Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Guest Review: The Buccaneer (1958)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

How many times have you heard critics use the phrase “for fans only”? The Buccaneer was meant to be Cecil B. DeMilleʼs re-make of his own 1938 film, and seemingly had everything going for it. Starting with the obvious credibility of DeMille himself, it boasts a great cast including Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston at the prime, Inger Stevens, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer, E. G. Marshall, and Lorne Greene.

A highly romanticized story based on real historical figure Jean Lafitte (Brynner), the film follows events leading up to the Battle of New Orleans at the conclusion of the War of 1812. Although he doesn’t prey on American ships, Lafitte remains an outlaw since he sells merchandise tax free which, combined with his considerable personal charm, makes him popular with the local citizenry. When the British threaten the city, Lafitte must choose between fighting on the probable winning side (where he is not an outlaw) or joining forces with General Andrew Jackson (Heston). His ultimate choice is influenced by a combination of patriotism, a romance with the governor’s daughter Annette Clairborne (Stevens), and probably most importantly, a promise of full pardon for past crimes authorized by Gov. William Clairborne (E.G. Marshall).

Released December 1, 1958 when historical costume productions were much in vogue, this one never quite lived up to expectations. Critics have been mostly lukewarm, and I cannot entirely disagree despite my own lofty expectations for the recent DVD and Blu-Ray release. That expectation was based, at least in part, upon originally viewing it at age ten in one of the old movie palaces in downtown Philadelphia. Should you invest your time and money in The Buccaneer? Perhaps, if you are “a fan.” Let’s explore not only some reasons you might choose to skip this one, but also some reasons you might find it worth re-visiting.

Three Reasons To Skip It

1) It was not actually directed by the great “Cecil B.” after all. By the time filming commenced, DeMille was nearly 80 years old and critically ill. This was his last credited film as he died shortly after it was released. Unable to direct for himself, his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn pinch hit. Trouble was, although Quinn was one of the great actors of his generation, he had no directorial experience of his own, and it shows. Direction is aimless and stilted. This is the only directing ever done by Quinn and we can apparently be thankful for that.

2) The film lacks realism. It looks an awful lot like a musical without music, although that may not entirely be by accident. It turns out DeMille intended his “re-make” to be a musical. He most likely wanted to cash in on Brynner's success from The King and I. For some reason, Yul balked at the idea of another musical, and there was no question DeMille needed Brynner for the lead, so that concept was scrapped. Still, too many group scenes include people dutifully standing stock still while the leads recite speeches in lieu of singing songs. This is particularly true for Brynner who constantly delivers his lines while standing with feet spread apart, hands on hips, and wearing his ballet tights, calf high boots, open puff sleeved shirt, and leather vest. Of course just seeing him with hair can unsettle the unsuspecting viewer.

3) The story line develops too slowly. The way the film was marketed, one expects a big pirate action adventure with a major historical battle as the climax. Realistically, the film is more dialogue driven with a strong romantic interest. It takes far too long to lay out all the conflicts Lafitte must resolve in order to make the decision that essentially forms the heart of the movie. Apparently, the real Lafitte actually had an affair with the governor’s wife rather than his daughter as portrayed on film. I suspect that had more to do with appealing to both men and women, as well as keeping with the social mores of the time.

. . . And Three Reasons For Fans to Watch It Anyway

1) Heston, Brynner, and Stevens light up the screen. Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner reprise their co-star duties from The Ten Commandments. Now this film should never, ever, be mistaken for that masterpiece, but these two guys were film giants in an era known for its movie stars. Interestingly, although it’s a supporting role, I actually liked the performance of Heston as Jackson better than Brynner’s Lafitte. He’s in the very first scene and creates such a commanding presence that he dominates every scene he’s in, including those with Brynner. It may come down to something as simple as Heston being born to play historical figures. It’s all about the “gravitas”. This is not to say Yul was deficient. He’s an incredibly commanding figure to be sure, yet for me, Heston loomed larger.

Inger Stevens is an actress who died too young and never received much credit for her craftsmanship. I found her to be both beautiful and compelling in this film as the governor’s daughter and Lafitte’s love interest. There is just enough of a clash between lovers from two different cultures to create plausible romantic tension.

