Pirates on their Best Behaviour. Image: IMDb

There are many theories about why countries go to war. Some are pretty twisted (leaders go to war when there’s a surplus of unemployed young men), while some are horribly misguided (we go to war because we believe we’ll always win).

In the 1958 pirate adventure, The Buccaneer, Charles Boyer’s character has his own Ideas about War. Boyer’s character carries a small cloth bag containing dirt from his home in France. It’s his belief that fighting for the honour of one’s country is a lie: Governments ask you to fight in exchange for the dirt in which to bury you.

Now, we don’t mean to sound morbid because Boyer’s character is a pleasure to watch. He’s charming, funny, and wildly over the top. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Boyer in this role.) He’s also Very Suspicious. According to Boyer, you can’t trust governments, military leaders, or dressmakers.

The Buccaneer is loosely based on the War of 1812, specifically the Battle of New Orleans.* Yul Brynner (with hair!) stars as the French pirate Jean Lafitte, citizen of no particular country and occupier of an island in Barataria Bay near Louisiana. The two islands in this bay, at the time, really were the Base Of Operations for privateers, pirates, and the like.

Brynner lives like a king on this island, and he’d be crazy to Give It Up.

But that’s exactly what he intends to do.

Brynner and his Merry Men. Image: TMDB

The Buccaneer is a movie that could easily slide into a pirate cheese-fest, but it neatly oversteps the pitfalls. Despite the cringingly-awkward opening scenes, it’s a terrific yarn with interesting characters and plenty o’ motivation.

Let’s start with Boyer’s character. He employs brash cynicism to cloak his sentimental soul.

As for Brynner, he’s a Gentleman and a shrewd businessman. For example, when he returns from plundering rich folks overseas, he sells the stolen goods to rich folks in New Orleans – but his prices are fair, madam.

Secretly, though, Brynner’s character has two desires: (1) He wishes to be a citizen of a Just Nation; and (2) He’s in love with the daughter of the Louisiana governor.**

Meanwhile, we have Charlton Heston in a rare supporting role as Andrew Jackson, a major general beleaguered with stomach troubles and untrained soldiers. Heston is in top form as a Single-Minded leader with more hair than anyone else in the room. He also has some fabulous lines: “If you put a bullet in my brain, I’d still live long enough to kill you.”

Then we have some of Brynner’s men who chafe against their leader’s sense of Decency (which sounds incredulous coming from a pirate), and they are anxious to Take Matters into their Own Hands.

When one of these men attacks and destroys an American ship in retaliation for an ambush, it triggers a series of consequences that test everyone’s fundamental beliefs.

These bring the movie to a conclusion we did not expect.

Heston and Boyer swap war stories. Image: Ace Black Movie Blog

The Buccaneer was, to us, a little-known film that’s surprisingly notable for several reasons. First, it was nominated for an Oscar in Best Costume Design.

Second, you’ll notice, during the opening credits, that the film was produced under the “supervision” of classic Hollywood filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. (DeMille made an earlier version of this film in 1938, also called The Buccaneer.) DeMille was set to direct, but he was suffering from a series of heart attacks and wasn’t healthy enough to take on the rigours of directing.

Actor Anthony Quinn, who was DeMille’s son-in-law at the time, Stepped In to direct the film. This was Quinn’s first and only directorial role; the initial release of the film had his edits and was, apparently, well received. However, a second version, with DeMille’s edits was released instead, and Quinn’s version is now lost.

DeMille would die in January, 1959, a month after the film’s debut. Although he had plans for at least two other movies, this film would be his last.

The Buccaneer was widely regarded as a Disappointment. Newsweek, for one, said, it was “two hours of the most pretentious nonsense to lay claim to a moviegoer’s spending money.”1

We respectfully disagree. It may be that we had no Preconceived Notions before watching the film, but we found it a very good way, in fact, to spend two hours. We think you’ll enjoy it.

The Buccaneer: starring Yul Brunner, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer. Directed by Anthony Quinn. Written by Harold Lamb & Jessie Lasky, Jr. Paramount Pictures, 1958, Colour, 119 mins.

Notes

*Sadly, the Battle of New Orleans was fought after a peace treaty had been signed in Belgium a few weeks earlier, unbeknownst to the troops in battle.
**In real life, Lafitte had an affair with the Louisiana’s governor’s wife.
1Wikipedia. (Retrieved June 17, 2022.) The Buccaneer (1958 film).

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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