Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.
Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.
The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.
The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.
The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.
Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.
Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.
Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.
Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.
Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.
He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.
The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.
Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE MADE IN 1938 BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.