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||Charles (Bernard) Nordhoff ( 1887-1947)|
American novelist and writer of adventure and travel books. Charles Nordhoff wrote with his friend James Norman Hall a three-volume novel about the famous eighteenth-century mutiny, in which the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty, a British war vessel, arose against their cruel commander, Captain William Bligh. The story of Bligh and Fletcher Christian, the mutineer on the Bounty, has been adapted for screen in 1935, 1962, and 1984.
"Never, perhaps, in the history of the sea has a captain performed a feat more remarkable than Mr. Bligh's, in navigating a small, open, and unarmed boat-but twenty-three long, and so heavily laden that she was in constant danger of foundering-from the Friendly Islands to Timor, a distance of three thousand, six hundred miles, through groups of islands inhabited ferocious savages, and across a vast uncharted ocean." (in Men Against Sea, 1933)
Charles Nordhoff was born in London, England, of American
parents, the son of Walter Nordhoff, and Sarah Cope (Whitall) Nordhoff,
who came from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. Nordhoff's
grandfather, a Prussian immigrant, had been a journalist and an
author during the Civil War period. A firm believer in the American
Dream, he regarded the sunny Southern California as his utopia. Walter
was a businessman, who published a novel, The Journey of the Flame
(1933), under the pseudonym Antonio de Fierro Blanco.
In his early childhood Nordhoff moved with his family to the United States. Most of his youth Nordhoff spent on his father's ranch near Ensenada, Baja California. (The drought-prone ranch was never a success.) At the age of fifteen Nordhoff published his first article in a ornithological journal. He attended Stanford University for a year, but transferred to Harvard University, receiving his B.A. in 1909.
Between 1909-11, Nordhoff worked on his father's sugar
Mexico. From 1911 to 1916 he was a secretary and a treasurer at the
Tile and Fine Brick Company in California. During WW I he served as an
ambulance driver in France and later after pilot training he was sent
to the front for duty with Escadrille N.99. At the end of the war
he was commissioned First Lieutenant in the United States Air Service
in Paris. For his military services Nordhoff was awarded the Croix de
Guerre. While serving in France, he published a series of
articles,'Letters from the Front,' in the Atlantic Monthly. Nordhoff's
reminiscences about the Field Service was collected in a book entitled The Fledgling (1919).
Nordhoff met James Norman Hall, a member of the Lafayette
Corps, in 1916. Both served in France, but they didn't know each other
and met only after the Armistice. The friendship led them
to publish a book about their flying unit, the
Escadrille Lafayette. Originally the two-volume history was initiated
by Edmund L. Gros, an American doctor practicing in Paris and chief of
the Liaison Section, United States Air Service, who hired the
writers to edit a stack of personal and official documents. Gros had
also helped to form the flying unit and suggested the name Escadrille
Lafayette which replaced the previous Escadrille des Voluntaires.
When Nordhoff and Hall received an advance from Harper's to write travel articles, they moved to Tahiti. Enthralled by its beauty they wrote in the travel book Faery Lands of the South Seas (1921) that "one can't be wholly matter of fact in writing of these islands. They are not real in the ordinary sense, but belong, rather, to the realm of the imagination." Remaining in Tahiti, Nordhoff married Pepe Teara, who was a Polynesian; they had four daughters and two sons.
"I never met Nordhoff and am not sure he was living in Tahiti during my various trips, and, except for that terse comment about name order, I never heard Hall speak about him; I judged that he was fed up with visitors who wanted to discuss aspects of their collaboration, one of the most famous in history." (James Michener in The World Is My Home, 1992)
On his own, Nordhoff wrote three novels in the 1920s. Picarò (1924) was based on his flying experience and life in Paris. The Pearl Lagoon (1924) and The Derelict (1928) were adventure books for boys furnished with semi-autobiographical details. Will Cuppy considerd the latter a "superior adventure." Falcons of France (1929) was again jointly written by Nordhoff and Hall.
At Hall's suggestion the Nordhoff-Hall team began to work on Mutiny
on the Bounty
(1932), about Captain William Bligh, and the charismatic Fletcher
Christian, second-in-command of the vessel. The manuscript was
completed in a Papeete hotel, where the writers met daily.
The story was based upon factual events which had been almost forgotten, although John Barrow had released in 1831 an account of the mutiny, entitled The Mutiny & Piratical Seizure of H.M.S.Bounty, which included the journal of James Morrison, the Boatswain's Mate of the Bounty. Morrison published his journal in England, to defend the mutineers. According to a popular belief, Bligh's inhumanity turned out to be more than the usual tyranny of the captain, but the official Bounty logbook shows, that he did not use the whip often on his men.
