Jean Lafitte? If you're a history buff, you should have. A French pirate and privateer, Lafitte operated out of New Orleans and the surrounding bayous through the early 1830s. His name though remains in American history for a big reason, Lafitte helping then-General and future President Andrew Jackson to victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. It's a story told in a generally forgotten film from 1958, The Buccaneer.
War has broken out between the young United States of America and Great Britain, the power up for grabs after British forces capture Washington D.C., the American government barely escaping. Down in Louisiana, New Orleans is bracing for an attack, a small American army commanded by General Andy Jackson (Charlton Heston) ready to hold off a far superior British army. New Orleans will be the key as whoever holds the river will control the Mississippi River. The key to it all? A powerful, rich pirate named Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) who helps control the mouth of the Mississippi with his fortified pirate colony. Whichever side he sides with will have all the power and both the British and Americans are desperately trying to convince him. They're both very convincing, but what will Lafitte decide in the end?
Of all the wars America has fought in since the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, the War of 1812 has to be one of those most easily forgotten. I can't even think of another film about the war. 'Buccaneer' is also noteworthy for its director, an actor making his only appearance behind the camera. Who you ask? That would be Anthony Quinn, Zorba himself taking a shot at directing. It is rumored that famed director Cecil B. DeMille did direct some of the movie while also appearing on-screen early for the prologue that sets up the history of what we're about to see in the film. What it tries to accomplish is admirable, bringing a part of American history to light that hasn't gotten the amount of attention that other wars, conflicts and incidents have. What it accomplishes in the end? That's more up in the air.
The biggest positive is Yul Brynner as infamous French pirate Jean Lafitte. As portrayed here, he's probably a little idealistic (but that's more the tone of the movie) as to the historical figure, but Brynner does a solid job. This is a man caught in the middle and trying to figure out what's his best play, whether it be with the British or the Americans. He thinks selfishly, knowing whichever way he chooses will affect his vast fleet of pirates but also thousands of other people. Dressed up as a bit of a dandy -- in one of the few roles I can think of where Brynner sports hair, even if it is a wig -- Brynner commits to the part. He has some fun with it, the best thing going in a story that tries to accomplish a lot in terms of scale and characters and history. His struggles are interesting throughout, a bit of a doomed character, and his scenes in the second half of the movie with Heston's Jackson provide the movie's strongest points.
The rest of 'Buccaneer' is more of a mixed bag. One of my biggest questions involves the sets. The entire movie is filmed on indoor sets, giving the story an odd, even cheap look. In some scenes, like the battle of New Orleans, it adds a cool claustrophobic effect to the proceedings, but for the most part it limits the potential. It's going for an epic scale, full of a long list of characters and big history, but never quite gets there. In other words, the DeMille touch...sorta. Everything is polished and colorful and too clean for an 1810s world. A pirate world at that! It's more than that though, a story that bounces around too much and simply takes too long to get where it needs to be. The last 45 minutes are 'Buccaneer' at its strongest, but the first hour and the last 15 minutes drag a bit too much. Elmer Bernstein's score is okay but not up there with his best.
So DeMille loved his epics, right? Nowhere else is that more evident in the casting. Check out the full cast and crew listing HERE. There's 200-plus names, a whole lot credited, a whole lot more uncredited. Just too much going on all over the place. There's Claire Bloom as the fiery daughter of a rival pirate captain, Charles Boyer as Lafitte's very French second-in-command, Inger Stevens as the beautiful daughter of the Louisiana governor (E.G. Marshall), Heston as Andrew Jackson, Henry Hull as his backwoods, buckskin wearing assistant, Lorne Greene as a rich resident of New Orleans, and George Matthews as Lafitte's loyal henchman of sorts. That's only part of the cast. There's too many familiar faces and recognizable names to mention. Among Lafitte's pirates we see Woody Strode to John Dierkes and many more. If you ask me, it speaks to a movie that was edited some heavily in post-production.
If you stick around, the second half is significantly better than the first half. The battle of New Orleans isn't a long, drawn-out battle but what's there is enjoyable. Parts of the movie are really good but as a whole it wastes much of its potential. Too bad.
The Buccaneer (1958): **/****