Based on a true story and novels by Nordhoff and Hall, a crew mutinies against a tyrannical captain after enjoying Tahiti.
In 1787 at Portsmouth Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) drafts six men from a tavern for a two-year voyage. Joseph Banks (Henry Stephenson) tells Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) to compile a Tahitian dictionary. Young father Ellison (Eddie Quillan) tries to break ship, but Christian promises him justice. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) orders 24 lashes even though the man is dead. The Bounty sails, and Bligh doesn't want any advice from Christian about supplies. Byam hits Morrison, and Bligh orders him up the mast during a storm. Christian brings him down; but Bligh orders him sent aloft again. Bligh puts three men in irons and has two of them flogged for minor offenses. He keel hauls a man who requests water for his bloody knees, and the man dies. The captain also over-rules the surgeon, who declared two men unfit for duty. When two large cheeses are missing, Bligh accuses men of stealing even though they say he ordered them taken to his cabin. Christian and other officers refuse to eat cheese. Men complain to Christian about the meager food. Burkitt (Donald Crisp) catches a fish but knocks a man down and is flogged. Christian refuses to sign Bligh's account book until he is ordered to so before the men.
They arrive at Tahiti and are welcomed by the natives. Bligh asks chief Hitihiti (Bill Bambridge) for 1,000 breadfruit plants to take to the West Indies for slave food. Bligh makes the men work and Christian stay on board. At the chief's Byam works on the dictionary. Christian gets to visit, and they swim with Maimiti (Mamo Clark) and Tehanni (Movita). Christian stays with Maimiti and then swims back to the ship. Bligh cuts the water allowance in order to water the breadfruit plants. Burkitt and Thompson are put in irons for deserting. Bligh demands the pearls Maimiti gave Christian. Ordered topside, the ill surgeon dies. Christian has men seize arms and take the ship, arresting Bligh and the officers. Christian orders Bligh put in a launch with those who choose to go. Byam objects to the mutiny but has to stay. As Bligh heads for Timur, Christian takes the Bounty back to Tahiti. After 45 days food is gone, but Bligh's men make Timur. At Tahiti Christian's men celebrate Christmas. Christian is married to Maimiti and has a child. As a British ship arrives, the Bounty sails. Byam goes aboard the Pandora and is put in irons with four others by Captain Bligh, who is searching for Christian. During a shipwreck the prisoners are released to the boat.
At a trial Byam defends himself. Condemned, he speaks of Bligh's cruelty and tyranny before he is sentenced to hang. Christian goes to Pitcairn Island, where they burn the Bounty. Banks pleads with the king for Byam, and in the final scene Byam reports to his new ship.
In history the three deserters were hanged; Bligh went on to survive two more mutinies and was promoted to vice admiral. Gable's lack of a British accent brings home the theme that this story re-creates the American revolution against British tyranny. Even in real life apparently the contrast between the pleasures of Tahiti and the cruelty of the tyrannical breadfruit captain were too great for the crew to stand. The movie suggests that this experience helped bring reforms to British naval laws.