The authors decided to put a fictional Captain Roger Byam in the role of the narrator; in part the character was based on Peter Heywood. He had been a midshipman on the Bounty when the ship proceeded upon orders to collect a cargo of breadfruit trees from Tahiti for an experimental transplantion in the West Indies. On the morning of April 28, 1789, the mutiny broke out near the present-day Tonga. Lieutenat Bligh was set adrift in the ship's launch. "I'll take my chances against the law," says Clark Gable (Christian) to Charles Laughton (Bligh) in the 1935 film, "you'll take yours against the sea." The second part, Men against the Sea (1933), focused on Bligh and his eighteen loyalists, and their 3,618-mile safe return on an open longboat from the island of Tofoa to Timor, in the Dutch East Indies. Pitcairn's Island (1934) recounted Christian's journey to an uncharted Pacific island and the later history of the crew members. The last of them were finally discovered in 1808, living peacefully on the island now inhabitated by their descendants. Nordhoff did not visit the island, but Hall made a voyage there in 1933.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) is an entertaining adventure film, starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. "Casting me adrift 3,500 miles from a port of call! You're sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you're wrong, Christian. I'll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I'll live to see you - all of you - hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet..." (Charles Laughton as Bligh). Oscar winner for Best Picture; it is also considered one of Gable's best performances. However, the actor had many problems - he had to shave off his mustache and wear wigs and knickers. Laughton obtained exact copies of naval uniforms from Bligh's own surviving London tailor shop. Most of the filming was made off Santa Catalina Island, but much background footage was shot in Tahitian villages. The ships were copies of the original pair, the HMS Bounty and HMS Pandora. Movita Castaneda, who played the chief's daughter romantically attached to Gable, was later married to Marlon Brando, starring as Christian in the 1962 remake, Mutiny on the Bounty. This was a troubled project, in which Lewis Milestone replaced Carol Reed - scenes also reputedly shot by Andrew Marton, George Seaton, Richard Thorpe, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. However, also this adaptation has its good moments. To create good relationships between the Navy and Pacific natives Trevor Howard tells Brando to make love to Chief Hitihiti's daughter. Brando asks "Is that an order, sir? Might I have it entered in a log?" and continues tongue-in-cheek: "You see, it is a rather different thing than being asked to fight for one's country." The film ends in Brando's overlong death scene. - The Bounty (1984), directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. William Bligh is summoned before a court martial to explain the events leading up to the mutiny. Spectacular score by Bronislau Kaper. This production did not have much to do with the Nordhoff-Hall books. "A historical accuracy was the strong suit of this third remake of the famed mutiny story... A steel-hulled boat cost $4 million to convert into an exact replica of the ninety-foot HMS Bounty. Among thousands of Tahitian extras employed, many of the otherwise beautiful women had had bad teeth or none, so new dentures numbered among the many location expenses; after a day's work, the teeth were collected to insure the women's return to the next day (they finally got to keep them)." (in Retakes by John Eastman, 1989) All these Hollywood films portrayed Bligh in a negative light. Actually, he was not a sadistic tyrant.
Nordhoff and Hall's
novel came out at the height of the Great
Depression, and turned out to be a runaway success for its publishers.
Set in a different period of history, in an exotic location, Mutiny on the Bounty
offered a glimpse into another world, but it also told an uplifting
story of survival and a new beginning. Book-of-the-Month Club
subscribers were informed that the
writers were "two young Americans, let down and disillusioned by the
war in which they were aviators" and they had "left this disturbing
civilization." ('HMAV Bounty
and the Great Depression,' in The
South Seas: A Reception History from
Daniel Defoe to Dorothy Lamour by Sean Brawley and Chris Dixon,
2015, p. 222) The Australian historian Greg Dening has estimated that twenty-five million people read the book in the three years following its publication. (Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty by Greg Dening, 1992, p. 355) In the United States, the novel
benefited significantly from its status as a Book-of-the-Month Club
selection and serialization in the Saturday
Nordhoff and Hall published six more co-authored novels, although the last three were largely written by Hall. They did not repeat the popularity of the Bounty trilogy. Several of these books were adapted for screen. Hurricane (1936) inspired John Ford's film of 1937, starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. The story was set on the isle of Manikoora, where the evil French colonial governor brutally rules an island paradise, but cannot rule the forces of nature. The climatic hurricane sequence was staged by second-unit director James Basevi with the help of associate director Stuart Heisler. Its special effects were unequalled for decades. Otherwise the production was hampered by phoney studio settings, and the screenwriter Ben Hecht summarized his feelings when he saw its footage: "I think it stinks." Hecht wrote new dialogue scenes that Ford passively shot. The story was remade in 1979. Dino de Laurentiis's production, starring Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow, and Trevor Howard, was considered by critics a failure. No More Gas (1940), a family story, was filmed in 1942 under the title The Tuttles of Tahiti, and Botany Bay (1941), a historical melodrama, in 1952. Hall and Nordhoff repeated the confrontation between a sadistic captain and his young opponent. This time the action was set on a convict ship. Michael Curtiz's Passage to Marseille, starring Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains and Michele Morgan, was based on the novelette Men Without Country (1942), about convicts who escape from the prison colony of French Guinea to join the Free French forces. The studio delayed the release of the movie until February of 1944. Peter Lorre played "the worst rogue of the lot," who, nevertheless, dies for the cause.
In 1941 Nordhoff had a divorce and he moved to California where he married in 1941 Laura Grainger Whiley. Following a severe depression and heavy drinking, Nordhoff committed suicide on April 10, 1947. He left behind an unfinished novel, written in collaboration with Tod Ford. "If I had my life to live over again, I should do the necessary groundwork and become a professional anthropologist," Nordhoff once said. "All my life I have loved shooting, fishing, sailing or traveling through the wild country alone or with a single companion."
For further reading: 'HMAV Bounty and the Great Depression,' in The South Seas: A Reception History from Daniel Defoe to Dorothy Lamour by Sean Brawley and Chris Dixon (2015); World Authors 19001950, Vol. 3. ed. Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War by Arlen Hansen (1996); Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed. Kay Mussell, Alison Light, Aruna Vasudevan (1994); Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty by Greg Dening (1992); In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story by P.L. Briand (1966)