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The Buccaneer

The Buccaneer(1938)

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Cecil B. DeMille's The Buccaneer is a pirate movie by way of a grand historical adventure a la DeMille. Based loosely on the true story of the French-born "privateer" Jean Lafitte (he preferred the term to pirate), who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812, it stars Fredric March as the flamboyant Captain who targets foreign ships passing through the Caribbean and sells his pillaged booty to New Orleans society on the black market. His brazen ways earn him a bounty on his head, which he embraces with just a modicum pride (the $500 bounty is a little too low for his ego) and a lot of humor (he puts a bounty out on the Governor in return). This wanted man claims no nationality ("I am a privateer, under the flag of Barataria," he proclaims) but he has a fondness for the still fledgling nation that made him Louisiana's Most Wanted.

DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but is surprisingly accurate to the big picture of the historical record and to defining details that make Lafitte such a larger than life character. He makes his home in the self-proclaimed colony of Barataria, built on a cove deep in the Louisiana swamps, where his fleet hides from American law and conducted its smuggling and pillaging. He has standing orders to leave the crews and passengers of his victimized ships unharmed. And while he's wanted by the State of Louisiana for his black market operations and high seas piracy, he's quite popular among the citizens for breaking the shipping embargo on European goods.

More importantly, DeMille has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles. The Buccaneer opens in 1814 with the British invasion of Washington D.C. and the flight from the capitol. Spring Byington provides a classic DeMille take on Dolly Madison: cultured hostess with a streak of practical frontier spirit. As the presidential residence is evacuated in the midst of a reception, Dolly slips back in (without her guards) to retrieve a last-minute treasure before the British burns everything to the ground. What could be so important? Only the Declaration of Independence, she explains with a tossed-off aside and a matter-of-fact manner. That's DeMille's idea of American leadership -- sophistication, aplomb, and simple can-do spirit -- and this ideal defines General Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern), whose rustic dignity and colorful manner offers a hearty, earthy American contrast to the oily arrogance of British aristocracy and pompous stateside traitors.

In contrast to the salt-of-the-earth dignity of the American leaders, Lafitte is both a sly scoundrel with a brazen defiance of authority and a patriot at heart who appreciates the United States, the democratic underdog in a world of kings and dictators. March gives Lafitte one of the worst French accents ever heard on screen, admittedly, but he is commanding and charismatic as the leader who rouses his men to the American cause even after they have been double-crossed by the Louisiana Governor.

Between Lafitte's seafaring exploits and his rousing paeans to the ideals of the new country, DeMille and his screenwriters (adapting the novel "Lafitte the Pirate" by Lyle Saxon) give Lafitte a romance with a belle of New Orleans society (Margot Grahame) while a cute Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal), rescued from a rogue pirate, moons over Lafitte. You might say the film's biggest twist comes right in the first act, when one of Lafitte's own captains defies orders and attacks an American ship, leaving no survivors (or so he thinks). When Lafitte discovers this brutal breach of conduct, he responds with quick and unflinching justice and March plays it the scene without indignity or sentiment. He lets his disgust over such senseless brutality come out through uncharacteristic (for Lafitte) understatement, which in itself stands out in a performance of grinning vanity and roguish humor, and the reverberations of that massacre continue to haunt the film, reminding us of the blood on Lafitte's hands. Lafitte's recognition of his responsibility for the actions of his men makes him that much more layered a leader.

The rest of the film is a paean to the inclusiveness of the American melting pot (at least European stock). From Gaal's little Dutch girl to Akim Tamiroff's lovable, loyal rogue devoted to Lafitte (and smitten with Gaal) and Walter Brennan as Jackson's buckskin-clad aide-de-camp, this multicultural collection of characters celebrates the ideals of the nation of immigrants and individualists. Anthony Quinn, who has a small role as a devoted mate, lacks the more outsized presence of Tamiroff, yet he ended up having quite the presence in the 1958 remake. When DeMille fell ill, Quinn (who was by then DeMille's son-in-law) took over as director.

DeMille's films had a tendency to get bloated and starchy as his budgets and scope grew but The Buccaneer, which DeMille made between his two frontier epics The Plainsman and Union Pacific, has a lively energy to it, thanks to a plot full of betrayals and battles, a cast of larger-than-life characters, and a snappy script full of playful dialogue. It even, dramatic license and romantic fictions aside, keeps to the broad strokes of history. All of which makes for one of DeMille's more rousing and entertaining productions.

Olive Films releases the black-and-white film on DVD only. The print shows some wear, mostly light vertical scratches, but no serious damage, and the sound is fine. There are no supplements.

For more information about The Buccaneer, visit Olive Films. To order The Buccaneer, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker