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14 July 2017

The Buccaneer: "The Pirate Said He'd Help Us..."

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Dolly Madison flees the White House with the portrait of George Washington

This is all a lot of people know about Jean Lafitte, Andrew Jackson, and the War of 1812, if they know anything at all -- the great song by Jimmy Driftwood:

"Well, in eighteen and fourteen, we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Missisipp'
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we met the bloody British near the town of New Orleans

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin'
But there wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they begin to runnin'
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Well, I seen Mars Jackson a-walkin' down the street
And a-talkin' to a pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte
He gave Jean a drink that he brung from Tennessee,
And the pirate said he'd help us drive the British in the sea."

(Here's the original recording of the whole song.)

That's all right; that's why he wrote it. Jimmy Driftwood was a teacher and he wanted to come up with a way to interest kids in history. It turned out that he also had a great talent for singing and songwriting. But that's another story.

Two things are striking about about Cecil B. DeMille’s production of The Buccaneer: the first is that it is quite accurate, at least as far as the facts about Jean Lafitte, the subject of the film, are known. Unlike some of DeMIlle’s other historical epics, which can certainly be entertaining but are not notable for their deep commitment to historical reality, this one follows the facts even when the result is none too flattering to authority figures, who usually are flattered in a DeMille picture. (Barring, of course, the unlikely romantic entanglements, which are perhaps necessary but not at all convincing.) This is especially surprising because in the story of Jean Lafitte, the “Last Buccaneer,” the government of the United States does not come off too well, not to mention the government of Great Britain; Mr. DeMille’s 19th century sensibility usually led him to value authority more than, say, human rights.

Lafitte meets the New Orleans aristocrat he loves
Second is another really excellent performance by Fredric March, an actor much undervalued today. March was more interested in acting than in stardom and publicity; throughout the 1930’s he balanced a variety of historical roles like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Affairs of Cellini, and The Barratts of Wimpole Street with modern characterizations like Laughter, Design for Living, and Nothing Sacred, all of them to critical acclaim. His desire for serious work, however, led him away from movies to a major Broadway success in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Your Teeth in 1943; after this point, he alternated stage and screen projects, with great success in both. Future film roles included some of the finest ever made, the postwar classic The Best Years of Our Lives, Death of a Salesman, The Desperate Hours, Inherit the Wind, and Seven Days in May.

But let’s start at the beginning. The real Jean Lafitte was a French speaking seafarer, pirate, privateer, and/or businessman, depending on the point of view. It is not really known where he was born, it could have been either France or Haiti (then called Sainte Domingue). Somehow he and his brother Pierre (who doesn’t appear in the film) ended up in New Orleans running a very profitable import warehouse, largely stocked with smuggled goods. This worked out so well for them that they began engaging in piracy as well as smuggling; when the laws regarding imports and duties were tightened, the Lafittes moved their base of operations to an island called Barataria, which connected to the Louisiana bayous through winding, impenetrable waterways. Soon it became a small city, the inhabitants being French, Spanish, and other immigrants, Native Americans, runaway slaves, and seamen, not necessarily all pirates. Barataria became multi-ethnic semi-republic, operating along the democratic lines of pirate communities in ages past. Like other such communities, their existence was unacceptable to the government.

The Buccaneer opens in 1814, with the bewigged, red-coated British invading Washington, D.C., storming the White House — then called the President’s Palace — just as Dolly Madison (delightfully played by Spring Byington) has whisked away Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington and the Declaration of Independence, leaving a hot dinner on the table. Then the smarmily triumphant British officers sit down to finish Mrs. Madison’s food, and then decide to burn all the public buildings in Washington. They smugly assure each other that control of New Orleans is all they need for victory, and that it will be easy to defeat Andrew Jackson’s untrained, shabby army of backwoodsmen.

Then we move to the bustling scene of the sales of smuggled — and stolen — goods run by the Baratarians in the bayou, thronged with crowds of the well-to-do bargain hunters. Pretty much everyone is happy with this state of affairs except the local government officials, who feel they are being robbed of taxes, and merchants’ associations who resent the competition. Here we see Lafitte meeting in secret with a young New Orleans lady, Annette (Margot Grahame); she urges him to go straight so they can be married. Next we see a ship being captured by pirates, led by Mr. Brown (the ubiquitous and always good Robert Barrat), a brutal captain who defies Lafitte’s orders not to attack ships flying the American flag.

Lafitte executes summary justice
Brown is essentially engaged in a coup attempt against the leadership of Lafitte, who the inhabitants of Barataria call “Boss.” Intelligence of this reaches Lafitte, and he rushes to intercept Brown — but he arrives too late to save the unfortunate passengers on the Corinthian, who have been murdered, forced to walk the plank one by one. One sole stowaway is found, a Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal) and her little dog, who was hidden by one of the pirates for his own nefarious reasons. Brown insists that she too, despite her pleading and tears, walk the plank, and she does — but she is found in the water by Lafitte and his chief minion, Dominique (Akin Tamiroff), and pulled to safety, with her dog. She watches in horror as Lafitte boards Brown’s ship and summarily executes him and his first mate. None of the other mutineers object; Lafitte has demonstrated his power and leadership and they willingly accept his word as law.

