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Cecil B. De Mille's later films may win no awards for sophisticated writing or progressive cinematic ideas, but they entertained million just the same. The producer-director's name itself was synonymous with Hollywood prestige. C.B. packed his pictures with big stars and painted them in garish color. Whether the issue at hand was putting on a circus show or parting the Red Sea, De Mille made certain that the canvas was big, the dialogue loud and the emotions overstated. Who was going to question the grand old filmmaker? He was one of the original artists that built Hollywood, back when filmmakers were looking for a place to escape Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company.
That early experience may have helped Cecil B. De Mille personally identify with a famous pirate from American history. His final film The Buccaneer is a remake of his own 1938 production starring Fredric March. In failing health, De Mille turned the job of directing over to his son-in-law Anthony Quinn. Quinn had been lobbying to produce and direct an American remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but relinquished control of that project to helm this grandiose but studio-bound picture about the adventures of the notorious Jean Lafitte in the War of 1812.
Realizing that the English will invade New Orleans, General Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston, who had played Jackson just five years earlier in The President's Lady) expresses interest when the pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) negotiates to help on the American side. Lafitte never robs Yankee ships, but the local authorities are incensed by his sales of stolen booty in secret bayou markets. Governor Claiborne (E.G. Marshall) isn't sure if Lafitte can be trusted, but his daughter Annette (Inger Stevens) is in love with the dashing Frenchman. The politics on both sides are unpredictable. Lafitte's number two man Dominique Yu (Charles Boyer) remains loyal, but some of his pirate captains rebel. Captain Brown (Robert F. Simon) secretly raids an American ship, killing all on board save for a small boy. Emotional New Orleans merchants like Mercier (Lorne Greene) convince the American command to attack Lafitte's outlaw island Barataria just as the pirate is sealing a deal to fight on the side of "Old Hickory". With the British approaching, the Americans have little in the way of powder and arms to stop them. Jean still wants to prove his loyalty to the American flag - but will his pirates still fight with him?
The entertaining The Buccaneer is a strange mix of old and new Hollywood. De Mille and his head writer Jesse Lasky Jr. simplify the Battle of New Orleans to one simple issue -- both the British and the Americans know that Jean Lafitte's backwoods domain lies on an overland route to the city. The Buccaneer would have us believe that the noble outlaw burns for the opportunity to side with the Stars 'n' Stripes. We're told that the actual historical Lafitte chose the American side for his own patriotic reasons: France at the time was just as hostile toward England as was America.
Repeating from De Mille's gargantuan The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston give spirited performances. Brynner struts and poses while Heston is compelled to portray General Jackson as the older man we know from famous portraits. Supporting these two in over a hundred speaking roles are several stars and a who's who of familiar Hollywood character actors. Charles Boyer is given the plum part of Lafitte's strategist. An ex-officer from the Napoleonic Wars, he hides a humiliating personal secret not that much different than Jimmy Stewart's in De Mille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Henry Hull is given an expansive character while E.G. Marshall is typically quiet and reserved. Lorne Greene is very atypically called upon to overact. Many scenes have ten or twelve recognizable character actors as various pirates or sailors. Quite a few get only a line or so of dialogue: Ted de Corsia, John Dierkes, Robert Warwick, Onslow Stevens, Stephen Chase, Henry Brandon, Jack Kruschen, Friedrich von Ledebur, Mike Mazurki, Jack Pennick, and many more. Young Woody Strode is an eager pirate, while calypso musician Sir Lancelot plays Lafitte's refined houseboy.
The two leading ladies swoon over Jean but are mostly decorative. It's a particularly bland role for Inger Stevens. The prominently billed Claire Bloom's character never develops. Her Bonnie Brown has set her cap for Jean Lafitte, but barely receives as much as a how-do-you from the dashing brigand. It's hardly a suitable role for such a distinguished actress.
The production is achieved on Hollywood sound stages, with VistaVision lensing and expert optical effects combining some sets with backgrounds filmed on location. But De Mille still conceives of an historical recreation as a mix between a pageant and a tableaux vivant. The lighting is bright and flat and the color design is suitable for a child's storybook. Not one of the pirates appears natural in his neatly pressed costume. Although lavishly produced in some respects, the whole show has an air of artificiality we associate with a much earlier era. The movie reflects De Mille's taste and standards so strongly that it's difficult to see what contribution was made by the credited director Anthony Quinn.
The show builds with some interesting action scenes, leading to the actual battle pitting Redcoats versus Yankees and pirates in a misty marsh. Although the scenario is pleasingly straightforward, there is no mistaking the heavy hand of Cecil B. The dialogue sounds as if it were written for silent movie inter-titles, with line after line of bald exposition making us wince. Exclamations from the citizens of Barataria tell us what we can see with our own eyes, while the sweet and trusting Annette trades love talk with Jean that's as silly as Gene Kelly's romantic lines in Singin' in the Rain. Interestingly, Charles Boyer and Charlton Heston must have been born to play historical stuffed shirts, for even the creakiest dialogue clunkers roll gracefully off their tongues. The Buccaneer is not really good cinema, but it is undeniably watchable.
The heroic Jean Lafitte is a very unlikely pirate, that special kind that picks and chooses his targets and never kills his captives. Jean instead reserves his savagery for the pirate captain that defies him, personally hanging the man on board his ship. But we're told that most of the outlaw citizens in the Barataria island hideout revere Lafitte as a great leader. Women greet Jean in the village; he's a man of the people who just happens to make his living selling stolen goods. Those unpatriotic New Orleans merchants come off as cowards concerned only with the tax revenue that Lafitte isn't paying.
Still grooming his personal image, producer De Mille personally introduces the show by pointing to a map of Louisiana and explaining why New Orleans was the key to winning the war of 1812. De Mille's claims of historical accuracy don't include the fact that the noble Andrew Jackson was the slave-holding politician who banished almost all of the Southeastern Indian tribes to the Oklahoma Territory. As for the "crucial" Battle of New Orleans, De Mille makes no mention of the fact that it was fought two weeks after the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812: word of the cessation of hostilities didn't reach Louisiana for over a month. Although unavoidable, the bloody conflict dramatized in The Buccaneer decided nothing and was a curious historical mistake.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Buccaneer looks splendid. Paramount's HD restoration of this VistaVision production maximizes the impact of the bright and detailed images. We won't call it art, but the film is indeed pictorially handsome. Elmer Bernstein contributes a rousing music score. Actors Brynner and Quinn were very competitive Hollywood players in the late 1950s. They briefly partnered on the Magnificent Seven project, which both wanted to direct. As it turned out, Yul Brynner's participation was reduced to Actor For Hire. Composer Bernstein followed him to the new show and turned in what is probably his best-known motion picture score.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Buccaneer Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.