The Bounty Trilogy, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Second paragraph of third chapter of Mutiny on the Bounty:

A month sounds an age to be crowded with more than forty other men on board a small vessel at anchor most of the time, but I was making the acquaintance of my shipmates, and so keen on learning my new duties that the days were all too short. The Bounty carried six midshipmen, and, since we had no schoolmaster, as is customary on a man-of-war, Lieutenant Bligh and the master divided the duty of instructing us in trigonometry, nautical astronomy, and navigation. I shared with Stewart and Young the advantage of learning navigation under Bligh, and in justice to an officer whose character in other respects was by no means perfect, I must say that there was no finer seaman and navigator afloat at the time. Both of my fellow midshipmen were men grown: George Stewart of a good family in the Orkneys, a young man of twenty-three or four, and a seaman who had made several voyages before this: and Edward Young, a stout, salty-looking fellow, with a handsome face marred by the loss of nearly all his front teeth. Both of them were already very fair navigators, and I was hard put to it not to earn the reputation of a dunce.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Men Against the Sea:

As I looked about me I was reminded of certain lonely coves I had seen along the Cornish coast, on just such nights, and I found it hard to realize how vast an ocean separated us from home.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Pitcairn’s Island:

Although the Bounty’s stores had been shared with the mutineers who remained on Tahiti, there was still a generous amount on board: casks of spirits, salt beef and pork, dried peas and beans, an abundant supply of clothing, kegs of powder and nails, iron for blacksmith work, lead for musket balls, and the like. There were also fourteen muskets and a number of pistols. The livestock consisted of half a dozen large crates of fowls, twenty sows, two of which had farrowed during the voyage, five boars, and three goats. The island being small, it was decided to free both the fowls and the animals and let them fend for themselves until the work of house-building was under way.

The Bounty trilogy by Nordmann and Hall was the basis of the Oscar-winning movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, particularly the first of the three books (a few scenes are taken from the second and third). As mentioned previously, I have read several other treatments of the story (and found David Silverman’s 1967 Pitcairn Island on the shelves the other day), but not for quite a long time, so the 1935 film was the freshest in my mind.

The three books are pretty distinct. The first, Mutiny on the Bounty, is narrated by Byam, the fictional midshipman played by Franchot Tone in the film; the Bligh of the book is if anything even more monstrous than the Bligh of the film, and the confusion of the mutiny itself – a ten-minute spurt of late-night impulse which had long-lasting effects – better conveyed. The Tahitians are referred to invariably as “Indians”, but otherwise treated as a dignified culture which the English sailors disrupt by their presence; the only cannibal joke is directed against the cheapskate purveyors of Portsmouth, who allegedly look out for black sailors to add to their mix.

However, it’s an anti-Semitic novel – an aspect completely dropped from the film. At Spithead, when we first encounter the Bounty, “sharp-faced Jews, in their wherries, hovered alongside, eager to lend money at interest against pay day, or to sell on credit the worthless trinkets on their trays” and the second in command declares that “I’d like to sink the lot of those Jews”. Samuel, Bligh’s clerk, is described as “a smug, tight-lipped little man, of a Jewish cast of countenance” and later explicitly as “a London Jew”. In fact, the real Samuel appears to have been from Edinburgh, where a George Samuel was a burgess in 1699; so this anti-Semitism is entirely gratuitously introduced to the historical record by Nordhoff and Hall. (As indeed are many of Bligh’s portrayed acts of tyranny.)

Given what is said about so many historical characters, it’s a bit odd that Nordhoff and Hall chose to disguise the real midshipman Peter Heywood as the fictional Alexander Byam.

One of the shock moments in the film is that when the Pandora comes to Tahiti to arrest the mutineers, it turns out that Bligh is in command. In the book, as in history, he was by then on another assignment elsewhere. Otherwise the film sticks pretty closely to the book.

I read Men Against the Sea during a particularly insomniac night; it’s the shortest of the three books, told in the voice of the (historical) surgeon’s mate of the Bounty, Thomas Ledward, explaining the epic 41-day, 6,500 km journey taken by Bligh and 18 others in an 7-metre long open boat from the site of the mutiny (near Tofua, one of the Tonga islands) to Kupang at the western end of Timor, avoiding the potentially hostile shores of Australia and other islands – one man was killed at the very beginning, on Tofua. It is an extraordinary feat of navigation, and Nordhoff and Hall succeed in spinning it out; the internal tensions among the 18 survivors are easy to imagine and well portrayed. The impact of their ordeal on the men’s digestive systems also is a disturbing but reasonable detail. Interestingly, Samuel is portrayed here as just another crew member; the previous book’s anti-Semitism has disappeared. The book ends with Ledward taking his leave of Bligh, who is on his way back to London. In real life, Ledward was one of the five crewmen who died very soon after they reached Batavia (where they all went shortly after arriving in Timor).

Pitcairn’s Island, unlike the other two volumes, has no narrator, apart from the last three chapters which are told by Alexander Smith aka John Adams. Of the fifteen men (nine English and six Tahitians) who landed at Pitcairn in 1789, he was the only survivor when the island was eventually discovered by the American ship Topaz in 1808; Smith/Adams himself gave several different accounts of what had happened during the remaining two decades of his life, and one of the women who moved there in 1789 eventually returned to Tahiti and gave her own account. It’s a messy story of violence, alcoholism, and sexual confusion, in an earthly paradise – Pitcairn has the natural resources to support a couple of hundred inhabitants, but even so the small settlement disintegrated fatally.

Nordhoff and Hall dramatise some parts – Fletcher Christian here lives for a few agonising days after the inevitable killing starts, whereas most historical accounts agree that he was one of the first to die – and undersell others – I would very much like someone to write the story from the Tahitian women’s perspective, given that they outnumbered the men by three to one after the first spate of killings, and by twelve to one from 1800 when the second last mutineer died. It’s also striking that the society was a very young one – Fletcher Christian was 24 when the mutiny took place, and 28 when he was killed; the other mutineers (and presumably the Tahitian men and women they brought with them to Pitcairn) must have been mostly the same age or even younger. Nordhoff and Hall fall back on the clichés of the veteran tars, the unsophisticated “Indians” or “Maori”, and their statesmanlike leader, rather than the possible truth of the confused young men and women in an extraordinary situation. But the moment of discovery of the island by the Topaz is particularly well done, and is almost worth the read in itself.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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