Director: Charles Chauvel
Stars: Errol Flynn, Mayne Lynton
First viewing, via DVD
Following my earlier tag team reviews of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead (read here) and The Wannabes (read here), this week I team with another friend and contemporary to review the oldest film (thus far) covered on Down Under Flix, 1933’s In the Wake of the Bounty. Directed by Charles Chauvel and starring Errol Flynn, the film chronicles Fletcher Christian’s mutiny against William Bligh on the HMS Bounty and pays an anthropological visit to modern day Pitcairn Island. I’m joined below by Flynn enthusiast and scholar Michael X. Savvas.
Ben: The 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty is one of the most famous tales in naval lore. The event – in which Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers, driven to breaking point, ejected their tyrannical leader Lieutenant William Bligh and his supporters from their ship – has been adapted to film several times. Frank Lloyd’s 1935 production Mutiny on the Bounty pitted Clark Gable’s Christian against Charles Laughton’s Bligh. Lewis Milestone’s similarly titled 1962 version pitted Marlon Brando as Christian against Trevor Howard as Bligh, and was a notoriously difficult and expensive production, largely due to Brando’s off-screen machinations. And 1984’s underrated The Bounty, directed by the underrated Roger Donaldson, squared a post-Mad Max, pre-Lethal Weapon Mel Gibson in the Christian role against Anthony Hopkins’ Bligh. However, the first two film versions of the Bounty story were Australian: a 1916 silent film helmed by Raymond Longford and 1933’s In the Wake of the Bounty, directed by Charles Chauvel. It’s rather appropriate that these earliest dramatizations heralded from Australia, given Australia’s close geographical proximity to Tahiti and Pitcairn Island (where Christian and co settled post-mutiny) and the fact that Bligh would subsequently become Governor of New South Wales (and, during his tenure, incite yet another mutiny with 1808’s Rum Rebellion).
In the Wake of the Bounty is most famous for marking the screen debut of Errol Flynn. Two years later he would become a Hollywood icon with another maritime adventure, Captain Blood, and while his performance in In the Wake of the Bounty doesn’t really convey the charisma that would make him a superstar, there’s something fitting about the fact both Flynn and Gibson would essay the role of Christian. Flynn is, I would argue, the biggest Hollywood superstar Australia ever produced. Films like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and The Sea Hawk were juggernauts of their era, and while today’s invasive paparazzi, marketing machine, and social media culture have made them omnipresent, modern Australian superstars like Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman pale in comparison to Flynn’s stature relative to his era and at the height of his stardom. Gibson is arguably the closest we’ve come to producing a star that matches Flynn as a matinee idol, sex symbol, and commercial force, and it’s interesting to note that both stars endured very public falls from grace, as well as finding creative expression in other fields: Flynn in his writing, Gibson in directing. Yet while Gibson was a rising star at the time of The Bounty’s release, still finding his footing in Hollywood but with burgeoning star wattage and a respectable CV boasting Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Gallipoli, and The Year of Living Dangerously, Flynn was a screen novice in In the Wake of the Bounty, all raw potential and not necessarily delivering.
Michael, as Down Under Flix’s appointed Flynn expert, what was it that made Flynn a superstar, and does any of that shine through in In the Wake of the Bounty?
Michael: As you mentioned, Flynn had (champagne) bucket-loads of that mysterious, elusive quality we call charisma, which made him eminently watchable on the silver screen. On top of that, as his best film roles matched his adventurous off-screen personality, Flynn made you believe in his acting. But not always. Viewers of In the Wake of the Bounty may think Flynn’s unrealistic acting makes Keanu Reeves look like an actor of subtlety and depth in comparison. And yet, there are glimpses of Flynn’s compelling screen presence in said film.
