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The Buccaneer

The Buccaneer(1959)

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teaser The Buccaneer (1959)

Take a large portion of Cecil B. DeMille's epic storytelling, mix with the star power of both Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston, add a dash of Anthony Quinn's directorial chops, and a thin layer of historic verisimilitude for the War of 1812's famed Battle of New Orleans, and you'll have a gumbo stew known as The Buccaneer (1958).

During the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson (played by Charlton Heston) has only 1,200 ragtag, tired soldiers left to defend New Orleans when he learns that a British fleet will soon arrive with an overwhelming force of 60 ships and 16,000 men to take the city. In this dire situation an island near the city becomes strategically important to both parties, but it happens to be inhabited by the most powerful pirate in the Gulf of Mexico, Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner). When the big battle draws near, Lafitte must choose where his loyalties lie, despite his mercenary nature. His heart belongs to America, but his people urge him to join the party that's more likely to win.

Released in 1959 by Paramount Pictures, The Buccaneer was the last film to bear the stamp of one of Hollywood's founding fathers, the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. However, it was not the last film he personally directed; that would be The Ten Commandments, released in 1956, also by Paramount. But The Buccaneer bears an unmistakable DeMillian ambience: epic, historic, colorful, and never afraid of making an omission or addition for the sake of the narrative, history be damned. Like The Ten Commandments, The Buccaneer is also a remake of a previous DeMille picture. He first filmed The Buccaneer with Fredric March in the title role in 1938. Appearing in this version in a small role was actor Anthony Quinn, who was DeMille's son-in-law, married to his adopted daughter Katherine. In what would appear to be an act of Hollywood nepotism, Quinn would eventually helm the 1958 remake of The Buccaneer. Desperation and not familial favoritism, however, was more likely the reason because Quinn was not the original choice to direct.

The Hollywood Reporter stated in June 1956 that Yul Brynner would helm the remake of The Buccaneer, with DeMille supervising what would become the first musical of his long and storied career. But Brynner soon bowed out, not wishing his directorial debut to be such a mammoth production (and under DeMille's watchful eye, no less). Also ditched was the intention of making The Buccaneer a musical. Longtime DeMille collaborator, producer-actor Henry Wilcoxon, admitted that the plans to stage it as a musical were abandoned "because it was apparent that we had too good a story to tell." So with Brynner out as director (though he was still committed to play the lead) and a musical score scrapped, DeMille turned to his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn, a recent Oscar®-winner for his supporting performance in Vincent Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956).

Quinn did not want the assignment and recommended to DeMille that he hire director Budd Boetticher instead, but DeMille insisted on Quinn. Quinn acquiesced, noting in his autobiography years later that DeMille chose him so that he could maintain control over the production. Indeed, beneath the Paramount logo at the very beginning of the film is the telling reminder "Supervised by Cecil B. DeMille." DeMille even appears in a pre-credit prologue, helpfully giving the viewer a brief history and geography lesson behind the Battle of New Orleans. (No mere wand would do for DeMille; he points to a large colorful map behind him with an arrow.)

Quinn was offered a handsome package to make The Buccaneer: a $6 million production, including $1.2 million for promotion, plus five stars (including Brynner, Heston, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer, and Inger Stevens), 55 featured players, 100 bit actors (look for African-American actor Woody Strode as an heroic pirate in Lafitte's band), 12,000 extras, 60,000 props (among them more than a dozen antique pirogues, a type of canoe made from a hollowed tree trunk), $100,000 worth of antique furniture and a couple of boxcar loads of Spanish moss and cypress tress. It certainly appeared to be a Cecil B. DeMille production. While Quinn is the nominal director, The Buccaneer indeed turned out to be his father-in-law's film, much to Quinn's chagrin. Preferring a more epic film, the aged director made several changes to Quinn's film, which was apparently more character-based and intimate in tone. Quinn later said that the re-edited film "was nothing like the picture I had shot...the whole feeling was different. The pace I had carefully established was gone, replaced by frenetic jump cuts and wide shots." Of the released film, Quinn summed up his feelings by saying, "I did not like it at all."

The Buccaneer made its world premiere in New Orleans as a benefit for the Louisiana Landmark Society, which was seeking to purchase the approximately sixty acres where the Battle of New Orleans was fought and preserve it as a national monument. The film received mixed reviews and an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design. Regardless of its critical or commercial merits, the film did manage to make an impression on historians. Brynner's Jean Lafitte and Heston's Andrew Jackson were fairly accurate, according to some scholars (despite Heston's wig being much too white for the younger Jackson at this stage in his life). Sean Wilentz wrote in the book Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies that in emphasizing the importance of the New Orleans battle, The Buccaneer is "actually more trustworthy than many standard history textbooks."

Producer: Henry Wilcoxon
Director: Anthony Quinn
Screenplay: Harold Lamb, Edwin Justus Mayer, and C. Gardner Sullivan (1938 version), Bernice Mosk, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jeanie Macpherson (adaptation), Lyle Saxon (novel "Lafitte, the Pirate").
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Art Direction: Albert Nozaki, Hal Pereira, and Walter Tyler
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Cast: Yul Brynner (Jean Lafitte), Claire Bloom (Bonnie Brown), Charles Boyer (Dominique You), Inger Stevens (Annette Clairborne), Charlton Heston (Gen. Andrew Jackson).
C-119m.

by Scott McGee

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