Thursday, May 07, 2020

Reaping Ample Rewards with 1958's Overlooked Buccaneer

One of the pleasures of being a classic movie buff is the opportunity to discover a heretofore never-viewed movie (unwatched for a number of reasons but, in the age wherein most films can be found in some format, chiefly because the film has a reputation as a stinker, both critically and financially) then upon viewing the film finding “the bomb” to be surprisingly endearing. Of course the value of any movie is subjective and the majority may be right, while I’m in a cheerleading section of one, but I found 1958’s would-be blockbuster The Buccaneer, covering that 1814 trip along with Colonel Jackson Johnny Horton once mentioned in song, but centering around the unacknowledged pirate Jean LaFitte who had quite an impact on the  proceedings, to be a largely compelling, entertaining experience, and a lot more fun than many “prestige” pictures covering historical events in a somber manner and walking off with a passel of Oscars and decent ticket sales in the process. Buccaneer may not have the polish of some of those offerings, but I didn’t find myself yawning or dozing off through any of it, either.

Although first-time director Anthony Quinn faced the daunting task of filling in for the ailing Cecil B. DeMille (who looks frail- okay, near death- while appearing for the intro) and he can’t bring off those big, outrageous DeMille moments which might have given crew and cast members pause during filming but went over like gangbusters with the public (sly Cecil B. knew exactly what to do with that Golden Calf and Debra Paget, for example), Quinn’s sometimes dull but more straightforward approach works in favor of the film in at least one respect- namely, the actors dive into their roles with aplomb, and Quinn, frequently a great actor and/or ham himself depending on the occasion, allows them plenty of room to work, without big set pieces overshadowing their fine efforts. The movie has plot complications aplenty to lay out and Quinn doesn’t rise above maintaining a pedestrian feel in many of these scenes, but things gets better as the film goes along, and it wisely doesn’t push its luck past the two-hour mark, an asset many “big” films today could take a cue from. For me, Buccaneer doesn’t wear out its welcome and earns a place in the “Fun Popcorn Movie” category for me (and that is not meant as a slight or as a slight category in any way- The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain are also great popcorn movies).  

It seems Yul Brynner automatically got crap thrown his way any time he appeared onscreen with hair after his incredible 1956 break-out year in Ten Commandments, Anastasia and The King and I (who has a year like this? Just Yul and maybe Sidney Poitier in 1967) but as LaFitte he looks fairly dashing and yes, sexy in often very diverting pants, and he loses nothing as far as charisma goes either, which is a major advantage when playing the anti-hero Lafitte. Brynner does a great job not making it clear exactly which side LaFitte will battle on while still keeping a viewer’s loyalty with LaFitte, even if the suspense regarding who the swashbuckler will take up with regarding the War is nil, considering this is a large-budget 1958 American production.

Charlton Heston receives special “Co-Starring” billing, indicating he might not be around in the film much, but as Andrew Jackson he’s in very fine form and seems to be enjoying himself more than usual; someone must have noticed, as Heston’s around for much of the movie’s second half, and adds plenty of value to the movie in the process. It’s clear Heston loved playing yet another larger-than life hero (and in this case, yet again, as he previously played Jackson in 1953’s The President’s Lady), and in his sturdy hands you believe every move the fearless, commanding Jackson makes, specifically in his final scene, one of Heston’s best ever- big Chuck carries plenty of built-in presence, but he doesn’t usually grab attention this forcefully by forgoing his stock-in-trade (if effective) stoicism for a more fervent delivery. This time, he certainly had me straighten up and follow him in “Sir, yes sir” fashion during his kick-ass last moments. Also, as apropos for their characters in this film and not so much the last time they shared the screen in Commandments, Brynner and Heston appear to share a fine onscreen camaraderie, and it’s nice to see them on each other’s side and even smiling a time or two toward the other, after years of watching Heston wish a plague on Brynner and his followers via those Commandments repeat viewings.

Charles Boyer carries off his portrayal of Lafitte’s trustworthy ally Dominique You with his typical adeptness and grace, while lending a lighter tone at times to add some appealing color to the proceedings. I’ve never seen a film wherein Boyer hasn’t appeared to completely understand his character and perform with skill and charm, and once again he doesn’t disappoint as Dominique. As Bonnie Brown, an adversarial member of LaFitte’s party, Claire Bloom does have a fairly small role, but this great actress is never in danger of fading into the background, pulling off her assignment with skill and aplomb. Bloom was capable of looking and playing the beautiful, gentile leading lady, but she often tackled roles with the daring and commitment of a witch on a quest for some ruby slippers, resulting in fascinating, riveting work. Bloom’s cool, chic lesbian in 1963’s The Haunting is well-known, but check out what she pulls off as the restless, desperate nymphomaniac in 1962’s The Chapman Report for one of the more vivid dramatic performances by an actress in that period. In Buccaneer she plays her character’s feistiness for real; you can see she’s clearly engaged and magnetically “there” in every scene.

As a satisfying counterpoint to some of the more aggressive performing, Inger Stevens lends a lovely serene quality as LaFitte’s comely lady love, Annette Claiborne, while generating good chemistry with Brynner, making the mutual admiration between a blueprint example of "opposites attract" lovers believable. Stevens does a bang-up job of combining touchingly fragile, smart and willful elements into her appealing performance, which could have been a blank in the hands of a lesser ingénue. With Stevens leading individuality to Annette, audience empathy towards the character is complete (at least this audience), and you follow her plight with interest, hoping her romance with LaFitte can work out against the slew of obstacles typically found in a DeMille (or DeMille-like) epic.

When The Buccaneer was released in late 1958, it may have won the War onscreen, but it lost the battle with critics and at the box-office (about 3 million in American and Canadian rentals according to Variety, on about a 5 million budget, which included Paramount’s opulent Vista Vision and Technicolor that looks pretty good on the Olive Blu-Ray, which allowed me to finally take a peek at this buried treasure). I’m sure many could view the movie and believe I’ve lost my mind to defend it and enjoy it so much, but such are the intrigues involved in each individual’s experience of watching, reacting to and placing a value on movies according to each viewer’s specific tastes.


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