2) Hey, come on . . . we ARE talking “The Battle of New Orleans” here, aren’t we?! The costumes alone are magnificent considering when it was made. In fact, the only academy award nomination for The Buccaneer was for costume design. What ultimately won me over, though, is the advance through the fog by British Troops under artillery bombardment while the Black Watch dutifully plays an attack march on their bagpipes. This particular custom was designed to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy, and there can be no doubt it usually had a chilling effect. In fact, I’d love to see a really good depiction of the Battle of Long Island during the American Revolution, when the British got in back of Washington’s militia. His soldiers had no idea what was coming until they heard the skirl of the pipes -- behind them! This battle scene has a definite “in the studio” feel and has neither the realism nor scope of more modern depictions of war. Still, it’s not bad for the 1950ʼs, and represents the main reason I “just had” to see it again.

3) The Buccaneer looks great in 1080p. True, it was not given the high-end restoration techniques bestowed on Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. In fact, since I have not seen it in DVD format, it is quite possible this particular restoration would work nearly as well in 480i if a good scaler is handy. Either way, it is amazing how good they can make 50 year old productions look anymore. And at two hours, it doesn’t require that extra long time commitment so often associated with costume period pieces.

So, the bottom line is you can enjoy this one as an interesting study of film techniques in the 50ʼs, as a chance to see some great actors of that era play off each other, or just a chance to see an interesting period in American history portrayed. But if you do happen to pass on it, rest assured you should not lose any sleep over your decision. What other periods or topics in American history do you feel need to be visited again in film?


P.S. How did this poster escape Andrewʼs article on that topic?

38 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for a great review of a movie I thoroughly enjoyed. I like both Heston and Brynner very much and this was a fun film to watch. And you're right, it was weird to see him with hair!

Doc Whoa said...

Jed, Thanks for the review. I have not seen this film, I am ashamed to admit. I thought I had, but this is not the one I saw. The one I saw involved English pirates walking through the jungles to Tortuga? I will now need to check this out. :D

Tennessee Jed said...

Doc - you are welcome, and thanks for your comments. I have been on a 50's jag recently. I suppose just getting nostalgic for my youth. Still, while I have seen at least parts of this once or twice over the years on t.v., it doesn't really come up that often. I admit I'm a mega Heston fan, and Yul is close behind when it comes to lead actors from the 50's. This isn't either of their best, but certainly was worthwhile for me, anyway. I suppose now it is on DVD & Blu-Ray, it could be obtained through a service like Netflicks pretty easily.

Doc Whoa said...

Jed, You're welcome. And thank you! You're the folks doing all the work!

I'm like that too where I decide I want to watch films from the 1950s or 1960s or 1980s.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, You're thinking The Seahawk with Errol Flynn, which I just saw for the first time about a month ago.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm a big fan of both men as well. My favorite Brynner is Magnificent Seven, though Westworld comes in a close second. With Heston, it's Planet of the Apes by far.

Tennessee Jed said...

Doc - what periods in history would you like to see more of?

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - Magnificant Seven, which was adapted from a Japanese work, is one of my favorite ensemble pieces. That film helped me appreciate some of the guys whose stars were on the rise like Bronson and Coburn. I loved Westworld as a movie, and Yul did a good job, although it hardly struck me as one of his tougher roles. Now Planet of the Apes is a different story, entirely. While Ben-Hur is still at the top of my list, along with Big Country for Heston roles, he did a great job in "Planet."

What would you like to see on film from American history? Personally, I'd love to see a good high end mini-series made of David Nevin's trilogy "Eagle's Cry", "1812" and "Treason."

Ed said...

Jed, This is solid film. I think you're right about the lack of films about the War of 1812 and that makes this film stand out.

ScottDS said...

I've never seen this film but it sounds interesting, both for the good and not so good reasons you mention. It is amazing what a good restoration can do, as long as the studios are careful with their grain reduction. Some actors can be reduced to wax statues if they dial the grain all the way down.

From what I understand, this is one of Paramount's catalog titles that they licensed to an indie outfit called Olive Films for release. They can only work with what Paramount gives them.

And yeah, Heston definitely had a way of commanding the screen. As an aside, True Lies was on the other day and I had forgotten Heston was in it. He plays the head of the intelligence agency that Arnold and Co. work for. He even gets to wear an eye patch, though I don't know if James Cameron based him on anyone specifically.

As for American history, I'd love if HBO reassembled the John Adams crew once every year or two and worked their way through the Founding Fathers. David Morse needs to play George Washington again one day!

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Ed - actually, I can't help but think how interesting it might have been if DeMille had made it into a musical. Afterall, 1776 worked quite well. How this "the bayous are alive, with the sound of rajun' Cajun' pirates" :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Westworld wasn't a hard role, but I just really enjoyed it. He was truly menacing. Apes was a much tougher role than people give Heston credit for. That film was not schlock.

