DVD: Buccaneer, The (1958)

October 22, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Olive Films

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 28, 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)




Cecil B. DeMille wasn’t adverse to revisiting a hit property – his 1956 remake of his 1923 spectacular The Ten Commandments ensured the producer-director of Samson and Delilah (1949) and Best Picture Oscar Winner The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) was just another notch in his ever-increasing filmography of nearly consistent audience-pleasing dramas – but the filming of Commandments in Egypt was said to have taxed his health, arguably igniting a series of heart attacks that made it more than challenging to tackle another super-production, so in an unusual maneuver, DeMille had then son-in-law Anthony Quinn handle the directorial chores of The Buccaneer, his remake of a brisk and hugely entertaining 1938 film in which Quinn had a small supporting role as the lieutenant to pirate Jean Lafitte.

It’s unlikely Quinn possessed some special affinity for pirate films or knew unique intricacies of the 1938 production, but there’s a sense the actor was maybe keen on directing a movie after having worked with Elia Kazan (Viva Zapata!), Budd Boetticher (City Beneath the Sea), Frederico Fellini (La Strada), Vincent Minelli (Lust for Life), and Jean Delannoy (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), to name a few.

His prior directorial credit was a now-lost 1947 live TV teleplay (Pastoral), and if anything, the smooth machine that was DeMille Productions seemed to have everything set up for the ailing filmmaker himself: expansive sets within massive soundstages, action set pieces closely patterned after the original film, and a huge cast of veteran actor who could deliver their lines and hit their marks blindfolded.


Anthony Quinn uses a clenched fist to clarify the gravitas of a scene to guest star Charlton Heston in The Buccaneer (1958).



The seemingly protective shell built around filming for DeMille may have allowed Quinn to stay focused and avoid worrying location problems, but that safety net also ensures the film always feels studio-locked, with the glowing colour cinematography rarely hiding the limited dept of sets, especially exteriors and ships seen during the seizure of the vessel The Corinthian.

The ’58 story remained close to the ‘38 script, but if the credits are an accurate representation of recent revisions (which is highly doubtful), one-time scribe Bernice Mosk may have done some of the tweaking alongside major work by Jesse Lasky Jr., who’d also done uncredited work on the original script.

The story, based on a real moment during the Battle of 1812, is ostensibly the same in the remake: pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner, with hair!) agrees to supply flint, gun powder, and men to aide General and future U.S. President Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) fend off a substantively larger and better-armed battalion of Brits from claiming New Orleans.

Most major scenes from the original were retained, save for a very unique change in Lafitte’s emerging love interest. Perhaps sensing the dated melodrama of Dutch stowaway Gretchen, lone witness of a massacre and Lafitte’s execution of a wayward captain on site, for the revised script waifish and  boyish Bonnie Brown (Claire Bloom in a very hip 50s mop) was born, reconstituted as the daughter of the captain (Robert F. Simon) executed by Lafitte for killing the crew and passengers of The Corinthian. Bonnie is a vengeful young woman who pops up now & then to crow words of doom until, like Gretchen, she emerges in full elegant femininity at the post-battle, celebratory ball where Lafitte is confronted with a horrid truth, and realizes he can never marry Annette Claiborne (Inger Stevens), the daughter of state governor William Claiborne (E. Marshall), and must return to the dangerous world of sea piracy.

Lafitte’s love for Annette is much stronger in the ’58 version, as is her father’s disdain for the pirate, but in terms of a romantic interest, where Gretchen declares her unrequited love for Lafitte at the midpoint, tauntress Bonnie vanishes from most of the story, but in the finale settles her weirdly conflicted emotions, and chooses to stand beside Lafitte, okay with caring for a man who killed her admittedly drunken, reckless, and quite stupid father.

Lore has it that DeMille’s ‘personal supervision’ also extended towards a more hands-on editing phase, reducing character moments to rhythmic beats and keeping the film a hair under 2 hours, hence a sense that many more secondary roles were savagely reduced to near cameos. The film isn’t incoherent nor a mess, but one expects more nuanced moments from the big cast.

Bloom almost manages a successful southern-ish accent, whereas Stevens is saddled with playing a quite dull socialite that’s supposed to be the catnip that lures Lafitte to a morally anchored life in New Orleans. Marshall’s scenes remain potent, but fellow pirate Capt. Rumbo (ever-reliable Ted de Corsia) initially appears as a major player within Lafitte’s organization, and then vanishes from the narrative. The great Woody Strode plays Toro, a loyal pirate, but he’s a mute (!), relegated to some stuntwork in his handful of scenes.

