Saturday, March 21, 2015


Every actor has to start somewhere, but nobody's movie debut was more meager than Errol Flynn's. Having never acted before, he was hired to play Fletcher Christian in the Australian picture In the Wake of the Bounty, an odd hybrid of melodrama, documentary and travelogue. Or, as the onscreen introduction informs us, "the first of a series of great travel films to be produced by Expeditionary Films depicting strange incidents, strange places and strange people." They should have started with the studio itself.

"Aye, those Tahitian women were lovely...
or so I hear."

Throughout the first half of its 64-minute running time, In the Wake of the Bounty jerks abruptly from a pub where blind seaman Michael Byrne holds forth on his adventures aboard the HMS Bounty decades earlier, to flashbacks on the ship, and then back again. Never explained is how he returned to England after the mutiny or passed the naval physical to begin with, considering that he's, uh, blind

"Avast! Who moved my cheese,
Mr. Christian?"

Unlike later depictions of the Bounty's notorious commander, here Bligh has lost a couple of stripes, being a Lieutenant instead of Captain. He's also something an 18th-century Capt. Queeg, ordering his crew flogged for allegedly stealing his cheese. Talk about being a petty officer!

"We love unhygienic white men!"
But all that is forgotten when the crew reaches Tahiti. In the Wake of the Bounty then becomes something like a 10-minute home movie shot on location, with real-life islanders as extras. When the half-naked women aren't making like they're hanging out at the Playboy Mansion grotto, they're dancing for the Bounty sailors, throwing their hands in the air like they just don't care. The native men are content to play their drums, although I wonder how they feel about their women going gaga for these greasy Limeys who haven't seen a bar of Lifebuoy since setting off to sea. 

Then another 10 minutes are devoted to the mutiny and its aftermath -- returning to Tahiti to pick up some babes and sailing to nowhere. But the men soon realize that a floating Plato's Retreat isn't all it's cracked up to be. As blind Michael Byrne puts it, "We drank heavily and fought over the women," which sounds an awful lot like your average New York bar any night of the week. Unlike the location shots, the "native girls" on board the Bounty are fully-dressed white actresses. It's an old Western custom: naked white women bad, naked darker women OK.

"Why did white men mate with the dark-
skinned women of Tahiti"? Take a guess, Skippy.
And there, at the 30-minute mark, In the Wake of the Bounty becomes a semi-documentary of life on Tahiti and Pictairn Islands (the location of Fletcher Christian's last stand) in 1932. On Pitcairn, we meet the real-life descendants of the Bounty's mutineers, where inbreeding had been rampant for 160 years. (We see the wedding of Alan Christian to Eva Christian, presided over by Edgar Christian. Eww.) And if you think all they do is hang around eating breadfruit all day, the narrator informs us, "There's no slackers on this little island!" -- despite the kids, we're told, having only a two-hour school day.

Not even all that cool native
jewelry can ease Fletch's pain.
But then, without warning, it's back to Bounty-full melodrama, as life after mutiny is no paradise in paradise. Fletcher Christian bemoans his fate to one of his sidekicks: "Death would be a release from the remorse that dogs my footsteps -- day and night, night and day!" Who knew people were singing Cole Porter in the 18th-century?

Swing it, baby!
And then it's back to 1932 once more, this time for the scripted climax. A Pictairn couple tries to SOS a passing ship to bring medicine for their sick baby, but the distance is too great for the message to carry. The baby dies, the mother weeps melodramatically, and the father recites a prayer at fade out. That's what you get for marrying your sister.

When In the Wake of the Bounty's intro promises that Expeditionary Films "has not spared time or money" in making the movie, it seems to mean that they didn't spare any money at all. The sets look like something out of a Thomas Edison short from 1903, while much of the acting is strictly 19th-century stage melodrama. When one of the Bounty's sailors says of Lt. Bligh, "If I could only live to see him suffer like we've been suffering," he might as well be quoting the audience's opinion of the director.

"Don't worry, ladies, you'll be swooning
over me soon enough."
But what of 24 year-old Errol Flynn in his movie debut?  He's a little gaunt -- did he have one of his bouts of malaria before shooting? He sports his real, pre-Hollywood teeth, which he wisely keeps hidden most of the time. And he's kind of awkward, often looking down at his feet while keeping his arms folded. Still, he's easily the best actor in the movie, with his smooth, familiar voice trying to make sense of the risible dialogue he's been given. ("Mutiny... piracy... Oh God, where will it all end?" Believe me, I asked the same thing.) Even if you had never heard of Errol Flynn, you'd pick him as the only one in the movie who had any chance of success.

Two years later, Flynn's first starring role in an American movie, Captain Blood, was released, launching his legendary career. That same year, M-G-M released Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, immediately becoming a seafaring classic. But In the Wake of the Bounty, little seen outside Australia, left no wake at all.


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