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What Trump’s bizarre love of Mutiny on the Bounty actually reveals about him

The president is the archetypal “bad fan.”

On the left, Donald Trump; on the right, Charles Laughton in the 1935 movie version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; MGM Inc./MoMA Film Stills Archive, New York City
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Donald Trump’s taste in films is not much of a secret. In 2012, he gave Movieline a list of his five favorite movies: Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. After complaining about Parasite’s Oscar wins at a campaign rally just two months ago, he mused, “Can we get, like, Gone with the Wind back, please? Sunset Boulevard? So many great movies.”

Now he’s added another favorite film to the list. On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted his love for Mutiny on the Bounty:

“Tell the Democrat Governors that Mutiny On The Bounty was one of my all time favorite movies,” the president wrote. “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!”

Presumably, Trump was responding to two announcements on Monday from several Democratic governors in the Northeast and on the West Coast. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that he and the governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Rhode Island were working together to “plan a safe and coordinated reopening” of their states’ businesses and systems following weeks of pandemic-related shutdowns. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a similar pact between himself and the governors of California and Oregon.

Trump’s tweet is fairly obviously an attempt to attach the rebellious and conspiratorial concept of a “mutiny” to these governors’ coordinated efforts; he insisted the same day in two additional tweets that only the federal government and the president are allowed to “open up the states” (which is not true). And at a press conference on Monday, he falsely insisted that he has the “ultimate authority” to override individual states’ protective measures against the pandemic.

As others have been quick to point out, Trump’s tweet reveals his understanding of Mutiny on the Bounty to be limited at best. Trump didn’t say which of the five versions of the story is one of his “all time favorite movies.” It’s probably not the first, a silent film made in 1916, which has been lost to the sands of time. It’s probably also not the second, a 1933 film called In the Wake of the Bounty, which marked Errol Flynn’s screen debut. But Trump could have been referring to the 1935 Charles Laughton-Clark Gable version, which won Best Picture at the 1936 Oscars. Or he might have meant the 1962 version starring Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando. It’s even possible he was talking about the 1984 film The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

Nonetheless, it seems clear the president doesn’t really grasp the plot. Mutiny on the Bounty, in brief, is based on an actual mutiny that took place in 1787, when a ship called HMS Bounty was sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants, to grow in the West Indies to feed enslaved people in the colonies.

The ship’s captain, William Bligh, was reportedly a cruel, hubristic, paranoid commander, and he treated his first mate, a man named Fletcher Christian, so brutally that Christian led a mutiny against him.

If you squint, Trump’s tweet could seem to align him with Bligh, the domineering and inhumane captain. In that case, the Democratic governors would be the Bounty’s mutinying crew. Such a comparison isn’t very flattering to Trump, and suggests he’s going to get thrown overboard. But it also doesn’t make much sense from a basic story standpoint: The mutineers in Mutiny on the Bounty don’t “need so much from the Captain,” so much as they object to his wanton cruelty and dehumanizing leadership. (What did Trump mean by “Too easy!” you ask? Who, truly, can say?)

As Jordan Hoffman writes at Vanity Fair, it’s possible the president confused Mutiny on the Bounty with some other movie involving a mutiny. Or perhaps he fell asleep halfway through. Or maybe he’s never seen it and is just making stuff up.

But it’s also possible he’s seen it, many times, and doesn’t get it. In this scenario, Trump’s well-documented love for the film Citizen Kane is instructive, since he expounded on it in a 2002 interview with documentarian Errol Morris. (You can watch that interview here.) Trump was exuberant in his love for the film in general and for the character of Charles Foster Kane specifically — a megalomaniac demagogue who builds an empire but ends up empty and alone. The point of Citizen Kane is that all of the title character’s fortune and fame couldn’t fill the yawning maw that was at the center of his being, which his famous dying words, “Rosebud,” signify. (Rosebud is a sled he was playing on when he was taken away from his mother as a child.)

Trump’s affinity for Kane apparently does not stem from the actual story of Citizen Kane, though it seems eerily parallel to many parts of Trump’s own biography. Instead, during the interview with Morris, Trump made it clear that he sees the movie as a story about a man who chose the wrong woman, and whose troubles are linked to her.

Morris has spoken about the interview on multiple occasions, reflecting on Trump’s “irony deficit disorder.” In one interview, Morris marveled at the seeming disconnect between Trump’s understanding of Citizen Kane and the fairly obvious moral of the film:

If I were Donald Trump, I would not want to emphasize that connection with Kane. You know, a megalomaniac in love with power and crushing everything in his path. The inability to have friends, the inability to find love. The moral that Trump takes from Kane—I mean, it’s one of the great lines that I recorded. I ask, “Do you have any advice for Charles Foster Kane, sir?” You know, let’s get down to the psychiatric intervention. How can we help this poor man? He’s obviously troubled. How can we help him? Donald, help me out here!

And Donald says, “My advice to Charles Foster Kane is find another woman!” And you know, I thought, is that really the message that Welles was trying to convey? That Kane had made poor sexual choices, poor marriage choices?

It’s not. It’s really not.

The issue isn’t just that Trump is misreading these films. It’s what his readings say about him.

I’m confident that Trump’s unsound “readings” of films like Citizen Kane and Mutiny on the Bounty don’t necessarily mean he can’t understand movies. The problem runs deeper than that.

Art acts like a mirror, reflecting ourselves back to us. When you watch a movie and respond to it, you’re responding because it provokes something in you, or resonates with who you are. But art also acts like a window. A movie doesn’t have to tell a story about someone just like you for you to respond to it; movies can give you a look into a deeper reality, something beyond yourself. If you find it difficult to connect to a movie, that might be the movie’s problem. Or it might be yours. The window-mirror of art reflects, in part, something about the person who watches it, and that reflection reveals whether they’re willing to look not just at it, but through it.

What readings like Trump’s tend to indicate is that he only completes the first step — a phenomenon the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum has dubbed the “bad fan” syndrome. For Trump, movies seem to reflect only what he wants to see in them: himself and his own concerns. But it appears he tends to miss, or willfully ignore, the greater reality that the window of a movie reveals.

In the midst of a pandemic, Donald Trump’s specific movie opinions don’t matter. But what they tell us about his mindset is troubling. It’s difficult to care about anyone else when all you see is yourself.

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