8 April 2006 | bkoganbing
We Fought the Bloody British for the Town of New Orleans
Cecil B. DeMille in 1938 turned his talent for spectacle to the legend of pirate Jean Lafitte and his contribution for saving New Orleans from British occupation in 1815 at the battle that bears the city's name.
The ironic part is that the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 had been signed a few weeks earlier, but news had neither reached the invading army commanded by General Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington; nor the Americans either in Washington, DC or the civil and military authorities in New Orleans. Had the British won they probably would have stayed for several years, I'm sure they wouldn't have given up so valuable a possession as the city that controlled the mouth of the Mississippi river.
Jean Lafitte is one of those characters not from antiquity about whom we know neither the date of his birth or death. He was born either in France or Haiti around 1780 and probably died sometime in the 1840s. As soon as the Louisiana territory was purchased from France, he set himself up in business nearby New Orleans in the swamps of Barataria and did a flourishing business in the smuggling trade. He may have had as many as a thousand men under his command.
Even after the fledgling American Navy attacked his stronghold, Lafitte for reasons of his own sided with the Americans in the fight for New Orleans that had nothing to do with the fictional romance portrayed in The Buccaneer. He did however provide men and supplies to Andrew Jackson's army and may have tipped the balance of the fight. Though he got a pardon as shown in the film, he resumed his pirate ways and eventually left New Orleans for Galveston Island. Eventually he was driven out of there in the next decade and after that we have no idea what really happened to him, though there is speculation.
Fredric March makes a dashing Jean Lafitte and DeMille staged the battle up to his usual high standards of spectacle. In addition to the fictitious romance between Lafitte and the Governor of Louisiana's daughter played by Margot Grahame, the other part of the film that is wholly fictional is that involving the traitorous United States Senator played by Ian Keith. No such a person was around New Orleans, though there was an anti-war movement breaking out here, but in New England which saw its commercial trade ruined by both Jefferson's Embargo and the War of 1812.
One thing that DeMille didn't do either in this film or the remake in 1958 was focus on Pakenham. The army that went to its slaughter in the swamps near New Orleans in a headlong assault were a veteran bunch of troops who had fought in the Peninsular War against Bonaparte. The commander was a much beloved brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington and he fell gallantly leading his men. Wellington thought of Ned Pakenham more like a kid brother of his own than his wife's brother. He took the news of the defeat pretty badly. In fact the news cast a pall over Great Britain so recently celebrating Napoleon's exile to Elba. Fortunately they and Wellington recovered to route Bonaparte in his comeback attempt at Waterloo.
Walter Brennan has a nice role as Andy Jackson's personal aide and Hugh Sothern is an impressive Jackson. DeMille introduced actress Franciska Gaal from Hungary in the role of castaway passenger from a ship that was plundered by one of Lafitte's ships. She didn't make much of an impression on the American public, perhaps it was her thick Magyar accent. After a film with Bing Crosby the following year, Paris Honeymoon, Gaal returned to Europe just in time for World War II and to a country allied with the Axis at that point. She was not heard from again on film.
When the remake came out in 1958, Paramount shelved this version of The Buccaneer and was rarely shown for the rest of the century. I got to see it during a TCM retrospective of Cecil B. DeMille. It's good DeMille, but far from good history.