The Buccaneer (1958)

 

 

 

Director:     Anthony Quinn

Starring:     Yul Brynner (Jean Lafitte),  Claire Bloom (Bonnie Brown),  Charles Boyer (Dominique You),  Inger Stevens (Annette Claiborne),  Henry Hull (Ezra Peavey),  E.G. Marshall (Gov. William Claiborne),  Charlton Heston (Gen. Andrew Jackson),  Lorne Greene (Mercier),  Ted de Corsia (Capt. Rumbo),  Douglass Dumbrille (Collector of the Port),  Robert F. Simon (Capt. Brown).

 Yul Brynner plays the role of the buccaneer Lafitte, to whom Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) has to turn to for help in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.  

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"Jean Lafitte -- last of the Buccaneers -- lives on in Bryon's immortal words:  'He left a Corsair's name to other times.  Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes.'  Three American Presidents condemned, pardoned and again condemned this pirate.  But fate placed into the hands of this man-without-a-country the destiny of a country -- the United States -- fighting for its very existence in the War of 1812. . . . defeat had followed defeat.  Now, only one man stood guard to ward off the final death blow  --  a backwoods General called Andrew Jackson  -- with a handful of squirrel hunters and raw recruits.  "

A young soldier is on guard duty.  He stops to give a biscuit to a hungry dog.  General Jackson comes up from behind him, saying:  "That dog makes a sigh better sentry than you do."  The fellow asks if Jackson is British.  And he calls Jackson by the popular nickname "Old Hawk face".  Jackson just smiles and tells the fellow he's Jackson.  The young lad is impressed. 

Jackson returns to camp.  Ezra Peavy looks after the general and he scolds Jackson for being out in the cold, damp air.  Waiting for Jackson is Captain Wilkes reporting from President James Madison.  The British have captured Washington and burned the capitol building.  And a British invasion fleet is headed for New Orleans with 16,000 troops.  Jackson only has 1,200 men and many don't have shoes or musket flints. He looks over a map with another officer, plotting out some strategy.    He wants to put drops on the island of Barataria, but the other officers say he can't, because that area is controlled by Jean Lafitte the pirate.  Jackson says he'll just hang Lafitte.  Good luck!

Lafitte's men are selling goods off of ships they have taken over.  Many of New Orleans's wealthiest people come out for the excellent sales.    Dominique You, who Lafitte refers to as the general because of his battle experiences with Napoleon, stops a man from pick-pocketing.  He slaps the man and then returns a purse of money to a victim.  A tough young lady named Bonnie Brown chases off a fellow trying to collect 50% percent of the take from her for the benefit of Lafitte.  The ruckus leads to a brawl between some of the vendors.    Lafitte arrives and beats some of the men down with his cane.  Just then he sees Governor Claiborne's daughter, Annette Claiborne, arrive.  He pretends that he was putting on a little show for the people at the sale.  Lafitte goes over to see Annette. 

 Gov. Claiborne comes out in a coach to protest against the sale. 

Lafitte tells Annette he loves her.  She says that she is in love with a man who is trying to destroy what her father has tried to build up.  Annette wants Lafitte to be respectable.  For instance, she wants him to help fight the British because New Orleans could be the next city to be attacked.  There is a reward out of $500 dollars for Lafitte, dead or alive. 

The governor is arriving.  A look-out blows the alarm and the men quickly thrown their goods into their boats (pirogues) and push off.  Only the fancy ladies and gentlemen are left to greet the governor.  The governor is distressed that so many are doing business with what he regards as pirates. (Lafitte regards himself as a privateer.)  And that applies especially to his daughter.  Lafitte makes an appearance.  The governor tells Lafitte about his $500 reward dead or alive.  Lafitte says the amount of money is so low it's insulting.  He himself offer $10,000 dollars for the governor's ears.  The governor says that Andrew Jackson will blast Lafitte off his his Barataria home. 

