The 1933 Australian production “In the Wake of the Bounty” is noteworthy as the first film to introduce Errol Flynn to movie audiences. Long unavailable for review, the film’s reputation rested solely on the presence of the future Hollywood star in his debut performance. Now available for the first time on home video, “In the Wake of the Bounty” deserves a new reputation as the unintentional comedy discovery of the year. This weird little production, which presents some of the cheapest filmmaking this side of Ed Wood, serves up more laughs than the average lungs can withstand prior to choking for air. This film goes eons beyond camp into a wholly new realm of inanity, and missing this title is a loss of staggering proportions.
“In the Wake of the Bounty” opens in a dockside pub somewhere in London during the early 1800s. You know it is a dockside pub because everyone is singing “Blow the Man Down” amid chimes of “Aye, matey.” These old sailors, with white Santa Claus beards badly taped to their faces, seem to need a coupon for shopping at Old Navy…their clothing is a bundle of dirt and rags almost falling off their bodies. A blind fiddler who is leading the musical old salts in their tune is abruptly asked about his role in the famous mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty. The fiddler slaps his hand around the table in search of his beer mug and then launches with hammy grandiloquence into what he claims is the truth about the famous naval revolt.
The scene shifts back in time to life on H.M.S. Bounty under the infamous Captain Bligh. Unfortunately, “In the Wake of the Bounty” seems to have been made on a budget of $20 and the celebrated ship is depicted in four cramped cardboard rooms which suggest the confines of a tight garage rather than the majesty of the gem of the British admiralty. Mayne Lynton plays Captain Bligh with the testy attitude of a nasty housewife with a bad case of PMS; the only clue of his character’s noble ranking comes with his nasal inhaling of the contents of his snuff box, which he snorts up in a vacuum power that could possibly take in the whole room if the furniture wasn’t nailed down. Young Errol Flynn, wearing an ill-fitting red wig that suggests Wilma Flintstone’s hairdo, plays Fletcher Christian with a sense of unease that could either be badly-conceived stage fright or a fear of forgetting his lines.
Captain Bligh is, of course, not the most benevolent master of the waves and he takes to starving and flogging his crew when someone steals his cheese. The crew are a ragged bunch who pass their time singing “Blow the Man Down” (apparently there was an acute lack of hit songs in those days). Every now and then the scene shifts back to the blind fiddler (remember him?) who recalls Bligh’s infamy with trembling terror…though strangely, the blind fiddler is absent from the proceedings in the cardboard replica of the Bounty. Every now and then, a piece of stock footage showing a tall ship is inserted in to remind the audience that the film takes place on the sea and not inside someone’s garage.
The Bounty eventually comes to Tahiti and the natives row their boats to the visiting vessel. It would seem, however, that no one associated with the film knew what Tahitian music sounds like and the locals are presented with Hawaiian ukelele music (a not-so-close match, but it is the right ocean) and Jewish klezmer music (don’t ask how this got into the movie). The sailors eventually rid themselves of nasty Captain Bligh and bring a bevy of Tahitian girls on the ship for a happy song and dance number. The song…”Blow the Man Down” (and if you thought the repetition of “Lara’s Theme” in “Doctor Zhivago” was overkill, you’ll be ready to blow the man away by this reprise).
Half-way through the film, “In the Wake of the Bounty” changes its mind about showing the mutiny on the Bounty and abruptly turns into a travelogue. A jolly narrator comes out of nowhere to bring the audience to contemporary Pitcairn Island, the ultimate destiny of the crew who took control of the Bounty. While the film offers the first motion picture footage ever shot on the fabled South Pacific and even achieves some primitive underwater cinematography by presenting a quick peek at the wreck of the Bounty, the sudden transition from one genre to the other is astonishing and it takes a few minutes to realize “In the Wake of the Bounty” has turned into a completely different movie. But if that’s not bad enough, the narration is the typically condescending, politically incorrect put-downs which make the mixed race people of Pitcairn seem like happy dopes. The musical savvy remains the same, though. And for some reason we are treated to a woman painting a coconut while the soundtrack swells with an acoustic rendition of “O Holy Night” (perhaps they ran out of klezmer music).
After about 15 minutes of this, the film changes its mind again and we are back to the make-believe story of the Bounty mutineers. By now they are living on Pitcairn and Fletcher Christian is sporting a beard that looks like shoe polish smeared across his chops. He still has that Wilma Flintstone wig, but it needs a good combing. Fletcher is concerned that the Tahitian natives he brought to Pitcairn are going to kill him, but we never see any of the natives, nor do we see Christian’s demise, nor do we see the old blind fiddler, or even Captain Bligh. We do, however, go back to the travelogue for more picturesque scenes of the tiny island, with the happy narrator briskly informing everyone that Fletcher Christian is dead.
The final five minutes, however, switch to deranged drama which comes from yet another movie. We are treated to the tale of a contemporary Pitcairn family (whose lily-white complexion bears no resemblance to any of the tanned mixed-race islanders we’ve seen in the travelogue footage of the island) with a dying infant. They attempt to radio a passing ship to stop and send medical aid, but two snotty sailors on the ship are tired of dealing with the folks on Pitcairn and ignore the pleas for help. The baby dies and the child’s father solemnly intones that his death was the result of the sins of the Pitcairn forefathers (i.e. the Bounty mutineers) visited down several generations later. Huh?
“In the Wake of the Bounty” is undiluted lunacy which seems to have fallen out of some parallel cinematic universe with a crash. It is impossible to recall another film which is literally all over the place regarding time, scene, emotion and logic. The poverty of the production assures easy laughs, but the film’s inane inability to make up its mind regarding direction and purpose offers a rare example of cinematic schizophrenia. The sloppy presentation of the Bounty’s turbulent fate turns the historic piracy into hysterical comedy…Captain Bligh is apprehended by four ragged men who run into his tiny cabin and wrestle him across the desk with finesse of a WWF tag team playing dirty while the referee’s back is turned. It is one thing to offer history in a manner that is aimed at school children, but “In the Wake of the Bounty” looks like it was made by school children!
“In the Wake of the Bounty” is not a just a gem, it is the mother lode of madness. Blow the man down, matey, blow the man down!