Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer is a pirate movie by way of a grand historical adventure a la DeMille. Based loosely on the true story of the French-born “privateer” Jean Lafitte (he preferred the term to pirate), who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812, it stars Fredric March as the flamboyant Captain who targets foreign ships passing through the Caribbean and sells his pillaged booty to New Orleans society on the black market. His brazen ways earn him a bounty on his head, which he embraces with just a modicum pride (the $500 bounty is a little too low for his ego) and a lot of humor (he puts a bounty out on the Governor in return). This wanted man claims no nationality (“I am a privateer, under the flag of Barataria,” he proclaims) but he has a fondness for the still fledgling nation that made him Louisiana’s Most Wanted.
DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but is surprisingly accurate to the big picture of the historical record and to defining details that make Lafitte such a larger than life character. He makes his home in the self-proclaimed colony of Barataria, built on a cove deep in the Louisiana swamps, where his fleet hides from American law and conducted its smuggling and pillaging. He has standing orders to leave the crews and passengers of his victimized ships unharmed. And while he’s wanted by the State of Louisiana for his black market operations and high seas piracy, he’s quite popular among the citizens for breaking the shipping embargo on European goods.
More importantly, DeMille has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles. The Buccaneer opens in 1814 with the British invasion of Washington D.C. and the flight from the capitol. Spring Byington provides a classic DeMille take on Dolly Madison: cultured hostess with a streak of practical frontier spirit. As the presidential residence is evacuated in the midst of a reception, Dolly slips back in (without her guards) to retrieve a last-minute treasure before the British burns everything to the ground. What could be so important? Only the Declaration of Independence, she explains with a tossed-off aside and a matter-of-fact manner. That’s DeMille’s idea of American leadership — sophistication, aplomb, and simple can-do spirit — and this ideal defines General Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern), whose rustic dignity and colorful manner offers a hearty, earthy American contrast to the oily arrogance of British aristocracy and pompous stateside traitors.