Bonnie Brown's father is a ship's captain.  He's big and strong and knocks a few men down who insulted the prostitute he is walking with.  Bonnie tries to force her father off the wharves.  As they walk, the captain sees gold being loaded onto a ship.  That starts him thinking about the gold. 

On the ship carrying the gold is a boy named Miggs and his little terrier dog.  He sounds the whistle to tell all visitors to leave the boat.  One of the visitors is Annette.  She has come aboard to tell her sister, who is eloping with a Spaniard, to come home with her.  Sister refuses to go with her.  She tells off Annette, but then repents of it and apologizes.  Annette decides to let her go on her way, saying she wishes she could be at their wedding in Spain.  Before Annette leaves, sister tells her that she took the brand new dress Annette had especially made for her and their mother's locket with a portrait of mother in it. 

The captains of some of Lafitte's ships come into Barataria.  They say they are going to call a Captains Council because Lafitte may not be the boss for much longer.  The captains are mad that Lafitte won't let them sink American ships.  One captain says they should clear out of New Orleans before Gen. Jackson gets there.  In the council Lafitte says he doesn't like being pushed.  Bonnie shouts out that Lafitte is soft on the Americans because he wants the American daughter of the governor.  She says her father is out now after the ship the Corinthian carrying a quarter of a million dollars in gold.  Bonnie tells Lafitte that he's no longer the boss.  Her father will be the new boss.  Lafitte tells Bonnie that she better pray that her father hasn't taken the Corinthian

Lafitte sees Brown's ship next to the Corinthian.  Brown's men are busy taking the last booty off the ship. The only survivor is the young boy Miggs and his dog.  Now Brown has their cannon fire holes into the Corinthian so it will sink.  They have already set the ship on fire.  Lafitte has the long boat set in the water and filled with crewmen.  Brown's crew are examining the booty they have taken, when Lafitte shows up with his men on the ship. A rope is thrown around Captain Brown's throat and tightened.  Lafitte is furious about the massacre of all aboard the Corinthian.  he has members of Brown's crew pull one end of the rope hoisting Brown into the air where he slowly strangles to death. 

Captain Brown's crew wants to kill Miggs and his dog because he can be a witness against the crew.  But Lafitte take the lad under his wing to protect him.  A crewman takes the locket that belonged to Annette's sister away from another crewman.  When Bonnie learns that Lafitte hanged her father, she calls him a dirty, stinking murderer.  And some of the captains still say they should slit the lad's throat.  Lafitte throws a knife at their feet, telling them to go ahead and slit the boy's throat.  None of them can do it. 

Miggs follows Lafitte to his house.  Lafitte feeds the boy.    This is interrupted by the arrival of two British warships.  They signal that they are sending some of their officers ashore.  Lafitte signals back that they are welcome to come in.  Captain Lockyer does most of the talking.  He says that Lafitte controls the back door of New Orleans and they may want to use the bayous as a way to get to the main city.  Lafitte invites the British officers to dinner.  At dinner the British captain offer $30,000 dollars in gold and pardons for Lafitte and his men.  Lafitte is not impressed.  The plates they are eating off are solid gold.  In fact, there is more than $30,000 in gold right on the dinner table.  The British captain says that if he does not agree to their offer, they will blow up all of Barataria.  Lafitte says he will given them an answer within a week. 

Lafitte travels to see the governor.  He brings the British letters with him to show the governor.  Lafitte tells Claiborne that he wants to fight for the Americans and against the British.  The governor is suspicious of Lafitte's offer, but finally says he will speak to the Defense Council on behalf of Lafitte's proposal.  Claiborne thinks they will accept the offer.  Annette comes into the room and she and Lafitte pretend they don't know each other.  Her father introduces the two of them.     

Annette walks out with Lafitte.  Now she is proud of Lafitte and much more attentive to him.  She says that loving him is the most important thing in her life. 

Matters don't go well at the Defense Council.  Most are opposed to dealing with Lafitte.  Mercier is the most vocal opponent of cooperating with Lafitte.  Claiborne speaks again for Lafitte, but the prospects for success don't look good. 