On the other hand, where Akim Tamiroff rendered Lafitte’s loyal Gen. Dominique You as a skilled but oafish soldier and best friend to Gretchen in the original, Charles Boyer plays the faux general with theatrical gusto. The ’58 You gives Boyer more dramatic meat to chew on, especially in scenes where his total fidelity to Lafitte is stressed, but never wavers. (A performance highlight is his eventual release from prison, with the jailed shipmates singing a sardonic version of the film’s secondary, if not unofficial main theme, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”)

In the remake, humour comes in much small doses, largely through a boy pirate who witnesses the execution of Bonnie’s pop, and like Gretchen, he has a dog that’s spunky, but a handful.

Like the ‘38 version, the extensive cast is packed with superb character actors, and some unexpected faces, including fleeting Majel Barrett (Star Trek) and Fran Jeffries (The Pink Panther) in her debut, Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet) and Frederich von Ledebur (Moby Dick) as blink-fast-and-they’re-gone pirates. Henry Brandon (The Searchers) appears as a British Major, and the inimitable Douglass Dumbrille is the only cast member from the original film to return, ceding the role of governor Claiborne to Marshall, and playing a portside bureaucrat – a cameo at best.

Two major changes are also in line with DeMille’s prior films, his creative associations, and directorial conventions. Similar to setting up Commandments with a lengthy prologue, DeMille appears on camera and (literally) maps out the soon-to-be-dramatized events, essentially explaining details that were covered in longer scenes and dialogue exchanges in the ’38 version. And like Commandments, the two foes within the drama are played by Brynner (Lafitte) and Charlton Heston (Jackson), the latter a role Heston played in the romantic historical drama The President’s Lady (1953).

Heston’s reprising of Jackson is part of the film’s lure, but it’s a weirdly older version of Jackson, sporting very faux graying hair, aging makeup, and more old man mannerisms than the generally younger counterpart seen 5 years earlier in Lady. DeMille does bring Heston into the drama early on to satisfy audiences, but he vanishes for a long stretch until the final hour, and like his ‘38 counterpart, Jackson’s given a nagging loyal assistant, Ezra Peavey, played with myriad scene-stealing ticks by Henry Hull (Inferno, The Chase).

The dynamics between bad boy Lafitte and morally refined Jackson forms the most interesting relationship in the film, whereas the overtly stage-bound battle scenes are conveyed with slow tracking shots that effectively express the mass of extras, and some risqué practical stunts in which ‘rockets’ sent by the British glide close to the actors on the defensive side.

The celebratory ball is neatly choreographed for dramatic ironies and revelations as well as splendid pasted colours from the shimmering, satin costumes. The danger faced by Lafitte when his connection to The Corinthian’s sinking is more believable in part because the elegantly dressed socialites and political leaders become a mob, swayed by pompous and reactionary Mercia (Lorne Greene), whom governor Claiborne struggles to temper as a noose is hastily woven for Lafitte’s neck.

It’s actually very easy to accept and enjoy both the ’38 and ’58 versions because they rely on the same solid structure, set pieces, and huge cast of fine actors, but feature unique interpretations of the historical figures and fictional supporting characters. Perhaps to ensure enough gravitas, composer Elmer Bernstein was retained, and he wrote a somewhat rousing, romantic, and periodically grave score that owes more than a wee bit to his big Commandments sound, but his score enhances moments of sea piracy which the title and poster art heavily conveyed in what’s really a land-locked story.

Olive’s DVD features a clean transfer with good sound, but being a bare bones release, the label once again missed the opportunity to add needed context to a production that still puzzles, being DeMille’s last production, and the lone big budget feature directed by Quinn.

Screenwriter Jesse Lasky Jr. penned a number of period adventure dramas – John Paul Jones (1959), The Wizard of Baghdad (1960), Pirates of Tortuga (1961) – and episodic TV, including Space: 1999 (1975), Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984), and Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983-1986).

Although Anthony Quinn didn’t directed another film, he produced & executive produced some key career notches, including the dour The Visit (1964), Zorba the Greek (1964), and Across 110th Street (1972).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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