The New York Times tells us that Atlantic-Little, Brown plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Bounty Trilogy" by republishing it next October. The question is: Why? (Oh, I know the answer: to make money.)
Although my lifetime consumption of junk historical fiction is considerable, it is insufficient to let me state categorically that the famous collaboration of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall wins the All-American cup for traducing the truth, but I am nevertheless confident that it is among the top contenders.
Granted, it was the movie (with Charles Laughton as the despicable monster, Captain Bligh, Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, the noble and self- sacrificing leader of the mutineers, and Franchot Tone as the winsome innocent caught up in near-tragedy) that disseminated the phony message even more widely and convincingly than the book. But the movie was faithful to the book, whereas the book was faithful only to the authors' dream version of the mutiny on His Majesty's frigate Bounty and, no doubt, to their shrewd calculation of what would make a best- seller.
If that most notorious of all mutinies at sea (in 1789, some 400 miles southeast of the Fiji Islands), lies almost two centuries in the past, its documentation remains abundant and quite adequate for determining the essential truth. Dozens of historians and biographers have bent themselves to the task, among them Gavin Kennedy, whose book, "Bligh," published four years ago, is the most recent, the most scholarly and the most persuasive.
From that research there emerges not "the Bounty Bastard" of earlier British navy tradition, not the tyrant, brute and sadist against whom any mutinous act could be forgiven, but a more complex and therefore more believable all-too-human figure.
A magnificent seaman and navigator, Bligh was almost obsessively protective of his crew when the going was tough, but was singularly inept and unappealing in trouble-free times and placid seas. His achievement in bringing 17 loyal members of the Bounty's crew set adrift with him, in an open boat on a 3,900-mile voyage, safely to Timor in the Dutch East Indies remains unrivalled in maritime history.
He endeared himself to Nelson for his skill and bravery as a captain in the Napoleonic Wars. But his raging, intolerable and sometimes close to irrational outbursts of temper flawed the character of a man of integrity and intense loyalty to king and country.
Fletcher Christian, that patient and saintly martyr suffering under Bligh's insane lash, turns out to have been an emotionally unbalanced 24-year-old with a politically powerful family in Britain which set out to vindicate him by the exercise of gifted, if deceitful, lobbying and propagandizing.
Although in maturity Peter Heywood became a splendid officer and skilled naval surveyor, at the time of the mutiny and his return to London for court martial he was a silly, womanizing boy and a vindictive and malicious liar.
To be sure, in "Pitcairn Island," the third volume of the trilogy, Nordhoff and Hall tell of the mayhem and tragic end of the mutineers on their hoped- for (and subsequently much romanticized) Shangri-La. What they do not make clear is that Christian's and his fellow mutineers' behavior there was of unmatched brutality, bloodiness and insanity. They, not Bligh, were murderers and the villains of the story.
Between the work of Christian's family in England and the deft sea- lawyers among those mutineers who were captured and brought home for trial, Bligh's name was marvelously blackened. It is likely to remain black as doddering fools of my antiquity remain who have seen that gripping film and who have read that wonderfully narrated, riveting concoction of Nordhoff and Hall. One could have hoped, however, that when that deluded generation dies off, as must happen relatively soon, perspective would be regained.
But now the book is to be reissued and another generation or two seduced into the Land of Hokum. For, with the publicity that may be expected, the new edition will doubtlessly sell as abundantly (and make as much money) as the original. Ah well, mundus vult decipi.
In fairness to the movie, a final word is needed bearing on one accurate element in it. The New Yorker magazine reported many years ago that when Laughton set about playing the role of the Bounty Bastard, he first made his way to Gieves, the great London military outfitters. "Do you have a record of a uniform you made for a certain Lieutenant William Bligh?" he asked. "No doubt, sir," a veteran of the firm replied, "about when would that have been?" "In the first half of the 1780s," Laughton said.
Unperturbed, the employee disappeared into the recesses of the store, soon to emerge with a large and very dusty order book. Opened to the appropriate page, it showed the order and gave the specifications in detail. Laughton had the uniform reproduced to his ample measure.