Of all the wars in American history, the War of 1812 probably has the fewest movies made about it, though World War One surely comes in a close second. In 1938, Cecil B. DeMille did what he could to remedy that film drought by directing The Buccaneer, which focuses on the exploits of privateer and American patriot Jean Lafitte.
Lafitte (Fredric March) is a suave fellow who lives in the bayous outside New Orleans and makes his living by piracy, though he never attacks a ship with an American flag, and always allows his victims the opportunity to flee and avoid death. (He even goes so far as to execute the captain of a ship under his authority who plunders American ship The Corinthian, and kills everyone on board except one.) Lafitte insists on being called a privateer and not a pirate. The governments of Louisiana and the United States are not impressed with his high morals, and would dearly like to see him eliminated. The British on the other hand, want to enlist his help in their invasion, and seek to buy his loyalty, along with the help of traitorous Louisiana senator Crawford (Ian Keith).
While his men want to accept the money and land the British have promised, Lafitte remains loyal to his adopted homeland. He rallies his troops and offers his services to Governor Claiborne (Douglass Dumbrille), only to be betrayed by Crawford, who convinces the governor that Lafitte is intending to double cross them. American ships bombard Lafitte and his men, imprisoning and scattering them. It takes the intervention of Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) to save Lafitte from certain death, bring his men into the fold and save the city from the British.
While The Buccaneer is certainly more deliberately paced than contemporary films, and places a lot more emphasis on character development and story than on action, these traits are not necessarily problems. Particularly because DeMille is able to coax such delightful and true characterizations from his actors, characterizations that organically drive the actions and choices of the characters, and therefore the plot. And these are quite colorful folks. Lafitte is proud of his accomplishments, and wishes to be perceived as sophisticated and a gentleman. He is insecure about this, though, as demonstrated when the pretty Dutch girl Gretchen (Franciska Gaal), who Lafitte saved from the sinking Corinthian, tells him that people in New Orleans laugh at him, and mocks him for wearing two rings. Gretchen herself is a feisty one, who falls in love with Lafitte even though he pines for another, and is herself adored by Lafitte's lieutenant Dominique (Akim Tamiroff), the humorous Frenchman who claims to have been Napoleon's handpicked artillery man. All of the characters here are sharply drawn and very human, and we are drawn in to empathizing with the noble Lafitte, even though he is a pirate. The confrontation between Jackson and Lafitte is memorable and fun.
The Buccaneer plays alternatively as a swashbuckling pirate film, a semi-historical war film, a romance and a tragedy. It doesn't feel frenetic or unfocused, though. DeMille weaves these strands together deftly, effortlessly moving from one to the other. There are only a few real battle or action scenes, and the film clocks in at just over two hours, so it can drag a tiny bit at times. But for the most part, the film is engaging enough. DeMille produced a remake in 1958, with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner, but this reviewer has not seen that version, and can't comment on it or compare the two. The 1938 version is solid entertainment, though it strives to be more than fluff or spectacle, and largely succeeds. It is infused with a sense of fun, and at times a sense of sadness and the heavy burden of duty. It's a credit to DeMille that he could develop both of these without getting muddled. The Buccaneer is highly recommended.