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A Mutiny on Many Levels   (January 12, 2006)

The 1935 film classic Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton is at first glance a rousing sea yarn of a dutiful crew driven to rebellion by an injust, cruel oppressor, Captain Bligh. But the tale as told by the film is little more than fantasy; the truth is much stranger and sadder.

A careful survey of historical records shows that Captain Bligh, who the film portrays as remorselessly punishing the crew in the name of iron discipline, was in reality much less inclined to mete out flogging than other captains of the era.

If Bligh wasn't the meanest S.O.B. in the British fleet, then why set him up as Evil Incarnate? The reason, it seems, is to reveal Bligh's cruelty as that of the entire system. A written intro establishes a quasi-political tone from the first, introducing the story as the event which catalyzed British Navy discipline for the better, enabling "free men" to defend Brittania's dominance of the sea.

A stirring narrative, undoubtedly, but doesn't it seem rather odd that a Hollywood feature would go to such lengths to cast the story as a larger tale of an injust system set to rights by a rebellion of "loyal and true" subordinates? Could this story have less to do with Bligh and Fletcher Christian than Depression-Era America, a nation in the grips of a system rife with injustices, a system that was clearly failing its citizenry?

In another interesting subtext, the movie shows lower-class men pressed into service--basically enslaved--while upper-class men join as idealistic officers. In the final court scenes, it is the upper-class young man--though loyal to Captain Bligh, he was left behind on Tahiti due to the overloading of the longboat Bligh was cast adrift in--who gives the court-martial an impassioned speech on the injustices of British Navy discipline. His speech makes the mutiny seem less an emotional outburst than an inevitable rising-up against injustice, a rebellion which swept up upper- and lower-class men alike.

There is more than a little noblesse oblige in this depiction of class; the unfortunate lower-class men are helpless against the oppressive system, and so it falls to the noble upper-class men to speak truth to power and set things right. And unlike a movie about striking working-class American miners, this mutiny for justice and fairness lies safely in the past.

As for true story behind the mutiny, I refer you to an authoritative website The Bounty Chronicles. The true underpinnings of the mutiny lie less in overarching injustices--though there were injustices aplenty in the British Navy, to be sure--than in Bligh's favoritism for Fletcher Christian. Bligh promoted Christian from seaman to officer on a previous command, and then promoted him over more experienced officers to second-in-command on the Bounty. On the voyage out to Tahiti, Bligh made no complaints against Christian in his logs; yet within days of leaving Tahiti, Bligh accused Christian of stealing his own horde of coconuts and a wild array of other misdemeanors.

Bligh, it appears, was in love with Fletcher Christian. After awarding Christian the plum task of living ashore in Tahiti, overseeing the collection of breadfruit plants, Bligh was mortified and then angered as only the heart-broken can be to find Christian succumbing rather freely to the openly sexual Tahitian women. Though no evidence of a sexual relationship between Bligh and Christian exists, it seems obvious that theirs was a "special friendship," one that Bligh felt was violated by Christian's enjoyment of the Tahitian ladies.

And so he took his revenge in petty accusations and harrassment, making Fletcher's life a pure, inescapable Hell. Christian's plan was to jump ship on a makeshift raft, but in an spontaneous, highly charged outburst, he and those anxious to return to the Paradise of Tahiti took the ship.

The film was accurate in one regard: the crew was very evenly divided between those who remained loyal to Captain Bligh, or at least to the discipline of the Navy, and those who joined the mutineers. Whatever injustices reigned were not severe enough to turn more than half the ship's company to mutiny--an interesting fact to ponder while watching this entertaining classic.

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copyright © 2006 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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