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Buccaneer, The (Blu-ray Review)

5 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer, Inger Stevens, E.G. Marshall, Lorne Greene, Henry Hull.

During a pre-credits sequence in the final movie “supervised” by one of the industry’s foremost legends (then and now), an aged Cecil B. DeMille appeared on screen in immaculate VistaVision and Technicolor to deliver some historical context for what audiences were about to see, just as he had two years previously to launch The Ten Commandments, his crowning directorial achievement. He looked tan but also gaunter than in the earlier film, not quite filling his shirt collar. While on location in Egypt shooting the Exodus scene for the Moses epic, DeMille had suffered a widely concealed but near-fatal heart attack — which is why by this time he could only supervise and not direct the remake of his own eponymous 1938 hit. This latter chore went to his longtime son-in-law: Anthony Quinn.

This was a big mistake, as you can see in Olive’s splendid print of a large scale costume adventure that for some reason didn’t get letterboxed in Pioneer’s laserdisc version give or take 20 years ago. As some said of DeMille himself, Quinn isn’t at all deft at handling actors (though there are a handful of good performances here) or at   staging battle scenes in a frequently outdoor spectacle where virtually every scene transparently takes place on sets. And yet the movie is so gorgeous to look at (an Elmer Bernstein score never hurts, either) that I am not the only person who has some minor affection for it, misplaced as it may be.

Olive is presumably releasing the 1958 The Buccaneer (and the original 1938 version with Fredric March on April 24) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 — though the episode portrayed here comes in the final inning (late 1814 and early 1815) amid a clash that certainly had an extended run, given its billing. There’s definitely some script embellishment here, as in a romance that would have been factually impossible age-wise between French pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) and a blond babe (Inger Stevens) who happens to be the daughter of Louisiana Gov. William C.C. Claiborne (E.G. Marshall). As the movie was going into release, a Claiborne descendant threatened a lawsuit against Paramount for this false depiction — Southern honor and all that. This movie launched, by the way, that brief period when Yul either donned hairpieces on screen (think also of Martin Ritt’s movie of The Sound and the Fury — albeit at your own peril) or simply never took off his hat (The Magnificent Seven).

The Buccaneer’s gist, which is true, is that Gen. Andrew Jackson himself (Charlton Heston in something between an extended cameo and full part) agreed to pardon the pirate and any of his men who aided Americans on the lines against the invading British at the Battle of New Orleans. Heston has so much authority in the role (he’d previously played Andy in 1953’s not-on-DVD The President’s Lady) that the movie threatens to offer a little more than just the utmost in visual cosmetics once he and Brynner begin to interact in the movie’s final third. Charles Boyer is also a welcome presence as a Lafitte subordinate — and while Stevens is stiff in an undeveloped role, Claire Bloom represents some successfully imaginative casting as a tomboy-ish pirate chick, decked out in a short haircut that I can’t recall resembling anything she sported in any other film. But Bloom, too, is underutilized because this is a “guy” drama with minor helpings of femme beauty sprinkled in. Singer Fran Jeffries (later twice in Playboy at age 40 and beyond) also made her screen debut here as “Cariba — Mawbee Girl” — but she’s on and off the screen in a blink.

John Schlesinger’s underrated ’30s-set movie of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust contains a scene in which a set collapses as a Hollywood production company is shooting the marching Brit redcoat invasion in the first version of The Buccaneer. When I saw Locust, I couldn’t precisely recall a parallel scene from that that black-and-whiter, which I hadn’t seen in an age. But there’s one very much like it in this remake (which, a la Locust, is in color so you can see the similarities). Fortunately for Quinn, his crew and Paramount bean counters, the set held — though their film would have had a lot more lust for life (to quote the title of a movie that had recently won Quinn a supporting Oscar) had an obviously expensive movie gotten itself out of the soundstage more. For his part, Quinn didn’t like the movie and claimed DeMille recut it to his dissatisfaction.

Whatever the case, this was all pretty late in the C.B. game: The Buccaneer opened in New York late in 1958, and DeMille died on Jan. 21, 1959 as the film was going into general release. This is one of the real “might have been’s” of is era, though I probably would have bought Olive’s release anyway had I not received a review copy — so stunning is it to look at in that stirringly unique VistaVision kind of way. It’s interesting to speculate how much better the picture’s box-office performance might have been had it come out just a few months later. In late spring of 1959, Johnny Horton’s surprise behemoth hit of “The Battle of New Orleans” spent six weeks as the No. 1 single on the Billboard charts, running through the briars and brambles to such a degree that Homer & Jethro scored a second hit with a parody.

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