Lafitte and Pike travel home.  They find Barataria wrecked by naval fire.  Lafitte figures the British decided not to wait for his answer.  Bonnie comes around and seems gleeful over his misfortune.  She tells him that it was the Americans who destroyed Barataria, not the British.  Lafitte thinks she's lying, but she gives him an American military hat.  But she also seems to still have a soft spot for Lafitte. 

At the governor's mansion, Annette sings for her dinner guests, one of whom is Gen. Jackson himself.  Commodore Patterson reports that Barataria has been completely destroyed.  Annette is shocked at the news.  There is other news.  The British fleet have been spotted only 30 miles away from New Orleans.  Mercier is not satisfied with what Jackson can do for them and Jackson gets so mad at him that he says:  "It is quite clear to me, sir, that you're either a coward or a traitor."  Mercier says nothing. 

Jackson goes to a private room.  Mr. Peavey goes in with him.  He has his medicine mixed with his milk and wants Jackson to be sure to drink it.  Jackson tells him to leave because he has a lot of thinking to do.  Lafitte shows up with two pistols in his hands.  Mr. Peavey comes in and gets the drop on Lafitte.   Lafitte has to back down.  He tells Jackson that he has a storeroom of powder and 8,000 flints that he will gladly exchange for his captured men.  Jackson writes out an order of release, but he won't give it to Lafitte until he tell Jackson where those supplies are.  A French settler comes in to say that the British are at his plantation eight miles south of here.  Lafitte shows Jackson where the plantation is located on the map.  Jackson gives the release paper to Lafitte, who tells Jackson that he will get the supplies on the battlefield itself. 

A guard goes into the prison and picks out Dominique You.  Dominique speaks with Lafitte, who shows him the release order from Jackson.  And each man will get a pardon if they fight on the battle lines with the Americans.  Lafitte leaves. 

On the battlefield Jackson and his men are preparing their defensive positions.  The British will be coming across an open field while the Americans will be behind barriers.  It doesn't sound good for the British.  Jackson is very aware that he needs those supplies promised by Lafitte. Over 300 civilians dressed in suits come from New Orleans to fight.  Jackson speaks with Gov. Claiborne.  All of a sudden there is quite a lot of firing.  A messenger arrives to tell Jackson that there are thousands of British soldiers nearing the American position.  British cannon open fire followed by rockets. 

Suddenly, Lafitte and his men arrive carrying the supplies for the battle.  The men start distributing the supplies to the troops on the line.  Dominique You decides to do something about the rocket attacks.  He has one of his men climb a tree to discover exactly where the rockets are coming from.   The estimate is that the position is 600 yards ahead.  Dominique aims the cannon and hits the place where the rockets are, sending the rockets in all directions. 

The British start their march.  They are all lined up in formation and will make easy targets, but fog prevents the two groups from seeing each other.  Lafitte and a couple of his men go out to the point where that is 300 yards out.  This is the point at which the Kentucky long rifle can reach the enemy.  Lafitte has a native American fire a lit arrow along the 300 yard line.  The riflemen wait 40 seconds for Lafitte and his men to get out of the way and then they open fire on the British.  The red coats start falling.  The Americans defeat the British and the church bells ring in celebration. 

There is a big celebration dance after the battle.  Miggs shows up and asks a little girl to give a message to Gen. Jackson that Miggs is here.  The little girls mentions that she is delivering a message from Miggs and one of the men recognizes the name and goes looking for Miggs.  He finds Miggs and asks him how he got her so fast?  The boat he was on has not even returned yet to New Orleans.  Jackson gets up to announce his thanks to his troops in general and to Lafitte, in particular.   He retires to a private room.  He runs in Dominique who is accompanied by Bonnie Brown.  Bonnie is wearing the dress taken from the ship where the massacre of the crew and passengers happened.