Of all the Hollywood movie stars, Flynn had the most interesting and colourful life (George Raft, whose real-life gangster escapades and friendships also gave his screen persona authenticity, was the silver medal winner). Before becoming a movie star, Flynn grew up in Tasmania, Sydney, and England, inheriting a lifelong passion for learning and discovery from his academic father. In contrast to young Errol’s privileged upbringing and public schooling in England, he later became part of a notorious razor gang in Sydney. He also sailed up the east coast of Australia and lived in the New Guinea highlands, working as a cadet patrol officer, manager of a copra plantation and even as a slave trader, ultimately taking a group of New Guinea natives to Sydney to exhibit them. Clearly, Flynn was no poster boy for political correctness, even before political correctness was a thing and Australia became the bastion of PC that it is today. And yet, true to Flynn’s paradoxical nature and refusal to be bound and gagged by any simplistic categorizing, he also worked as a foreign correspondent for Australia’s Bulletin newspaper, submitting surprisingly empathetic and reverent articles about the indigenous inhabitants of New Guinea. Through his unusual life experiences, Flynn developed a manner that would command the attention and admiration of men and women alike. By Flynn’s own telling, his time in New Guinea taught him how to be a leader of men.
In many of Flynn’s film roles, in the golden days when leading men could be both tough and elegant, Flynn is an elegant and articulate rebel leader, and his role in In the Wake of the Bounty is the prototype for this. Such a defining persona would even be useful toward the end of Flynn’s life, when he was granted rare access to Cuba’s Sierra Maestra jungles to interview guerrilla fighter Fidel Castro and advise the Cuban Robin Hood on public speaking. Flynn would develop a well-modulated and pleasant-sounding voice (albeit slightly higher than one would expect for such a tough guy). Flynn’s voice in In the Wake of the Bounty is inconsistent in tone and accent, yet we can already see some of Flynn’s highly believable charisma as a leader, even if mostly conveyed though his unflinching self-confidence and seething glares. Also, Flynn’s acting in said film must be partly blamed on director Chauvel. In the Wake of the Bounty was made in 1933, six years after the original talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released. Many films from the 1930s now appear unrealistic, as actors and filmmakers were still getting used to talking movies needing a very different style of acting than stage productions or silent films. The exaggerated gestures often required in plays and silent films were no longer appropriate in talkies, in which the subtle gestures and nuances we would later associate with Keanu could be captured. So in one of the very few times in Flynn’s life that he probably agreed to follow instructions rather than his own instincts, this may have been to his detriment.
To me, one of the most fascinating things about Flynn was his power to explore, blur and demonstrate the interplay between reality and illusion. Apart from his Bulletin articles, Flynn worked as a foreign correspondent in Spain during the Civil War and wrote an accomplished novel, Showdown, and two riveting autobiographies, Beam Ends and My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Yet in these writings, it is difficult to know what is real and what Flynn invented in order to tell tales of adventure and intrigue that crackle on the page as Flynn the man would crackle on the screen. Even Flynn himself, a prolific reader who took to wearing an embroidered question mark on his shirts, appeared confused about where reality ended and fantasy began. Flynn’s publicists at Warner Brothers promoted Flynn as Irish, as people just didn’t believe the reality: that Flynn was born in exotic Tasmania. Before finding fame, Flynn’s strategy to secure what he wanted was to present himself as already successful. When he was so poor that he couldn’t afford a proper meal, he would dress immaculately as though he were wealthy and successful. Feeling terrified during scandalous court appearances later in life, Flynn deliberately pretended to be assured and casual. This approach of acting as the person he wanted to become is now recognized as a valid psychological strategy for success. When Flynn was most effective as an actor, he was being the people he had learned to be in ‘the real world’, and when he was most effective in ‘the real world’, he was often acting. Another example from In the Wake of the Bounty of Flynn straddling the twin horses of reality and illusion is that although Flynn was playing Christian Fletcher in a dramatization of the Bounty incident, in reality, Flynn was already a seasoned sailor and a descendant of one of the actual mutineers from the Bounty, Midshipman Young. (In a further irony, another of Midshipman Young’s descendants, Benjamin Young, is shown in authentic footage of Pitcairn Island from In the Wake of the Bounty).
Ben: On reflection, you’re right that we should probably give Flynn the benefit of the doubt acting-wise here. Whilst his stilted, overly emphatic, staring-dead-ahead delivery in In the Wake of the Bounty isn’t exactly the stuff that stars are made of, none of the other actors in the cast fare much better. Two years and one film later, Flynn’s onscreen charisma would ripen tremendously with Captain Blood, and that film’s director, Michael Curtiz, wasn’t exactly a benevolent nurturer of talent. So I’d agree we can put some of the onus for Flynn’s In the Wake of the Bounty performance on Chauvel and the burgeoning “talkie” techniques of the time, and assume the actor course-corrected acting-wise between films.
