James Norman Hall, a very adventurous author, passed away 63 years ago this month.
Hall, with his writing partner Charles Nordoff, wrote a number of well-received books. The most well known today is “Mutiny on the Bounty”, twice made into successful films. Who can forget Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh?
Other works include “”Men Against the Sea”, “Pitcairn’s Island”, “Botany Bay”, “High Barbaree” and many others, including “The Hurricane”. (I am fortunate to have Dudley Nickel’s 4th draft of the movie script in my collection).
Most attention has been focused on this impressive writing collaboration, but less attention has been paid to Hall’s earlier individual writing accomplishments, which were based on a very adventurous life.
Hall was an American living in England in 1914 when the First World War broke out. He volunteered for the English army to fight from the foxholes on the Western Front. He served with British forces under the command of Lord Herbert Kitchener, Secretary of State for War.
Hall was wounded in action and hospitalized. Because he was not a British citizen, he was allowed to return to the United States.
In those days, Hall thought of himself as a poet. At lunch one day with a friend, who was an Atlantic Monthly editor, he described his Army adventures. The friend suggested that Hall temporarily drop his poetic ambitions and write a straightforward account of his experiences in the British army. Hall did and the result was published in the Atlantic Monthly and also issued as a book, titled “Kitchener’s Mob”.
The Atlantic Monthly editors then asked Hall to write a story about American Volunteers joining The French Lafayette Escadrille, the first military air force. Hall became so enthusiastic about the Lafayette Escadrille that he decided to join.
Hall learned to fly very primitive biplanes and was shot down over German lines. He wrote about his experience in his book, “High Adventure”.
I was excited to learn of these two real life adventure books, written in the first person, as are all of our ListenToRead American Adventure Library audiobooks. I have recorded and published “High Adventure”, read by the wonderful young actor Andre Devin; it is among our most popular audiobooks.
After Hall had been shot down behind enemy lines, he was taken to a German prison camp, just as Armistice was announced and the war was ended. His German captors didn’t know what to do with him…so they left the gate unlocked and mentioned that there was a train station a few miles away.
Back with his flight squadron, Hall noticed all the planes lined up on an airfield, grounded, with no war to fight. He asked permission to fly a plane for a few days. He took off and reviewed all the places he had flown, re-experiencing the war in his mind. Then he landed the plane and parked it in the line-up of grounded unneeded biplanes on a quiet airfield. Military airplanes and military equipment are all useless and worthless when there is no war.
Hall was in Paris on leave from The Lafayette Escadrille and found himself in Brentano’s bookstore. There, he discovered an old copy of the account of the HMS Bounty mutiny, written by Captain William Bligh, published in England in 1792. Hall bought it, read it and kept it. Years later, when Charles Nordoff asked Hall if he had any ideas for a novel on which they could collaborate, Hall remembered the old Bligh book. And the rest, as they say, is history.