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Film / Mutiny on the Bounty

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"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

Mutiny on the Bounty is the name given to two films telling the story of the famous mutiny aboard HMS Bounty.note  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 box-office flop, although it too got a Best Picture nomination.

Both films tell the true story of the mutiny. In 1789, the small British naval ship HMS Bounty 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.


Both of these films are actually adaptations 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. While the films mostly stick with the first book and the mutiny itself, the novel series continues the story. Book 2 focuses on Bligh and his loyalists voyaging to Timor in an open boat, and book 3 dramatizes the orgy of violence that destroyed the mutineers' colony on Pitcairn Island.

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.
  • 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 within a few years two mutineers were the only men left alive. One of them later died of natural causes, leaving only one mutineer alive, along with a bunch of women and children, 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, where Tahiti's friendly natives and his easy life are contrasted against both the harsh, demanding life aboard a deep-sea ship and the deliberate cruelty of Bligh.
  • Heroic Dimples: Fletcher Christian, in both versions.
  • 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 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: In the 1935 film, 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.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The fate of the mutineers. While they succeed in their mutiny and steal the Bounty and get to Tahiti, pretty much all of them end up dying painful deaths while Bligh and the men he was put to sea with managed to all survive.
  • 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.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Roger Byam, in the 1935 version 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 both films, 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, 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 denounce 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.
    • Christian actually wasn't responsible for the burning of the Bounty. It was burned by mutineer Matthew Quintal (who was a violent drunk), who decided that the debates about what exactly to do about the ship (the mutineers couldn't decide whether to scuttle the ship or continue sailing, looking for a safer place to lay low from the Royal Navy) were a waste of time. Christian was actually furious at Quintal's unilateral decision, but it didn't cost Christian his life.
  • 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, which is the first thing to start his crew muttering about his ineptitude as a captain. See above for how this is incorrect.
  • Toplessness from the Back:
    • The 1935 film 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.
    • The 1962 film pushes Fanservice in The '60s 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.
  • 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.