Saturday, May 26, 2012

I'll See You Hanged, You Mutinous Dogs!

Sometimes all writers have to do is get out of a story's way. 

On April 28, 1789 an incident occurred about 1300 miles west of Tahiti in the South Pacific that has been a part popular culture ever since, inspiring poems, novels, movies, and countless cultural references.

The incident?  A mutiny on board His Majesty's Ship Bounty.

My favorite version of this story is a trilogy of novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  They are called, Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn's Island and are often referred to as The Bounty Trilogy.  Several of the movies are based off of this version.

These novels brilliantly focus on the personalities and the relationship of two men, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and Captain William Bligh.

In the first novel, Mutiny on the Bounty, Nordhoff and Hall tell the story from the point of view of a fictional midshipman named Roger Byam in the form of an old man reminiscing.  Dickens used the same setup for David Copperfield.

It takes us through the evolution of the mutiny, the mutiny itself, and the fate of those mutineers and loyalists dropped off at Tahiti.

Both Christian and Bligh are rounded characters, both with virtues and flaws, and it was the colliding of the flaws that sparked the mutiny.

The novel doesn't take sides, and when I first read it as a teenager, I was disappointed that the novel didn't favor Christian since he overthrew a tyrannical captain.  It took a couple of more readings for me to realize that while Bligh was a tyrant, he was a legal tyrant and not substantially worse than many sea captains of the day.

Had Christian possessed the courage to endure, lives would have been saved.  From one point of view, Christian was a crybaby and Bligh was the hero.  And that takes us to the second book, Men Against the Sea.

This short novel shows the fate of Bligh and the 18 men who accompanied him in the 23 foot launch with little food and water, no charts or compass.  He lead them to the Timor in the Dutch East Indies, a journey of over 3,600 miles with only one casualty, though five more died in the months after.

Without question, historically or in this fictional depiction, the incredible journey shows the best of Captain Bligh, brilliantly leading desperate men through a desperate situation.

Pitcairn's Island shows the fate of Christian and the people, crew and Tahitian men and women.  This is the darkest of the three novels by far.  They did not fare well on this little island in the beginning.  Christian himself was murdered in 1793.  But the novel does show how those who survived the insurgences created a melancholy, but peaceful home for themselves.

Nordhoff and Hall make few judgments unsupported by the facts.  They leave everything to the reader, and I love that.

So what do I think? 

I can tell you what I think today.  Things could change tomorrow.

Captain Bligh's picture appears next to the word Tartar ("a person of irrational and/or violent temper"). 

Fletcher Christian defines the term "self-pitying."

Bligh was a born leader.

Christian cared deeply about humanity and civility.

Two flawed men collided over two hundred years ago, and the story is still told today.

One fact left out of many of the accounts is that Christian had twice sailed with Bligh to Jamaica.

Makes it all the more tragic, it seems.  Both should have known the other better.

Rumors persisted that Christian may have faked the murder and made his way from Pitcairn's Island back to England.  This rumor supposedly inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge's classic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

If you get the chance, read these novels.  At least check out one of the movies.  My favorite is the 1935 version called Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable as Christian and Charles Laughton as Bligh (pictured above).  But The Bounty with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh is also fantastic.

For many reasons this haunting tale is one of my favorites.