Tall Ship "Bounty"


July 26, 2010 — So that’s me pretending to steer one of the most famous ships in the history of Hollywood. Well, non-star at least. I doubt it can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs or light up Devils Tower like a 1970s discotheque. It can, however, voyage across oceans and hold the gigantic ego of Marlon Brando within its hull. It’s the H.M.S. Bounty. Or, more accurately, since it was never actually one of Her Majesty’s Ships and is just a movie replica of its historic counterpart, just the Bounty.

In every game of word association ever played, the given word bounty will always yield the response mutiny. And that’s thanks to a single event that happened more than 200 years ago. I have to imagine that there have been tons of intriguing mutinies in the history of ship-faring, but, oddly, this bloodless insurrection on a British ship engaged in a mission involving fruit in Tahiti is the one that stuck with us the most. I’m guessing that’s completely due to the fact that mutiny and bounty almost rhyme. History is weird and possibly masochistic.

I’ll skip the nuances of the event, but in short, the crew of the original H.M.S. Bounty apparently liked the islands of French Polynesia when they arrived looking to transplant breadfruit from there. Really liked. As in send-their-captain-and-anybody-loyal-to-him-off-in-a-launch-and-burned-the-ship-to-cover-their-trail liked. Parts of its carcass are supposedly still visible in the clear tropical waters of Bounty Bay at Pitcairn Island, as well as in various museums and on Marlon Brando’s shirt sleeves (please save your questions until the end). The island is also still inhabited by various descendents of the mutineers.

Fortunately for those of us who are of the deeply held belief that an event isn’t validated as significant until it’s exaggerated into a movie, a movie was made about the mutiny. Actually, a few. The first major one was in 1935 and starred Clark Gable. The latest was in 1984 and starred Mel Gibson. The most famous one and the one that featured the ship at topic here was in 1962 and starred Marlon Brando. It was one of those big, cast-of-thousands, extremely hyped, studio-toppling types of movie. I mean, they did everything larger than life for this film, starting with the Bounty herself.

Using the actual original plans for the historic H.M.S. Bounty from the archives of the Royal Navy, the film makers recreated the Bounty from the “keel up,” a first in moviedom, but making it about a third larger to accommodate cameras and crew (both film and ship). They then launched the Bounty to film on location. That’s right, this Bounty was no mere set. It was seaworthy, sailing 7,327 miles from Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, where it was built, down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific Ocean to Tahiti in 33 sailing days. All to film a movie about fruit and mutiny. That’s style points, man.

Besides finally teaching me what “keel hauling” is, Mutiny on the Bounty made me finally somewhat get the allure of Marlon Brando. You see, due to the timing of my generation, I’ve only known Brando from everybody else’s Godfather impersonations (never seen the movie...rebukes go in the Comments section) and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Now I can see why people keep using him as an example of an iconic American actor.

I mean, sure, he spoke in a ridiculous accent in the movie that he mainly affected by not opening his mouth when he spoke, and he went through an outfit or two that hasn’t been topped for outrageousness that side of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but, man, did he have a powerfully captivating mien. I can honestly say he was a big reason I could sit through the three-hour running time of the movie. Well, that and all the side-breast shots of the native women.

It’s rumored that the boat was supposed to be burned to timber cinders for the fire scene at the end of the film, but that Brando, who was so into the Bounty that he had cufflinks made from the nails of the original wreckage, used his superstar power to thwart their evil plans. And because of that decision, I got to walk about on its deck and through its innards half a century later.

Of course, I was number 1.7 gazillion to do so. After the filming, the Bounty was renamed That Damned Brando and went on a promotional tour to various world fairs, events, and was even semi-permanently birthed for a time as a tourist attraction in Florida. Ownership has changed hands a few times, but these days it’s still participating in tall ship events. When it’s not filming movies, that is.

The ship actually has a better resume than most SAG members, with appearances in such films as two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Treasure Island with Charlton Heston, Yellowbeard, and Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie, among other films and documentaries. Hilariously, IMDB.com even claims it was used in porn. For this film.

I visited the Bounty during a tall ship event at a dock in Portsmouth, NH, where it was sharing the spotlight with the recreation of an American privateer schooner called Lynx used in the War of 1812. To board these two rigged ships, we paid the entry fee and then got in a long line that snaked down the dock from a large tent with vendors selling drinks and seafood. The line moved pretty quickly, though. I guess there’s not much to do on a boat attraction but get on, get off, and go buy a lobster roll.

At 180 feet long at her longest point (only about 120 feet of which is deck space), and 30 feet at her widest, she’s not a giant ship. However, at 115 feet to the tip of her tallest mast, looking up was good for a case of vertigo. Her 10,000 square feet of sail were furled, of course. Otherwise we'd all have had to learn how to become a sailors real fast.

As we walked around topside, following the rough line of people moving in a counter-clockwise direction, deck hands were on hand to answer any questions about the ship’s history and ship sailing in general, as well as directing the crowd. This, naturally, made me I wonder if people ever get too unruly and attempt a mutiny against the staff (Rabblerouser: “Dude, they totally kicked me off the Bounty.” Captain Bligh: “Been there, man, been there.”).

Not knowing the purpose of anything I was looking at and being psychologically unable to ask questions of strangers unless forced to, everything was just a lot of wood and rope to me. Turns out, I’m less interested in sailing than I am in movie memorabilia. Not surprised. I think I did overhear one of the deckhands telling somebody else that some bit or other of the boat had originally been used in the Clark Gable version of Mutiny on the Bounty. That’s some ace reporting on my part.

Below deck, you get to see a few cabin quarters, some crew tables and benches, and they had a table set up for selling Bounty merchandise. And while the interior looked bigger than I thought it could possibly be, all in all, the ship seemed too tiny to film a movie on and, for her namesake at a third smaller, too tiny to do anything on, much less mutiny.

Still, masted ships are impressive things, even if I’m too ignorant to appreciate them fully. In fact, it’s weird to think that this towering ship that has crossed half the world was built as a movie prop. But then again, all masted ships look like props to me. I get that we can send a robot to Mars, but I don't get how we can navigate the ocean using giant sheets of canvas.