Dominique and Bonnie Brown says hello to Lafitte and Annette.  Annette tells Bonnie that she had a dress just like hers, until her sister took it on the Corinthian.  Dominique and Annette go and dance and Bonnie apologizes to Lafitte for the dress.  The little girls delivers Miggs's message to Lafitte. 

By now there is a crowd around Miggs.  The men ask him if the Corinthian was sunk and if it was by Lafitte.  Lafitte tells the men that he was the boss of those who sank the ship.  These makes the men so angry that they are going to hand Lafitte.  Peavey gets Jackson and he stops the hanging party.  Lafitte tells Jackson that he was responsible for the sinking.  Jackson grants Lafitte a one hour start to get away.  Annette says she is going with Lafitte, but he tells her that they would only have a life of running away.   He also says he loves her too much, to take her with him. 

Lafitte is back on the high seas.  Bonnie Brown goes over to him to stand by his side. 

 

Good movie.  My wife complained that the film must have been shot indoors in a studio because of the many static backgrounds.  She just didn't like the look of the film.  That didn't bother me as much as it did her.  Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston were both very good as Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson respectfully.  The love story ending was a bit disappointing.  The main point of the story seems pretty accurate, even though I don't need everything in a film story to be true. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

  

 


Historical Background:

 

1776  -- birth of Jean Lafitte.  It is not certain where he was born. 

1780s – Lafitte may have been born in the French territory Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Many residents of that area resettled on the Mississippi River delta (which was then owned by France). He traveled together with his widowed mother and brother Pierre to New Orleans, Louisiana.

c. 1784 – his mother marries Pedro Aubry, a New Orleans merchant. His brother Pierre goes to be raised by relatives elsewhere in Louisiana.

His elder brother operates from Saint-Domingue as a privateer. Lafitte may have helped in dispersing the merchandise.

1804 – President Jefferson buys the Louisiana Territory.

by 1805 – he may have run a warehouse in New Orleans and possibly a store on Royal Street.

Little is known about Lafitte's first 20 years of life.  There are other versions of his early life. 

1808 (January) – the US begins to enforce the Embargo Act of 1807. American ships are barred from docking at any foreign port. The Lafitte brothers look elsewhere for another port. They smuggle goods to local merchants.

The Lafitte brother settle on the small island of Barataria, in Barataria Bay, the barrier islands of Grande Terre and Grande Isle.

Goods are smuggled into Barataria and then sent out by pirogues through the bayous to New Orleans.

by 1810 – Barataria is now a booming port.

1812  --  Lafitte and his men start holding auctions a memorial mound halfway known as the Temple between Grande Terre and New Orleans.

1812 (October) – the Lafitte brothers purchase a schooner, hire a captain and use the ship as a privateer.

1813 (January) – their first prize is a Spanish ship carrying 77 slaves. The brother sells the slaves and the cargo of goods for $18,000 dollars. They turn the Spanish ship into another privateer, named Dorada. They used it for awhile, but then gave it back to its captain because it was not very useful as a privateer.

The Lafittes use a third ship La Diligent as a privateer.

Their fourth ship was renamed Petit Milan.

1810 (September) – Governor William C.C. Claiborne takes a leave of absence. Thomas B. Robertson serves as acting governor. Robertson wants to do something to stop the Lafittes and their operations.

1812 (June 18) – the United States declares war on Britain, beginning the War of 1812.

The small United States desperately need warships, so they offer letters of marque to private armed vessels. New Orleans issues six of these letters. Lafitte got some of these letters of marque. Booty from captured British ships are sent to the American authorities in New Orleans.

These authorities try to halt the Barataria operations, but don’t have enough naval ships to accomplish anything. So the government turns to legal action.

1812 (November 10) – United States District Attorney John R. Grymes goes after Lafitte.

1812 (November 16) – 40 soldiers ambush and capture Lafitte, Pierre and 25 unarmed smugglers. The captive posted bond and never returned for trial.

