THE BENBOW MUTINY
Screen Play by William A. Benbow and Fred D.B. Hebbert
The Benbow Mutiny is an historic adventure inspired by true events in the vein of Master and Commander and Mutiny on the Bounty about an heroic 17th century British Admiral who battles on against a tenacious enemy in the West Indies, despite the betrayal of his disgruntled captains.
In 1701 King William III sends ADMIRAL JOHN BENBOW to rid the Caribbean of the French and secure the Spanish Treasure fleet. However, most of the Captains assigned to his fleet are discontented dregs coming off three years of unemployment and half pay, whose main interest is in lining their holds with prize money. Disease decimates a third of his force including his Second in Command, HENRY MARTIN. This post would normally be filled by the most senior captain of the fleet, who is Colonel RICHARD KIRKBY. Benbow detests him as a feeble fighter and refuses to appoint him as his 2IC.
Benbow must navigate the stormy battles that break out among the crew and the officers as Kirkby undermines his authority at every turn. The Admiral reacts by digging in his heels, severely disciplining obstinate officers who do not meet his high expectations, and so drives a number into Kirkby’s camp. Kirkby and his supporters lag behind the Admiral, particularly when the skirmishes involve French warships. Benbow’s response is to ‘show them how it’s done’ by ruthlessly taking, burning or destroying a number of French prizes.
An opportunity arises to decidedly defeat the enemy in a fleet action when the illustrious French Admiral, JEAN DU CASSE, with a squadron of five French warships is intercepted on the Spanish Main. Benbow places Kirkby in the van, hoping to push him into action. He finds himself in the jaws of a dilemma: caught between a foe who flees and a fleet that falters. Benbow is furious. He seeks to inspire them by taking the lead and tenaciously clinging to the rear most ships of the fleeing foe. Only one of his squadron, the Ruby under GEORGE WALTON comes to his aid. Kirkby refuses even direct orders from the Admiral to fire upon the enemy, and so moves from passively undermining Benbow to active mutiny. At this point it appears that no one fights for the Admiral.
However, Captain SAMUEL VINCENT, in the Falmouth, the rearmost ship in the line, has had enough, and on the fourth day breaks the rigid line formation to surge ahead and join his Admiral. Finally, Benbow is badly wounded by chain shot to his leg. He is determined to carry on the fight and insists on being supported in a makeshift cradle on deck where he continues to direct the battle. But Kirkby prevails and all Captains sign a mutinous document claiming they are unable to continue the battle. Benbow is finally persuaded by his friend ROBERT THOMPSON to end the bloodshed and call off the battle.
Benbow’s fight is now with his captains. The fleet returns to Jamaica. Benbow, though dying of his wounds, is determined to bring them to account. He court martials all of them; seeking the death penalty for the ring leaders, Kirkby and COOPER WADE. With the help of Thompson he is able to prove Kirkby’s guilt. However, he has mellowed through the blood sweat and tears, and asks the court to spare his own captain, CHRISTOPHER FOGG, and Samuel Vincent who both fought valiantly. Benbow dies without knowing if the court’s sentences will be supported by the Queen or if the cautious captains will be saved by their influential friends back home in England. He dies, still worrying over the effect that his failure and their behavior will have on the future of the English navy. The final scene reveals their fate and sets the stage for Benbow’s canonization as the true pattern of English courage for generations to come.
The Benbow Mutiny is unlike any in its genre because of its high stakes conflict between a Commander and his officers during a major battle. Audiences will respond to the issue of duty and honour under fire in a war of questionable merit.