Magnificent Seven comes from Seven Samurai, which is a favorite film of mine too. Brilliant movie! I love the camaraderie in Magnificent Seven and it was great to see all these guys together. It was like The Expendables only with a great story.

Other eras I would like to see on film? Hmm. Let me think about that. (Am kind of swamped at the moment). I'll get back to you on that soon.

Tennessee Jed said...

This was hardly a great restoration. Certainly the level of detail is no where near what it was in"Ben-Hur" or "Ten Commandments." The grain is not eliminated, though. It's just not as obvious as it was in Godfather I, for example.

One of the problems with using the same cast members is they age. Thus, if you wait to long between projects and try to duplicate characters at the same or younger age, you have problems. A perfect example was Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. In the "Gods and Generals" movie, he was several years older and fatter than he was in Gettysburg, even though the time period supposedly covered was pre-1863. I think the original Star Trek films did a good job with making sure the stars were understood to have aged. Although, an older fatter Admiral Kirk as a fighter was not, uh, you know, to authentic.

In terms of Washington, Barry Bostwick, Jeff Daniels, and Morse all portrayed him. Morse probably did the best job, and looks the most like him. If anyone wants to see what Washington really looked like, go to Mt. Vernon. There are three state of the art figures that were made using Washington's clothing, his desk mask, and a Univ. of Arizona anthroplogy facial reconstruction program. He is depicted at 19, while at Valley Forge, and while be inaugurated. You feel like you have been magically transported back to see him alive.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - that last comment of mine was directed to your points, and I forgot to "address" you; sorry ;)

DUQ said...

Good stuff Jed! I have never seen the beginning, but I've seen the ending and I love the battle scene. I also like the unabashed heroism in the film. This feels like and epic film in that regard, because everything is larger than life.

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ - appreciate it, DUQ. Yes, we had real heroes back in those days, for sure. It had potential to be epic, for sure. Sometimes, it is a little hard to go back and see a film after so many years. One almost courts disappointment. I think an appropriate analogy might be going back and seeing the house you grew up in after 30 years. It would seem such a smaller scale today, because your are so much larger than you were as a youngster.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

That's okay, and I kinda figured the last comment was directed to me as well. :-)

And I wasn't implying this was a great restoration, though at this point it's a miracle whenever a catalog title is released. Sadly, that's not where the big bucks are. (Unless it's one of the big classics like Casablanca - then the studios will re-release them year after year!)

Tennessee Jed said...

BTW, Scott - it probably is self-evident, but in my reply to your comments, I mentioned figurines of Washington in which his face has been "reconstructed" using a computer program. I meant to say it also utilized his "death masque." That was fairly common for important people back then. To get his size correct, in addition to his own clothing, there was a bronze statue of G.W. that had been made by a famous French sculpture of the day. He took exacting measurements, so that it would be correctly life-size.

DUQ said...

Jed, They do say you can never go home and that seems to be true. There are many films I remember from when I was young which haven't held up to the test of time.

Right, this film had potential to be epic, though it ultimately isn't. But it does have an epic like feel to it and I like that.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I have been enjoying 1980s films a lot lately, though I don't want to see films about the 1980s.

I wouldn't mind seeing more films about the 1920-1930s in Germany and Asia or non-liberal films about the 1960s. I also wouldn't mind seeing a good film about the Russian Revolution.

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: I hadn't seen the film in years, but I do remember liking it a lot but thinking "there's something I'm missing here." They swashed their buckles OK, and Brynner and Heston were their usual larger-than-life selves. Now I know for the first time what I was missing. The overly-stagey parts were because it was intended to be a musical. I never knew that before. In any event, as much as I like the movie, I liked the earlier Fredric March version better. The film wasn't nearly as grand, but much more realistic and March never stood there waiting for his cue to sing. LOL Great review.

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ - I agree. So who would you or anybody else cast as Lafitte and Jackson if you were casting a re-make today?

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - assume you didn't care much for Shirly McLaine's brother, eh?

Tennessee Jed said...

I never got to see that version, Hawk. Don't even know if it is available anywhere today. Who would you cast today?

T-Rav said...

Since I haven't seen this, I'll just say that I have been to the battlefield at Chalmette, and for being so close to the city of New Orleans, a surprisingly large amount of it is well-preserved (or at least was: I went pre-Katrina). I thought the tour guides were a bit lacking, though.

