The film retells the 1789 real-life mutiny aboard HMAV Bounty led by Fletcher Christian against the ship's captain, William Bligh. It is the second American film to be made from the novel, the first being Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). It was directed by Lewis Milestone, who replaced Carol Reed early in the production schedule, and it turned out to be Milestone's final film.
Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed in the Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen process, the first motion picture so credited. It was partly shot on location in the South Pacific. Behind the scenes, Marlon Brando effectively took over directing duties himself and caused it to become far behind schedule and over budget — resulting in director Carol Reed pulling out of the project and being replaced by Lewis Milestone who is credited as director of the picture. The film was heavily panned, and was considered a box office bomb, having lost over $6 million.
In the year 1787, the Bounty sets sail from Britain for Tahiti under the command of captain William Bligh (Trevor Howard). Her mission is to transport breadfruit to Jamaica, where hopefully it will thrive and provide a cheap source of food for the slaves.
The voyage gets off to a difficult start with the discovery that some cheese is missing. Bligh, the true pilferer, is accused of the theft by seaman John Mills (Richard Harris), and Bligh has Mills brutally flogged for showing contempt to his superior officer, to the disgust of his patrician second-in-command, 1st Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando). The tone for the months to come is summarized by Bligh's ominous pronouncement that "cruelty with a purpose is not cruelty, it is efficiency." Aristocrat Christian is deeply offended by his ambitious captain.
Bligh attempts to reach Tahiti sooner by attempting the shorter westbound route around Cape Horn, a navigational nightmare. The strategy fails and the Bounty backtracks east, costing the mission much time. Singleminded Bligh attempts to make up the lost time by pushing the crew harder and cutting their rations.