DVD: Buccaneer, The (1938)

October 22, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Olive Films

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  April 24, 2012

Genre:  Action / Swashbuckler / Historical Drama

Synopsis: Pirate Jean Lafitte aides Gen. Andrew Jackson in defending New Orleans against a British invasion.

Special Features:  (none)




Based on the novel by Lyle Saxon, Cecil B. DeMille’s production is a fancy, kinetically paced adventure-drama loosely based on a unique chapter during the was of 1812, in which famed pirate Jean Lafitte helped General and future U.S. President Andrew Jackson fend off a British attempt to claim New Orleans.

The Battle of New Orleans (1814) is remarkable for the odds against which Americans thwarted the invading Brits with roughly a quarter of military manpower and less sexy war toys, but it’s the unique alliance between a pirate and a nationalist that was the most attractive aspect for Saxon and screenwriters Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jeanie Macpherson, and some uncredited work by Grover Jones and Jesse Lasky Jr.

If that combo of scribes reads like too many cooks in the writer’s mess, it is, and the quantity of hands might explain the film’s periodic shifts from drama to swashbuckling bravado, stark cruelty, melodrama, and a slight dose of screwball comedy. The blendered material shouldn’t work, but the script is designed to lead in careful stages towards two main junctions: the unlikely partnership of Lafitte (Fredric March) and Jackson (Hugh Sothern) and their men fighting as one mini-nation against the colonial Brits – a conflict between scruffy, rustic battle-trained men against stiff, uniformed soldiers literally marching like suicidal marionettes towards canon balls and musket blasts – and the film’s finale, in which Lafitte is sent packing when a revelation has him immediately realize he can’t marry the wife of the state’s governor and settle down into a more legit lifestyle.

The plot is somewhat intricate: after his routine flea market in the bayou where even upper class shoppers gather to buy what they know is stolen goods from ship attacks, Lafitte’s activities are interrupted when he heads to the sea to investigate the unilateral seizing of a ship by an irritated, jealous colleague. To his horror, his captain not only broke the cardinal rule of never attacking an American ship, but massacred everyone on board before setting the craft ablaze.

One survivor, a Dutch passenger named Gretchen (Hungarian Franciska Gaal), is rescued by Lafitte, and spared in spite be being the only witness to the crew’s atrocity, and whose testimony could send the entire band to the hangman’s noose. Working for the pirates as a cleaning aide and all-around helper, Gretchen nevertheless develops a fondness for Lafitte, and becomes jealous when he maintains affection for the governor’s daughter, Annette de Remy (Margot Grahame).

Lafitte is offered a place in the British navy if he helps them invade New Orleans using local waterways, but his reluctance leads to a double-cross, men killed or arrested & jailed. Realizing he has three commodities needed by Jackson – gunpower, flint, and skilled manpower – he strikes a deal in exchange for his men’s full pardon, and an hour for Lafitte to flee before Jackson and the law begin their pursuit.

Folded into the large cast of characters is “General” Dominique You (scene-stealer Akim Tamiroff), whom Lafitte knows was never former ally of Napoleon but whom he retains for being a 110% reliable right hand man.; You is also chief protector of Gretchen, for whom he also has a little thing. There’s also Jackson’s own loyal aide, the mothering Ezra Peavy (grumpy-pants Walter Brennan), and among the myriad smaller roles are several recognizable faces, including Beulah Bondi (The Southerner, The Snake Pit), Spring Byington (Heaven Can Wait, Drangonwyck), Evelyn Keyes (Union Pacific, The Seven Year Itch) in her film debut, a young Anthony Quinn as Lafitte’s loyal lieutenant, John Hubbard (Turnabout) playing a socialite, and John Sutton (My Cousin Rachel, Captain from Castile) as a snotty British officer.

Unlike the 1958 remake, DeMille’s ‘38 version is bigger in scope, characters, and contains superbly crafted exterior action montages courtesy of DeMille’s longtime and fantastic editor Anne Bauchens. The finale features constant cross-cutting between rival soldiers, thunderous canon kabooms, and tumbling Brits; even the weird montage where pirates and Americans converge from land and sea to the battle ramparts sing as brothers is rendered with buoyant energy.

The comedic moments do add contrast and more than hint at the attraction between Lafitte and Gretchen, but she’s portrayed as a hard-worker unafraid to speak her mind; Gretchen relies on You for sage advice, but also uses him as a pin cushion when she’s feeling deeply annoyed or ignored. There’s also her dog, a bird, and bawdy pirates in need of baths and rudimentary dental hygiene for slivers of amusement, but the colourful background characters do have dark sides, as seen in a touching moment when Gretchen is discovered aboard the doomed Corinthian and is forced to walk the plank. Gaal milks the pity a bit too richly with her faux broken English, but she conveys the horror of a young woman who’s survived a bloody massacre only to be forced to walk off the ship and drown ignominiously with her dog.

Also expertly directed is the finale in which Gaal arrives at the festive ball where New Orleans’ elite society and crusty politicians have gathered to celebrate the battle’s end. She’s soon recognized as one of the doomed Corinthian’s passengers, causing Lafitte to discover a horrible twist of fate, and sever his dream of becoming a legit soldier and future American citizen married to the governor’s daughter.

Olive’s DVD features a transfer from a decent but worn print that has some slight hot whites, but the print still conveys the excellent cinematography by Victor Milner, a frequent collaborator with DeMille, and Preston Sturges. The mono sound mix is clean and packed with plenty of resonating explosions and battle clamor, and George Antheil’s score is both lively and dramatic, and helps soften the tonal shifts when things get a little too comedic or cutesy.

The disc lacks any extras – a pity, given the quality of the production and its charismatic cast of stars and rich character actors – but The Buccaneer is a unique entry in the swashbuckler genre in which an autocratic pirate’s big love, moral turning point, and act of nobility occur not on the water but on or near swampy land, and through a civil working relationship with a democratically elected government in spite of claiming zero allegiance to any leader, country, or religion.

March’s casting may seem a little odd – his French accent is as wobbly as Gaal’s Dutch – but through energy, genuine charm, physical prowess, and a perfectly manicured pencil moustache he manages to nail Lafitte as a charismatic leader, cad, and decisive soldier.

March’s career was in top gear during the 1930s – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), DeMille’s epic The Sign of the Cross (1932), Death Takes a Holiday (1934), A Star is Born (1937), and the screwball classic Nothing Sacred (1937) – whereas Gaal’s career in the U.S. was quite brief; after her debut in Buccaneer, she appeared in The Girl Downstairs (1938) and Paris Honeymoon (1939) before closing her film career with the Hungarian drama Renee XIV (1946).

DeMille would continue making epics into the 1940s, but after The Ten Commandments (1956), his weakening health had him supervising the production of the 1958 colour remake which was ultimately directed by his then son-in-law Anthony Quinn, who’d made a prior appearance in DeMille’s western epic The Plainsman (1936).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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