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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. His mother, Sarah Cope (Whitall) Nordhoff, came from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. Nordhoff's grandfather had been a journalist and an author during the Civil War period. 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 Santa Barbara in Southern California. 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.

In 1909-11 Nordhoff worked on his father's sugar plantation in 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 as a pilot. At the end of the war he was commissioned First Lieutenant in the United States Air Service. For his military services Nordhoff was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Nordhoff met James Norman Hall, a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps, in 1916. The friendship led them to publish a book about their flying unit, the Lafayette Escadrille. When they received an advance from Harper's to write travel articles, they moved to Tahiti. Their travel book Faery Lands of the South Seas came out in 1921. 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 semi-autobiographical works. 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 story was based upon factual events which had been almost forgotten, although John Barrow had published 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 wrote 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 Captain Roger Byan in the role of the narrator. 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.

The authors' did not repeat the success of the Bounty trilogy. Nordhoff and Hall published six more co-authored novels, although the last three were largely written by Hall. 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.

For further reading: World Authors 19001950, Vol. 3. ed.  Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed.  Kay Mussell, Alison Light, Aruna Vasudevan (1994); In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story by P.L. Briand (1966)

Selected works:

  • The Fledgling, 1919
  • The Lafayette Flying Corps, 1920 (with J.N. Hall)
  • Faery Lands of the South Seas, 1921 (with J.N. Hall)
  • Picarò, 1924
  • The Pearl Lagoon, 1924
  • The Delerict, 1928
  • Falcon's of France, 1929 (with J.N. Hall)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty, 1932 (with J.N. Hall; also titled: Mutiny!) - Kapina laivassa (suom Anna Talaskivi, 1936) - Film adaptations: 1935, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), screenplay Talbot Jennings and Jules Furthman, dir.  Frank Loyd, starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable; 1962, screenplay Charles Lederer, prod. Arcola Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir.  Lewis Milestone, starring Trevor Howard, Marlon Brando.
  • Men Against Sea, 1933 (with J.N. Hall) - Meren voittajat (suom. T.J. Kivilahti, 1966)
  • Pitcairn's Island, 1934 (with J.N. Hall)
  • The Hurricane, 1936 (with J.N. Hall) - Myrskyn kourissa (suom. Werner Anttila, 1938) - Film adaptations: 1937, prod. Samuel Goldwyn Company, screenplay Dudley Nichols, adaptation Oliver H.P. Garrett, dir.  John Ford, starring Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor, C. Aubrey Smith, and Raymond Massey; 1979 (TV version retitled Forbidden Paradise) , prod. Dino De Laurentiis Company, Famous Films, dir.  Jan Troell, starring Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow.
  • The Dark River, 1938, (with J.N. Hall)
  • No More Gas, 1940 (with J.N. Hall) - Film adaptation: The Tuttles of Tahiti, 1942, prod. Sol Lesser Productions, dir.  Charles Vidor, starring Charles Laughton, Jon Hall, Peggy Drake, Victor Francen. 
  • In Yankee Windjammers / I Served in Windjammers, 1940
  • Botany Bay, 1941 (with J.N. Hall) - Film adaptation 1952, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir.  John Farrow, screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, starring James Mason, Alan Ladd, Patricia Medina, Cedric Hardwicke.
  • Men Without a Country, 1942 (with J.N. Hall) - Film adaptation: Passage to Marseille, 1944, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, screenplay Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt, dir.  Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Michèle Morgan, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Philip Dorn.
  • High Barbaree, 1945 (with J.N. Hall) - Film adaptation 1947, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir.  Jack Conway, starring Van Johnson, June Allyson, Thomas Mitchell, Marilyn Maxwell.
  • The Far Lands, 1950

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