Budget estimates varied wildly too. Spiegel announced in 1980 he wanted a big star such as Robert Redford to play Bligh. This would have been disastrous, felt Lean, who favoured Anthony Hopkins, who did go on to portray the role very well.

Eventually Lean sloped off to Switzerland to work on his own script. At this point, like a bad penny, De Laurentiis turned up, waving his chequebook. Paramount had loaned him $32 million interest free, and he had secured ownership of the completed ship, after difficulties over settling the bill with the shipyard. It finally cost $4 million. He wanted a percentage of the film profits, and recompense for expenses already laid out. Lean felt stung. He too had put a lot of his own money into the endeavour, paying art director Tony Pratt out of his own pocket when De Laurentiis and he first parted ways. Lean refused to work with him, as Spiegel also insisted on equal artistic control. Lean felt this would undermine every creative choice he made. “After Lawrence and Kwai I expected Spiegel to cheat me, but with the two of them together..!” It was the end of David Lean’s Paradise Road.

In 1981, David Lean met up with Stephen Walters, the maritime consultant and Bounty expert he had hired so long ago to help steer his epic to fruition. Lean spoke to Walters of his frustration. “In a sense, he had been reliving elements of his past, “ Walters said. “David relished the enjoyment of pre-production. But he hadn’t got the thing off the ground and was being kicked up the arse financially to make it happen.”

The film was finally made in 1984 when Mel Gibson brought his friend Roger Donaldson to De Laurentiis to direct what would become The  Bounty, with Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Gibson as Christian, Robert Bolt being given sole credit for the script. It is a fair enough film, though it suffers from slightly stolid direction, and Mel Gibson’s manic eye rolling and histrionics when he is pushed by Bligh to return to his duties and leave his Tahitian love idyll. Also, the interesting back and forth structure between the Court Martial and the events being investigated stops once the crew begin to fall into ill-discipline on Tahiti.

Sadly, the film was a flop, and received mixed reviews. David Lean’s approach remains a fascinating “what if?” It would not be  until 2003’s Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, by Peter Weir, that a spectacular, intelligent maritime adventure would grace the screen (the Pirates of The Caribbean adventures don’t count). Although it was a moderate success, it has not led to a sequel being considered.

The Bounty’s seafaring days were short lived also. The ship is now berthed as a floating restaurant in Sydney harbour (insert gratuitous joke about mutineers / convicts here).



Originally posted 2012-03-02 12:47:13. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article