The Hero’s Journey in “Mutiny on the Bounty”

In December of 1787, H.M.S. Bounty lay in Portsmouth harbor in England, on the eve of departure for Tahiti in the uncharted waters of the Great South Sea. Its mission was to procure breadfruit trees for transplanting to the West Indies as cheap food for slaves. But it wouldn’t succeed, thanks to a famous mutiny, inspired by the harshness of 18th century British sea laws and a lack of respect between the officers and crew (and, here, quite a bit of fictional embellishment).

Working for the King’s Navy, Leftenant Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) barges into a pub to conscript six miserable men into a two year stint aboard the Bounty, tearing husbands and fathers from their wives and children. Thomas Ellison (Eddie Quillan) is one such youth, who would rather be flogged than stuck aboard a ship for 24 months … or perhaps doomed never to return home at all. Meanwhile, midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), an effervescent man from a proud, wealthy family, eagerly awaits his task on the very same ship, which involves creating a dictionary of the Tahitian language. A gathering of other salty tars soon climbs aboard the vessel, including a pair of sniveling officers (Dougas Walton as Stewart and Vernon Downing as Hayward); disgruntled thief-turned-seaman Burkitt (Donald Crisp); the ship’s surgeon Bacchus (Dudley Digges), a slurring drunkard; and the bumbling deck-swabber Smith (Herbert Mundin).

But the most significant is the captain, Bligh (Charles Laughton), a corrupt, sadistic, merciless man, so strictly bound by the rules (through which he arbitrarily governs) that he carries out the flogging of a man even after it’s announced that the prisoner has died. A seafaring tyrant, Bligh is the kind of guy who makes his crew watch the flogging of a dead man, deeming the lashing necessary as a statement of punishment. His character is defined in two quotes, the first to Christian: “They respect but one law: the law of fear. … I’m not interested in what you think. I expect you to carry out whatever orders I give, whenever I give them.” Later, he gives the rest of the crew an order: “The ship’s company will remember that I am your captain, your judge, and your jury. You do your duty and we may get along. Whatever happens, you’ll do your duty.”

Fed up with such hard-ass punishment, as well as a lack of supplies and food rations, Christian finally confronts the captain over his tactics, prompting Bligh’s famous quip, “You mutinous dog!” Soon after, Christian defies Bligh’s authority with a romantic encounter on the island of Tahiti, and once back on board, rallies the crew to overthrow Bligh in an act punishable by hanging should they ever stand trial. But the act is deemed a moral necessity by Christian, now in command of the Bounty.

As for Bligh and his loyal followers, they are set out to drift in an open sailboat, at which point Lloyd intercuts Christian’s island adventures with Bligh’s quest for survival, a successful journey later called “the most remarkable conduct of navigation in the history of the sea.” Bligh’s survival causes him to proclaim, “We’ve beaten the sea itself,” and he gains control of a new ship, the Pandora, with a new goal in mind: tracking down the mutineers, retaking the Bounty and sending Christian to the gallows: “As long as I have a deck under me, I’ll search for that man.”

It’s at such moments of Bligh’s courage and ambition, when he plays the underdog survivalist, that he is the most admirable. After all, it’s he and he alone that envisions the safe survival of his exiled crew, a promise he makes good on even after cutting his rations (told in a montage of diary entries, counting the days: 27th, 39th, 45th…). But the film only shows shades of this side of Bligh’s character, overall painting him as one cruel bastard. This is the narrative choice to which some scholars take exception, pointing out the historical inaccuracies in the fact that the real William Bligh was not the full-evil man he is made out to be in the film.


Laughton would be widely praised for his performance (and, indeed, it’s an iconic role), but the character is a one-note entity. Likewise, Christian and Byam are largely interchangeable heroes, concerned with righteousness and the wellbeing of others, ultimately devoid of the change that a more complex persona might adopt. From the start, they’re against Bligh’s methods, so they don’t have far to go when it comes to mutiny. Had they been designed to respect and uphold British laws wholeheartedly at the start, it might have been a more poignant, challenging stretch to see them relinquish the rules for some semblance of justice. Even when Byam pushes back against the usurpation, it’s not convincing. Christian and Byam also gain romantic counterparts (Tahitian girls Maimiti and Tehani), though these additions don’t alter their personalities or behaviors; they’re still unwaveringly upright and perpetually battling Bligh’s cruelty.

The story proceeds to cover Bligh’s miraculous deliverance, as well as the mutineers’ island getaway, though the further endeavors of Bligh only serve to infuriate, especially as the men faithful to the King’s Navy are rewarded with duplicated acts of despotism. In the end, the journey feels epic, aided by an easy contrivance that keeps the picture moderately upbeat, but the historical impact of the Bounty’s plight is glossed over by words rather than satisfying action against the visualized villain at the helm.