1812 and All That

I think we can safely say that watching any movie about historical events or people must be taken with a grain of salt in terms of its details. It simply goes with the territory that artistic license will be involved in spicing up a story in order to keep a large audience interested.

This was probably even more true in the studio era when The Buccaneer (1938), directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille, was made.  The story concerns the War of 1812 (as we mark its 200th anniversary) and the work that Jean Lafitte, “privateer” (aka pirate), did in helping the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans. In its general outline, the film is factual—see the entry for Lafitte in The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812—but beyond that, one must simply acknowledge that, on top of presenting an exciting and complicated historical event, DeMille wanted to give us a rousing good tale of pirates, war, integrity and romance. 

Frederic March plays Lafitte, and he’s surrounded by a whole bevy of colorful characters, real and imagined, from Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from British destruction, to Akim Tamiroff as the perfect pirate, to Walter Brennan as one of Andrew Jackson’s coon-skin capped fighters, to Hugh Sothern as the future President Jackson in all his earthiness and bravery.  While some of the more unpleasant pirating activities are taken out, the movie still makes clear that Lafitte, despite the offer of amnesty he receives from the Americans, has some unsavory things from his past that must be dealt with. This leads to a very satisfying conclusion of an already thrilling tale.


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Written by David


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