Still, Chauvel was no slouch or rank amateur directing-wise. In the mid-1920s he worked in various capacities on Hollywood productions before returning to Australia to apply his trade. He made a pair of silent films in Australia in 1926, then after a fallow period returned with In the Wake of the Bounty, his first sound film. But his best-known works came in subsequent decades, with films like Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and The Rats of Tobruk (1944), both featuring Chips Rafferty, and arguably his best and most widely known film, Jedda (1955). The Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, NSW is named after the filmmaker, and if you wander down the road to the Moore Park entertainment quarter, you’ll see a giant billboard for Jedda among the various billboards celebrating milestone Australian films:
Chauvel’s career trajectory ended up being quite different to that forecast by In the Wake of the Bounty, which was conceived as the first in a series of exotic travelogues melded with dramatizations of historical events from those locales. Introductory text at the start of the film declares it:
the first of a series of great travel films to be produced by Expeditionary Films Ltd. depicting strange incidents, strange places and strange peoples. Each travel feature will contain the thread of a story based upon a true life drama… The audience will follow in the wake of the Bounty with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chauvel as they traversed 15,000 miles in the South Seas to secure the exact backgrounds upon which the drama of the Bounty was enacted. Expeditionary Films has not spared time or money to blaze a new trail – a trail which they hope will lead to many pleasant hours amidst adventure and romance.
The concept was a great sales pitch, and bespoke an appetite for globetrotting and high sea adventure befitting Errol Flynn himself. This grand plan didn’t eventuate, alas, though Chauvel and his wife & collaborator Elsa would proceed to make films all around Australia, if not the globe.
In the Wake of the Bounty is divided into two parts. The first part of the film is Chauvel’s re-enactment of the events before, during, and following the mutiny aboard the Bounty. These scenes featuring Flynn as Christian and Mayne Lyndon as Bligh were filmed later in the production at Cinesound studios in Bondi NSW, also home to the Dad and Dave films of the era. The second part of the film, shot first and over a period of five months, is a documentary chronicling the daily lives of the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, all descendants of the original mutineers. Chauvel and co spent three months in Pitcairn and an additional two in Tahiti filming this content. In an era where we can record all manner of phenomena in far-flung exotic destinations on our smartphones and upload the clips to YouTube in a matter of seconds, this footage lacks much of its original novelty, but when considered in context it represents an important piece of cinematic anthropology. It’s also more engaging and interesting, I would argue, than the dramatic retelling of the mutiny and surrounding events that precedes it. Like the documentary footage, it’s important to contextualize those scenes within their time of production, but the fact remains that watching the film today, nearly 85 years later, those dramatic scenes are pretty creaky. That feeling is only accentuated when one compares those scenes to subsequent film versions of the story: an unfair sport weighed unfavourably against Chauvel’s film, but one that’s difficult to avoid. Watch the 1960 or 1984 films with their lush, intoxicating photography and epic scales – or, indeed, watch Aboriginal artist Tracy Moffat’s short film Other, compiled partly from footage from these two films among others – and it’s easy to see why star Marlon Brando would be seduced by Tahiti (not to mention his leading lady), something which Chauvel’s film struggles to convey.
Michael, am I being harsh on the first half of In the Wake of the Bounty, or would you agree the film fares better in its anthropological second half?