Unsuspecting Baratarians fired on by American gunships
The governor of Louisiana, spurred on by legitimate commercial importers, has put a price on Lafitte’s head; but when the British commanders approach him to betray the American army and show them the secret ways through the bayou so the can encircle the city, Lafitte pretends to agree and instead has their written offer to him sent to the governor. But one of the governor’s advisors, acting as an agent for the British, convinces him that the offer is a forgery, and that the Baratarians should be wiped out for their criminal conduct. The authorities send gunboats to Barataria Bay, which the inhabitants greet happily, expecting allies — until they open fire, killing men, women, and children (and even Gretchen’s little dog — which we don’t see, but still).

Those survivors who can’t escape into the bayous are imprisoned, though Lafitte himself gets away, vowing revenge. This is where March really shines; all along he has shown Lafitte as a sophisticated, experienced man, who regrets his choice of lawlessness in the past, and really intends to become a solid citizen; after all, America is a country of second chances. But after the American attack on the ragtag community that put its faith in him, he feels that he has lost everything. He stares ahead into the mist as Gretchen poles a flatboat through the bayou, and when she tells him she has fallen in love with him, he gives a Gallic shrug which is at once startled, amused, puzzled, and resigned. This is acting; the character’s thoughts and feelings are as clear and natural as breathing.

Gretchen tells Lafitte her feelings
Meanwhile Andrew Jackson, extremely well played by Hugh Southern, has arrived to defend the city, with his trusty second in command, Ezra Peavey (Walter Brennan). Lafitte contrives a meeting and convinces Jackson — and later his men, who are none too trusting at this point — that they can still help defeat the British in exchange for pardons.

Jackson meets with Lafitte
There follows a terrific battle scene, brilliantly directed by DeMille. First you see hundreds of Baratarians emerge stealthily from the bayou in their pirogues (this part is atmospherically tinted green), answering eerie cries of “callalou”; then you see Dominique, once an officer under Napoleon, arming the troops. Then you see Jackson and his troops, supported by New Orleans “gentlemen,” forming a line to protect the city. Lafitte arrives with not just men but his own cannons. Then the regimented, uniformed British begin their disciplined advance, drums, fifes, and bagpipes playing. Lafitte, proving himself a skillful general, holds fire until they are close enough — then opens fire in a surprise barrage, his seagoing gunners proving just as accurate on land, if not more.

The noise, the fire, the confusion and terror, the valor of those who actually faced down these things, are presented with swift, telling cutting, though admittedly it is interrupted by the antics of the silly Dutch girl, who disguises herself as a boy to act as a “powder monkey,” responsible for bringing gunpowder to the cannoneers. It wouldn’t be so annoying if she turned out to be any good at it, but she’s more hindrance than help.

At Lafitte's call hundreds of Baratarians emerge from the bayous

Gaal's character is a type I find particularly annoying; she is not only a waif, but she's a busybody waif. Gaal herself is neither better nor worse than other actresses faced with such a character, and it is certainly a frequently used archetype, but to me this is definitely the downside to this movie. I wouldn't mind if she'd just go away but she's always there, but somehow never seems to do anything useful.

The British meet deadly fire

Be that as it may, the day is won by the Americans; indeed, the British commander was killed. Andrew Jackson, and Jean Lafitte, were the heroes of the hour, and grand receptions were held to honor them in the city, which always prided itself on its elegant French style. We see Lafitte entering the ballroom and being greeted in French by the previously snooty aristocrats.

Unfortunately, at one of the balls it is revealed — again through the agency of Gretchen — that the ship The Corinthian was sunk and all its passengers and crew murdered by pirates under Lafitte’s command. When he is asked if he is responsible, he says he is. Outrage reigns, and he is nearly lynched. Annette, whose sister was on the ship, will have nothing more to do with him.

General Jackson gives Lafitte time to leave the city
Since Lafitte has admitted to murder (even though we know he didn’t do it himself, and though he did personally murder the perpetrator), General Jackson declares his pardon void but gives him time to escape with his men, never to return to New Orleans. The final scene shows Lafitte on shipboard, heading for a new base of operations (in fact, he went to Galveston), the faithful Dominique and Gretchen at his side. And I'll have to give DeMille this; he shows Gretchen's devotion to Lafitte, but though he gently accepts her loyalty he shows no signs of being in love with her. Since he's just been finally rejected by the woman he's been in love with for years, it would be pretty unconvincing for him to turn to another immediately. So in defiance of movie tradition, there's no final embrace, just a gaze towards an uncertain future.

The end. She was the crying-est girl.
This film is unusual from Cecil DeMille in that the lead character cannot be heroic in any traditional mode -- he is at the very least a thief and murderer, even if he's sorry. And the romance, intrusive and inauthentic as it is, is also ambiguous -- Lafitte wants something he can never have, and so does Gretchen. It is a pirate movie without sword fights (well, there is one, but it's pretty pro-forma) or sea battles or billowing sails. But it is a remarkable and exciting story, with a rousing battle, and well worth seeing.

The real Jean Lafitte.