In 1789, the small British naval ship HMS Bounty is sent to Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh (Laughton) 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 third-in-command Fletcher Christian (Gable) 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.
The film is an adaptation of a book called Mutiny on the Bounty, the first book in The Bounty Trilogy, a series of novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.
See also Mutiny on the Bounty, a looser 1962 adaptation of the Nordoff and Hall novel starring Marlon Brando, and 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.
Tropes in Mutiny on the Bounty include:
- Burning the Ships: Christian and the men burn the Bounty to make sure no one ever gets any ideas about leaving.
- 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.
- The Determinator: Bligh. He guides his men three thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean in an open boat with the loss of only one crewmember.
- Disabled in the Adaptation: The ship's surgeon Bacchusnote has a peg leg, which his historical counterpart did not have.
- The Drunken Sailor: The ship surgeon, drunk before they even leave.
- 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.
- Happily Ever Before: 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).
- Harmony Versus Discipline: Tahiti vs. Bligh, where Tahiti's friendly natives and easy life are contrasted against both the harsh, demanding life aboard a deep-sea ship and the deliberate cruelty of Bligh.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: 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 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 film portrays Bligh as having a dead man flogged and ordering a keelhauling, neither of which actually occurred (the latter of which were 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. Additionally, the film roots the mutiny in Bligh's being willing to make the men suffer not just to make them obedient, but for his own pleasures; he deliberately buys substandard food for them so he can pocket the leftover money for himself, he steals two 50-pound wheels of cheese for his own home and has the men who reveal he did it flogged as being (falsely) liars and thieves, he forces Christian to sign on falsely accounted records to cover up his aforementioned pocketing of supply funds, steals two pearls given to Byam by Tehani as a gift by claiming he has the legal right to them, orders several men flogged under false accusations of attempted desertion, demands the ship's surgeon attend the flogging despite being ill (which causes him to suffer some kind of stroke and die), and cuts the men's water rations to use that water to preserve the breadfruit.
- Karma Houdini: Even after Byam makes his passionate denunciation of Bligh's foolishness and how his brutality directly caused the mutiny, the worst that seems to happen to Bligh is that the Judge makes a particularly deliberate commentary indicating that he has lost respect for Bligh's abilities as a leader. Bligh goes right back to commanding a new sailing ship.
- Multiple-Choice Past: Bacchus the ship's doctor tells at least two different stories about how he lost his leg, in completely different wars.
- The Mutiny: It's pretty famous.
- Naïve Newcomer: Roger Byam, a complete rookie to life at sea when he's brought on board the boat for his linguistic skills.
- The Neidermeyer: Captain Bligh. He says explicitly that he is cruel to make the men 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.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Clark Gable and Franchot Tone don't really bother to sound British.
- Nubile Savage: The Tahitian women are all very, very good-looking.
- Press-Ganged: 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).
- 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: 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. Christian in turn admits that he wouldn't object to this common practice, if Blight wasn't being needlessly cruel to the men on top of it.
- A Taste of the Lash: An Establishing Character Moment. A sailor being flogged has died before the flogging has been completed. Bligh orders the man with the whip to continue flogging the corpse, which is the first thing to start his crew muttering about his ineptitude as a captain. See above for how this is incorrect. Bligh continues to hand out floggings for every least little infraction.
- Toplessness from the Back: Pushes Fanservice in The '30s as far as it will go when Christian's and Byam's girlfriends come out of the water after a swim.
- 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: Set during the Age of Sail in the late 1700s, and showcases just how harsh Naval discipline could be — and what it could end up costing the incautious captain.