Tennessee Jed said...

hopefully you toured with a cup 'o chickoree and pralines 'n cream, Rav. It's amazing how helpful it can be when you get a local struggling aspiring actor for living history stuff. It is so obvious they enjoy what they do.

Joel Farnham said...

Jed,

What I wonder is why aren't there more movies of 1812? Wasn't that the war that actually solidified the United States as a nation? It is where the US told Great Britain, "No, you can't impress Americans for your war."

I just found out the 1812 Overture wasn't made because of the conflict between the US and Great Britain. It was made for when Napoleon invaded Russia that same year. I think we co-opted it by default. France wouldn't want it and "Life" and "History" didn't begin in Russia until they became the Soviets.

Tennessee Jed said...

Joel - I agree. I think the whole period from 1800 - 1820 is a fascinating time. Louisiana purchase. Jimmy and Dolly Madison, John Paul Jones, burning of the Whitehouse, Fort McHenry, the treachery of Aaron Burr. It is a 20 year period crying out to be done well on film. Our children and granchildren deserve it done right, not through some Hollywood liberal revisionist.

Beethoven later apologized when Napoleon turned from hero to expansionist.

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: March played Lafitte, and Jackson was a much smaller part in the original (he was played by Hugh Sothern). Interestingly, Anthony Quinn played one of the pirates (named Beluche). It was more a pirate-turned-patriot film than a genuine story of the Battle of New Orleans, and it played fast and loose with history. But it was a lot of fun, and got the atmosphere surrounding the seamy side of the Delta and the bayous just right.

There are so many lightweight actors around today that it would be easier to cast the semi-mythical Lafitte than the bigger-than-life Jackson. But I could see Johnny Depp as Lafitte (with a whole lot less Sparrow makeup). You may think I'm crazy, but with the right aging makeup, Lucas Black might make a very good Jackson. And if they do it as a musical this time, Lou Diamond Phillips would be a perfect Lafitte, since like Brynner he has the stage experience of playing the king in The King and I. That way when the cast all stopped moving, waiting for the star to sing, there would actually be singing.

The original DeMille/March film is available on NetFlix.

Loved pralines and cream, but I had my first (and last) mint julep in New Orleans. When visiting New Orleans, I highly recommend the pink caviar omelette followed by the scrumptious bananas foster dessert at Brennan's in the French Quarter (assuming it's still there after Katrina).

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - I've been to Brennan's, but somehow remember having the eggs Benedict :) I could see Daniel Day-Lewis as Jackson. Two others that might be able to pull it off are Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe or James Cromwell. For Lafitte, I could go for Viggo Mortenen, Billy Bob Thornton or maybe Callum Rennie or even Jeff Bridges.

T-Rav said...

Jed, no pralines, but we did have gumbo, jambalaya, and bread pudding on a steamboat on the Mississippi right before making the tour. Say what you will about New Orleans, but they have some awesome food.

My favorite French Quarter stop was the Cafe du Monde, where we had powdered beguettes for breakfast two or three days in a row. As I recall, the Quarter survived Katrina pretty much intact (it's one of the few parts of the city that's significantly above sea level), so it, Brennan's, and everything else should still be there.

Tennessee Jed said...

gumbo, jambalaya and Delta Queen all work for me, Rav. My favorite was Antoine's, but that was almost 30 years since I've been there.

Who would you cast if you were making the movie today?

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: In a case of misplaced loyalty, I have to say the best eggs Bendedict is served at Perry's in San Francisco.

I should have thought of Daniel Day-Lewis for Jackson. With some wild gray hair, he would look like Jackson even without makeup. And we know he's a consummate actor. I think Cromwell would be good as a much later and much older President Jackson. I really like your choice of Callum Rennie, a much under-appreciated actor, for Lafitte. I also think Rennie might do a very good job as Jackson.

Tennessee Jed said...

that actually occured to me as well, Hawk. And if you think about it, Day-Lewis could even do Lafitte. He has the dark eyes, and could sort of get his "Gangs of New York" on to play an alternately charming, but wild pirate. I thought about Depp, and then felt like he had become so identified with Jack Sparrow, it would be tough to do his as Laffite.

ScyFyterry said...

Jed, I meant comment yesterday and my internet went down. I don't rate this film as highly as the other Heston and Brynner films, but I do like it a good deal for the reasons you've mentioned.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Terry. I appreciate it. Agreed - It's not a terrible film, just not their best

Lars Walker said...

Thanks for the praise for Inger Stevens. One of the underappreciated actresses, and beauties, of my lifetime.

Tennessee Jed said...

Lars - I agree!

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