Michael: I think you’re on the money, Ben, with your judgment about the two different segments of In the Wake of the Bounty. To me, the Bounty dramatization in the first part was mainly interesting as Flynn’s initial film role. However, the mostly documentary style of the second part of the film, examining Pitcairn Island and the actual descendants of the Bounty (other than Flynn), has multiple points of interest. Some of these are intentional on Chauvel’s part and some aren’t. For instance, a quirky anthropological detail that Chauvel chose to mention and film is that the male Pitcairn Islanders would wear naval uniforms to church. Other aspects of the documentary are now interesting from the smug and sagacious safety of a modern cultural perspective. One of the most striking examples of this is the way that Polynesian women are portrayed in the film. The film’s narration is predictably patronizing in its contrast between the British mutineers, ‘white fools’ who should know better than to mess with native women, and the Tahitian women themselves, who have no way of knowing better (‘dusky maid[s]’, ‘mischievous brown girls’ and ‘dark pagans’). A consequence of the ludicrous historical assumption that non-white women are not quite human is the conclusion that they cannot possibly arouse sexual feelings in white males. It’s the National Geographic model, in which near-naked bodies of indigenous women could be displayed in unsealed magazines for teenagers in dental waiting rooms to furtively look at. Which we did! Oblivious to strange adult thinking, Western teenage boys learnt from a young age that National Geographic was the go-to for a cavalcade of breasts of varying sizes and shapes. Chauvel employs the same National Geographic approach to sexuality in In the Wake of the Bounty, in which Polynesian nymphs frolic to and fro, boobs bared with pride and swagger. The irony of being able to show women half-naked in a 1933 film (during the Hays Code) would not have been lost on Flynn. In his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (Heinemann, Great Britain, 1960), Flynn took great relish and several sentences in describing the ‘glorious pair of breasts’ of Maihiati, a Melanesian lady he encountered in New Guinea (p. 49). In another one of those particularly Flynn-like, life-imitates-art ironies, Flynn himself was probably part Polynesian (on his mother Marelle’s side). Don Norman, an historian and former friend of Flynn’s from Hobart, once showed me a photograph of Flynn in which he pointed out how Flynn’s Polynesian features were apparent.
In spite of the intriguing documentary Chauvel created for the second part of In the Wake of the Bounty, the film ends with a dramatized story that is clearly meant to be poignant but is just strangely morbid and would fit better into a novel by Thomas Hardy: the death of a baby. What the!?
Ben: It’s a strange note to end on, and further denotes the quite peculiar hybrid status of In the Wake of the Bounty as dramatization, documentary, travelogue, and anthropological artifact. Whilst there’s a marked disjunction between the film’s stage-bound and rather conventionally shot scenes on the one hand and its striking seafaring footage and depictions of Tahitian island life on the other, both threads have their value, albeit largely historical. The island footage is a fascinating anthropological record of life in an outwardly unblemished paradise, and some of it would even be used in the promotion of 1935’s Hollywood version of the Bounty story. And the dramatic scenes, creaky as they are, are valuable as a record of Flynn’s first feature film work and portrait of the artist pre-stardom. Whilst he’s not widely familiar to audiences today – for many, classic Hollywood begins and ends with the four figures on Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Flynn’s shadow looms over any actor who dabbles in the historical adventure genre. It also continues to loom over Australian films and filmmakers, despite the fact he worked largely overseas. I’ll wrap with two examples of this legacy. Firstly, Flynn provided a touchstone for writer-director-star Yahoo Serious when concocting his wacky take on the Ned Kelly legend, 1993’s Reckless Kelly. As the multi-hyphenate explained in a Cinema Papers interview, “Errol Flynn was accidentally discovered and became a movie star, so Ned gets accidentally discovered and becomes a movie star” (no. 92, p. 34). A few years later, when casting his 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan, P.J. Hogan (director of Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding) emphasized to his producers that “for the part of Peter Pan, we are looking for Errol Flynn age 12 years old” (Finding Queensland in Australian Cinema, 2016, p. 80). From iconic outlaws to the defender of Neverland and many more between and beyond, Flynn’s persona and legacy continue to find new footholds in popular culture…
Thanks again to Michael X. Savvas for contributing to this review. Michael is an author of both fiction and non-fiction, and notable publications include an essay on Flynn in the book Something Rich and Strange, available via Wakefield Press, and the book One Dream Ago: The Beatles’ South Australian Connections, co-edited with Olivia Savvas-Koopmans (Single X Publications, Adelaide, 2010).
Next time: Down Under Flix is taking a month off and will return in May with three sports-centric flicks, the sole directorial feature of a noted Australian critic, a young adult classic, and a Port Adelaide-based indie film. Til then…