1813 (March) – Lafitte registers as captain of Le Brig Goelette la Diligente in order to establish himself as a privateering captain.  Lafitte soon gained a letter of marque from Cartagena.

1813 (March 15)  --  Governor Claiborne issues a proclamation against Lafitte. 

1813 (October) – a revenue officer ambushes Lafitte's smugglers; one of the authorities was wounded; the smugglers get away.

1813 (November) – the governor offered a $500 reward for Lafitte's capture. Lafitte writes to Claiborne refuting the piracy charges.

1814 (January) – Lafitte launches another auction – this one just outside New Orleans. The authorities try to stop the auction and one of them is killed and two are wounded.

Gov. Claiborne requests from the new state legislature permission to raise a militia company to combat Lafitte and his men. No militia is ever raised.  Pierre Lafitte, however, is arrested and jailed.

1814 (August) – American authorities, under Commodore Daniel Patterson, plan an assault on Barataria.   Lafitte finds out and writes a letter to Gov. Claiborne in which he volunteers to help defend New Orleans.  Two days latter Pierre is allowed to "escape" from jail.

The British establish a base at Pensacola.

1814 (On September 3) – British ship HMS Sophie fires on a smuggling ship returning to Barataria. The British commander, Captain Nicholas Lockyer, wants to offer a deal to Lafitte. Lafitte and his men are offered British citizenship and landholdings in the British colonies if they help the British against the Americans. If Lafitte refuses, the British say they will destroy Barataria. Lafitte requests 15 days to consider the offer.

1814 (September 13) – Patterson on the USS Carolina and six gunboats attack Barataria.  Lafitte gets away and only 80 of his men are captured. 

1814 (September 23) – Patterson sails back to New Orleans.

Governor Claiborne writes the US Attorney General requesting a pardon for the Baratarians. Then the governor in a letter tells General Andrew Jackson that Paterson "had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana." Jackson writes back: ""I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers".

1814 (December 1) – Jackson arrives in New Orleans. The city has taken no defensive steps to protect the city.

1814 (mid-December) – Jackson meets with Lafitte. The smuggler says he will fight along side Jackson if the United States will pardon any of his men who will agree to defend the city. Jackson agrees.

1814 (December 19) – the state legislature recommends a full pardon for all of the former residents at Barataria.

1814 (December 23) – advance units of the British fleet reach the Mississippi River.

Lafitte tells Jackson that his defensive line is too short. Jackson orders the line extended to the swamp.

1814 (December 28) – a British began attack is repulsed by an artillery crew led by two of Lafitte's former lieutenants.

1815 (January 21) – Jackson issued a statement praising his troops and mentions especially Lafitte and Pierre and some of Lafitte’s men. Then Jackson requests clemency for the Lafittes and the men who fought in the Battle of New Orleans.

1815 (February 6) – Lafitte and his men are all pardoned.

late 1815 and early 1816 – Lafitte brothers act as spies for Spain in the Mexican War of Independence.  Lafitte turns Galveston Island into a new Barataria.

1821 (May 7) – Lafitte with his mulatto mistress and infant son leave Galveston. They burn most of the structures they had erected on Galveston.

Lafitte now acts as a pirate and not a privateer. They preyed on Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

1821 (Oct or Nov) – Lafitte's ship is ambushed. He is soon taken prisoner and lands in jail.

1822 (February 13) – Lafitte escapes. He is active in Cuba.

1822 (late April) – an American warship captures Lafitte after he took his first American ship. He is turned over to local authorities and they let him go.

1822 (June) – Lafitte approached negotiates with the country of Colombia and becomes legally authorized to take Spanish ships. He also continues to patrol the shipping lanes around Cuba.

1823 (February 4) – cruising off the town of Omoa, Honduras, Lafitte mistakes two Spanish warships to be merchant vessels. Lafitte is wounded in the battle.

1823 (February 5) – Lafitte dies just after dawn. He is buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras.

No American newspaper ever carried an obituary for him.

 

 

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