Completely by chance, my Thanksgiving visit home to San Diego ended up having a decidedly nautical motif. While staying in the city by the bay, I read The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, saw Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, visited the Star of India (1863 sailing ship,) and, as an unplanned bonus, also saw the HMS Surprise, the very ship used in the filming of Master and Commander. So gather around ye scallywags, and I’ll tell you about them, one and all.
Book Review: The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty
Caroline Alexander (2003)
I often find myself drawn to tales set on the high seas. Put me on a boat in the ocean, and I get sick as a dog, but give me a book or a movie where I can set out on the open sea, and I’m happy as a clam. Having read and highly enjoyed Alexander’s previous book (The Endurance) about Ernest Shackleton’s journey of survival in the Antarctic, I had high hopes for The Bounty. Since my only knowledge of the most famous mutiny of all time comes from the movies, I figured there was a lot to gain from reading this book. At 400-some pages the book felt a bit padded at times, but I did enjoy it for the most part and would recommend it, with reservations.
Alexander researched her subject thoroughly, drawing from letters, diary entries and court-martial transcripts. She paints a full picture of Captain Bligh, who interestingly wasn’t technically a captain, by rank or pay, when he commanded the Bounty in 1788-89. He also wasn’t the maniacal tyrant that his name has come to be associated with. In fact, he was quite the opposite, having picked up many humane shipboard practices, learned from his time as an officer under Captain Cook. Unfortunately, one of those practices may have contributed to the bad feelings on the Bounty—it seems the men didn’t enjoy the compulsory dancing, intended by Bligh to keep them fit and in good spirits.
Unlike the Endurance adventure, which lasted years, the mutiny on the Bounty was a rash, brief event, so much of the book is devoted to other stuff—setting the stage with background on Bligh and his crew, the voyage prior to their arrival in Otaheite (as the island was then known,) the harrowing trip Bligh and his loyal crew members made after being set adrift from the Bounty in an overloaded launch, the ill-fated voyage of the Pandora, sent to the South Pacific two years later to apprehend the mutineers and bring them to justice. Then there are the court-martial trials, not only for the mutineers, but for Bligh as well, since losing a ship (and not to mention the valuable cargo of breadfruit plants bound for the West Indies and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) was grounds for court-martial. And of course, there are the stories of what might have happened to Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny, and his cohorts, who settled on Pitcairn Island.
A good portion of the book focuses on Peter Heywood, an officer who claimed he was an unwilling participant in the mutiny, who lived on Pitcairn Island for two years before giving himself up to the Pandora and throwing himself on the mercy of the court. The court-martial transcripts shed an interesting light on how such proceedings were conducted; defendants questioning one-another’s testimony, full of contradictions and leading questions serving to spin the account in each of their favor. Alexander shows how Heywood escaped execution through legal maneuvering and a well-connected family and, more importantly, how his published writing about the mutiny did much to form the impression of Bligh that’s held today.
And then there’s Fletcher Christian, the mysterious leader of the mutiny. I was surprised to learn that he’d sailed with Bligh twice before and, like Peter Heywood, was held in high regard by the Captain. This makes their turn against him all the more shocking and personal. And a bit baffling. There’s no single dramatic event, no horrible punishment (Bligh was actually quite lenient by Navy standards), and Christian was actually a favored officer, whom the captain who was grooming for promotion upon their return. Something pushed Christian over the edge and into the annals of maritime lore. Once he lands on Pitcairn Island, he fades from the story. His fate and his motivation for taking control of the ship remain a mystery. And over time, the roles became reversed, with Bligh pegged as the aggressor and Christian the mythic victim who makes a heroic break for freedom.
It’s doubtful that Alexander’s book will cause a wave of Bounty excitement and interest the way her earlier work (and its sister exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York) did for Shackleton and the Endurance. But for anyone who’s curious, I’d recommend it.
The Star of India
Since I was in the thick of reading The Bounty, I was interested to revisit the Star of India, a 19th-century sailing ship that’s been moored in San Diego Bay for as long as I can remember. It’s been years since I’ve gone aboard and I didn’t remember much. The Star even has mutiny in her past, so it seemed a good tie-in.
Launched in 1863 and originally christened Euterpe, she was one of the earliest iron-hulled ships built, and is now the oldest active sailing ship in the world. In her past she’s transported jute from India, emigrants to New Zealand, timber from Puget Sound and finally, salmon from Alaska, when her name was changed to the Star of India. She began as a British ship, was registered Hawaiian and then changed to American, when the islands became a U.S. territory in 1900.
Moored alongside the Star of India was the HMS Surprise, the ship used in the making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. A year ago, when visiting my favorite sea food haunt in San Diego, we happened to see this boat in dry dock. We didn’t know what it was until afterward, when the local news reported that the boat used in the movie was in a hidden location. I didn’t know it’s now a permanent resident of San Diego, the newest addition to the Maritime Museum, so it was a…surprise…to see the Surprise. Unfortunately it wasn’t yet open to the public when we were there.
You’ll be shocked to learn it looks a lot bigger on screen. The ship is a replica built in the 70s, modified for the movie, so it’s accurate in size. Amazing to see it firsthand, considering how many lived and worked aboard these ships, not to mention how small they were on the big bad sea.
For more about the Star of India and the HMS Surprise, visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Movie Review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
USA, Peter Weir (2003)
So, having seen the boat, we figured what better time or place to see the movie.
Peter Weir (Truman Show, Gallipoli) is such a great director, and he’s done it again with his adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s books. The period detail is as meticulously captured on screen as it was on the page, but where I was bored to tears by the fifty pages I tried to read years ago, I was riveted by the movie. The camera work, costuming and amazing production design combine to put the viewer right on the deck and in the middle of the action.
It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s windy and you are there. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I love movies that excel in transporting me to another time and place, so I feel like I’ve not just seen a movie, I’ve really experienced it. Titanic, for all its overblown hype and horrendous dialog, was exactly this kind of movie for me. It believably created a world that I will never be able to experience. In Master and Commander, you see how cramped these people lived, how close these ships had to be to fire with all guns blazing, and how frenzied it was on the deck of a warship with cannons, gunfire and swords flying. You see the preparations necessary to ready a ship for battle, and how they lived and coped in between.
Set during the Napoleonic War, Russell Crowe is Jack Aubrey, captain of a British warship whose mission is to destroy a French vessel off the coast of South America. The ship’s doctor, and the captain’s good friend, is a bit of a Charles Darwin type. His plans to collect specimens on the Galapagos Islands are continually interrupted by Aubrey’s near obsession with capturing the enemy ship. That’s pretty much the whole story, and while some have found fault with the lack of plot, I found it plenty of motivation to propel the great action sequences and wartime drama on the high seas. The relationship between the captain and the doctor is an effective anchor to the story.
I’m surprised that this film hasn’t done better at the box office. At the rate it’s going, dropping off each week, it’s not even halfway to breaking even. I guess hunky Russell Crowe wasn’t enough to bring in the big numbers. What’s the difference between this and Gladiator? Lack of a pointless romance, completely external to the plot? No Joaquin Phoenix-type to bring in the teenage crowd? No video game tie-in? A shorter costume for Russell? Too bad. I’d much rather see more movies like this be made than more Gladiators and Troys etc.
Here’s the Gist: So realistic, you can smell the salt air. [****]