Brow Beat

Trump’s Mutiny on the Bounty Tweet, Explained

The president seems to think the tyrannical Capt. Bligh is the hero.

Capt. Bligh stands in the foreground, looking self-satisfied, as a Brando’s Fletcher Christian looks on skeptically
Capt. Bligh (Trevor Howard) and Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) in Mutiny on the Bounty. Warner Home Video

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

So why are we talking about Mutiny on the Bounty all of a sudden?

Donald Trump, who is our president, referenced the movie in a tweet this morning, which reads: “Tell the Democrat Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

What is he talking about?

Trump seems to be referencing the attempts by the Democratic governors of states like California, Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania to assert that the authority to end stay-at-home orders and end the coronavirus lockdown is theirs and theirs alone, in contradiction to Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he has “total authority” over the states in that regard.

Advertisement

What does that have to do with Mutiny on the Bounty?

Good question! Mutiny on the Bounty is based on the true story of a mutiny that took place aboard the HMS Bounty in April of 1789 (the same year the U.S. Constitution on which Trump seems so fuzzy came into force). As described in historical accounts, the 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and the Oscar-winning 1935 movie, the ship’s commander, William Bligh, was a tempestuous and paranoid man. In the Hollywood version, which has been remade numerous times, Bligh is also a brutal disciplinarian, ordering men flogged to death and keelhauled—an often fatal punishment in which sailors were dragged underwater from one side of the ship to the other—for minor infractions. In the 1962 remake, Bligh steals cheese from the ship’s stores, and when he is accused of the theft by one of his sailors, has the man flogged. At dinner in his quarters, Bligh, played by Trevor Howard, explains his reasoning to his second in command, Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando).

Advertisement
Advertisement

The “typical seaman,” Bligh tells Christian, is “a half-witted, wife-beating, habitual drunkard,” and the only thing that will keep him in line, especially when it means risking his own safety for the sake of the ship, is fear—“fear of punishment so vivid in his mind that he fears it even more than sudden death.” Flogging a man for questioning his superior officer is indeed excessive, even cruel. But, Bligh concludes, “Cruelty with purpose is not cruelty. It’s efficiency.” (One might even say the cruelty is the point.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

So … what does that have to do with Donald Trump?

Also a good question! The answer is, quite possibly, nothing. Although Trump claims that Mutiny is “one of my all time favorite movies,” there’s no apparent record of him having mentioned it before this morning, and the language of the tweet—“an exciting and invigorating thing to watch”—is just elaborate enough to raise that doubt that Trump wrote it himself. But stipulating that a) Trump has seen the movie and b) he wrote the tweet himself, he would seem to be likening himself to Bligh, who, at least in every filmed version of the story, is its villain. In fact, the American Film Institute named Charles Laughton’s Capt. Bligh, from the 1935 version, the 19th greatest villain of all time, one after the shark from Jaws.

Advertisement

Trump has shown a truly heroic ability to misread movies in the past, notably Citizen Kane, whose moral he concluded was “Get yourself a different woman.” And it’s not hard to imagine him identifying with Bligh, a high-handed authoritarian who demands that his subordinates obey his every command, even when it means committing outright fraud. But Bligh was overthrown, and though a contemporary trial cleared his name and the mutineers were hanged, his name has become synonymous with paranoia and despotism. Bligh is, in short, a loser, and thus a pretty darn odd person for Trump to cite in a bring-it-on boast to Democratic governors.

Advertisement
Advertisement

If there’s a logic behind the tweet at all—and it’s likely that, in writing this, I have put more thought into the comparison than any of the people behind it—it may be in tying the governors’ assertion of their rightful authority to the word mutiny, and to the only reference point most people have for it. It may not matter to Trump that Bligh lost, if he even knows that much. It may be simply that Bligh is famous. Better the 19th-best villain of all time than some well-meaning chump no one’s ever heard of.

Advertisement