Lieutenant William Bligh has lost His Majesty's Armed Vessel The Bounty to mutineers in the waters outside Tahiti. A court-martial board is convened in England to determine whether or not he was responsible for the crew's revolt. Using his log as a reference point, Bligh reconstructs the events leading up to the incident in 1789.

On the basis of his knowledge of the South Seas, William Bligh is put in charge of a voyage from England to Tahiti. Its purpose is to bring breadfruit plants from the area to the West Indies where the English plan to use the vegetable as a cheap food for plantation slaves. Since the Admiralty has already appointed John Fryer as second-in-command, Bligh offers his friend Fletcher Christian the position of master's mate, the third-in-command.

Bligh has high hopes for this voyage and reveals his intention to circumnavigate the globe by going to the Pacific via Cape Horn at the tip of South America. That decision is the start of his troubles. For 31 days, the Bounty is repeatedly lashed by treacherous storms in those perilous waters. Finally, the Captain gives up the attempt on Cape Horn, but only after replacing Fryer, who has protested the plan from the beginning, with Fletcher as second-in-command.

When the Bounty finally reaches the South Sea island of Tahiti, the restless and exhausted crew are greeted enthusiastically by the locals, including many bare-breasted women. A four-month layover while the breadfruit plats are cultivated has a dire effect upon the discipline of the crew. Christian quickly adapts to the carefree lifestyle of the island and falls in love with the Tahitian King's daughter. Bligh, believing his reputation and hopes for advancement in the Navy lie in the orderly and efficient execution of his mission, desperately tries to regain control over his men — to no avail. Three crew members attempt to desert when the time comes to sail for the West Indies. And Christian is reluctant to follow orders.

The Bounty is the third film based on Richard Hough's true story. The screenplay by Robert Bolt zeroes in on the personality clash between Bligh and Christian. Here the zealous, puritanical and highly organized lieutenant is portrayed as a leader who loses his authority over the men in his charge. Anthony Hopkins is credible and sympathetic as a perfectionist unable to cope with what he regards as dissolute and slothful behavior.

Mel Gibson plays Fletcher Christian with just the right dash of personal flair and vulnerability. After Bligh harshly punishes the three deserters and announces the Bounty will try once again to navigate Cape Horn, the fearful and angry sailors turn to Christian for leadership. A reluctant rebel, he leads the mutiny but makes sure that no one is killed in the takeover. Bligh and his followers are put out to sea in an open boat with minimal provision. The eventual destiny of both the mutineers and those exiled is quite surprising.

Roger Donaldson, who proved his directorial finesse with Smash Palace, keeps intact this classic story's appeal as both an intricately layered character study and a colorful adventure saga. Arthur Ibbetson's cinematography is appropriately dazzling, and the soundtrack music by Vangelis conveys the turbulence and enchantment of the tale.