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Literature: Mutiny on the Bounty

"Can you understand this, Mr. Byam? Discipline is the thing. A seaman's a seaman. A captain's a captain. And a midshipman, Sir Joseph or no Sir Joseph, is the lowest form of animal life in the British Navy..."
Captain William Bligh, 1935 movie

Very Loosely Based on a True Story, this is a classic novel so fondly remembered they filmed it twice (In fact, there's even a remake of the book). The first version, with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, was the 1935 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture. The second adaptation of the novel, with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, was 1962's most notorious flop, although it also got a Best Picture nomination.

Both films tell the true story of a mutiny on the ship, the Bounty. In 1789, the small British naval ship HMS Bountynote  is sent to Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh with the mission of bringing breadfruit plants to the Caribbean. The crew spends five months in the South Pacific island paradise while the plants grow, and the British sailors become accustomed to the good life there, basking in the sun and enjoying the company of the friendly natives (especially the women).

When the time comes to leave, the men have a hard time readjusting to the "jack tar" life of a sailor, especially under the command of their sharp-tongued Lieutenant. A few weeks after setting sail, a mutiny breaks out with second-in-command Fletcher Christian as the leader. Lieutenant Bligh is set adrift in an open launch with just over half the men and, in an impressive feat of seamanship, is able to navigate to the safety of Dutch-held Timor with only a sextant and a pocket watch.

The mutineers initially return to Tahiti. Some stay there, knowing they will be tried (and possibly executed) as soon as the next British ship arrives. 9 of the 22 mutineers (including Fletcher Christian), intending to evade capture, take the Bounty and head for the very isolated Pitcairn Island in the company of several Tahitian men and women. After reaching their goal and intending to start a new life, they burn the Bounty.

While most adaptations break off at this point, the drama actually continued for the mutineers and their companions, resulting in a decidedly non-happy ending for most: After several years on Pitcairn, violence broke out between the mutineers and the Tahitian men, and ultimately the women too. Almost all of the island's men, including Christian, died in these fights, while some others were killed by accidents, disease and excessive alcohol consumption. The net result was that when the island was first visited again in 1808, only one of the men, John Adams, was still alive, along with nine of the women and a number of children. The descendants of the mutineers continue to live on Pitcairn to this day.

See also The Bounty, a 1984 film that did not use the Mutiny on the Bounty novels but instead told a more historically accurate version of the real-life mutiny.


The Various Film Adaptations Contain Examples Of:

  • All Women Are Lustful: The women of Tahiti, at least as far as the 1962 film is concerned.
  • Bad Ass: Bligh, in the 1935 film at least. The 1962 version completely omits his voyage to Timor.
  • Burning the Ships: In the first film Christian and the men burn the Bounty to make sure no one ever gets any ideas about leaving. In the second film, the men burn the ship to prevent Christian from leaving.
  • Call Forward: Brando says "we shall never find contentment on this island", and it turned out that he was quite right, as the Englishmen and Tahitian men on Pitcairn set about murdering each other until there were only two men left alive (one of whom died of natural causes, leaving only one mutineer left to greet the American whaling ship that stopped by 20 years later).
  • The Captain: Christian is a hero to his men. Bligh, not so much.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Maimiti, who falls in love with Christian and goes off with him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: In the 1962 version Christian takes a quick dislike to Bligh, and spends the rest of the voyage making snarky coments.
    Christian: [to Bligh, during a storm] Bad news, sir, your cabin's completely awash. [smirks]
  • The Determinator: Bligh. He guided his men three thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean in an open boat with the loss of only one crewmember.
  • The Drunken Sailor: The ship surgeon, in the 1935 film. In the 1962 film the character was omitted.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Brando's Fletcher Christian reports to the ship dressed like a ridiculous fop, with a silver suit, red cape, top hat, and cane, and accompanied by two sexy girls. In other words, about as far away from Clark Gable as you can get. Christian is shown to be someone who doesn't take Navy life so seriously.
  • Ethical Slut: The women on Tahiti like sex, a lot, and have no Western hangups about things like monogamy or modesty.
  • A Father to His Men: Fletcher Christian
  • The Film of the Book: There were three novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall: Mutiny on the Bounty (the sailing of the ship and the mutiny), Men Against the Sea (Bligh's epic voyage with his loyal crew in the open boat to Timor), and Pitcairn's Island (how the mutineers turn on each other after settling there). Both films largely confine themselves to the first novel.
  • Godiva Hair: Used by the island women in the 1962 film to provide Fanservice while still conforming to censorship standards. Strategically placed leis are also employed.
  • Happily Ever Before: The 1935 film ends with Christian and the mutineers burning the ship, apparently settled to stay in their island paradise. It omits the violence and murder that over the next several years would end with only one man left alive, mutineer Ned Young (who changed his name to John Adams). The 1962 film averts this, killing off Christian and strongly implying that things aren't going to end well for the mutineers.
  • Harmony Versus Discipline: Tahiti vs. Bligh
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: In both films; see Very Loosely Based On A True Story below. The historical Fletcher Christian's heroic credentials are rather questionable, as his actions can be directly traced as a root cause for the problems on Pitcairn Island and all that entails. And no matter how you look at it, mutiny and piracy aren't very heroic.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The historical Bligh did things like flogging that seem barbaric to modern viewers but he was no more brutal than your average 18th century Royal Navy captain. In fact, his comparatively lenient treatment of the crew (as well as the lack of marines on board) may have emboldened the mutineers. The real reason for the mutiny was not mistreatment by Bligh, but the fact that the crew, after having spent quite a long break enjoying R&R on Tahiti, didn't want to be sailors anymore.
    • The 1935 film portrays Bligh as having a dead man flogged and ordering a keelhauling, neither of which actually occurred (the latter of which being illegal in the Royal Navy). Bligh in fact did not order a single flogging, and would instead scold where other captains would flog and hang.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: In the 1962 film the Admiralty court acquits Bligh of any blame, because he acted in accordance with the articles of war. Then they explain to him why he was a bad captain.
    "We cannot rebuke an officer who has administered discipline according to the articles of war but the articles are fallible, as any articles are bound to be. No code can cover all contingencies. We cannot put justice aboard our ships in books. Justice and decency are carried in the heart of the captain, or they be not aboard."
  • The Mutiny: It's pretty famous.
  • Na´ve Newcomer: Roger Byam, in the 1935 before becoming a A Father to His Men. This character, despite being central to the novels, was left out of the 1962 film.
  • Narrator: Brown, the botanist sent to harvest the breadfruit plants, narrates the 1962 version.
  • The Neidermeyer: Captain Bligh. In the 1962 version he says explicitly that he is cruel to make the mean fear him, because fear is the only motivator for a sailor. The notion that comradeship and respect might be motivators never occurs to him. See Historical Villain Upgrade for how this is inaccurate.
    • Captain Edward Edwards of the HMS Pandora was every bit a cruel as Bligh is portrayed and worse, and may be the source of Bligh's reputation. Among other things, he routinely abused and locked the mutineers in a cage on the Pandora's deck, and only opened the cage when the Pandora ran aground and sank, and even then, two were still manacled and went down with the ship.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Clark Gable, as Fletcher Christian, doesn't sound so British.
  • Nubile Savage: In both films, the Tahitian women are all very, very good-looking.
  • Officer and a Gentleman
  • Press-Ganged: The 1935 film starts with Christian leading a party from the Bounty which scoops up a bunch of sailors in a pub and forcibly enlists them (despite this being illegal in times of peace).
  • Redemption Equals Death: The Brando film suffers from a rather ridiculous ending in which Christian has a Heel-Face Turn and decides that the mutineers should sail back to England and denouce Bligh in a proper Admiralty court. The men respond to this idea by setting the ship on fire, and Christian dies attempting to save the ship. This is all fictional—details of Christian's death are murky, but it is known that he was responsible for burning the Bounty, and he died later, during the cycles of violence that killed off almost all the men on Pitcairn.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Clark Gable lays down with a native girl on Tahiti. There's a cut to dancing at a festival dinner. Then a cut back to Gable and his girl, apparently post-coital.
  • Stealing from the Till: In the 1935 film Bligh admits straight-up to Christian that he is skimming off the supplies that should go to the men, and instead selling them in order to line his pockets.
  • A Taste of the Lash: In both films, and an Establishing Character Moment in the 1935 film. A sailor being flogged has died before the flogging has been completed. Bligh orders the man with the whip to continue flogging the corpse. See above for how this is incorrect.
    • Charles Laughton seems to do this whenever he gets bored. Rrevor Howard seems to enjoy it.
  • Toplessness from the Back:
    • The 1935 film pushes Fanservice in The Thirties as far as it will go when Christian's and Byam's girlfriends come out of the water after a swim.
    • The 1962 film pushes Fanservice in The Sixties as far as it will go by having lots and lots and lots of gorgeous island women running around Topless From The Back in every scene on Tahiti.
    • And anyone who watches The Bounty (1984) will complete the Fanservice arc, as the women of Tahiti are finally allowed to indulge in National Geographic Nudity.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Don't watch these films if you want a documentary on the actual 1789 event. Oddly enough, a Very Loosely Based on a True Story documentary version, In the Wake of the Bounty, was made in 1933; Fletcher Christian was played by none other than Errol Flynn in his very first movie role.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men


Duck SoupAFI's 100 Years... 100 MoviesFrankenstein (1931)
Master and CommanderSea StoriesA Night to Remember
The Music BoxCreator/Metro-Goldwyn-MayerThe Naked Spur
The Thin ManAcademy AwardCaptain Blood
The Music ManFilms of the 1960sNine Days Of One Year
Captain BloodFilms of the 1930sThe Phantom Empire

alternative title(s): Mutiny On The Bounty; Mutiny On The Bounty
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