The Buccaneer (1938)




Director:    Cecil B. DeMille

Starring:     Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Anthony Quinn (Beluche),  Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne),  Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte).

Fredric March plays the role of buccaneer Jean Lafitte who helps Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.  


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"Jean Lafitte. Last of the Buccaneers, is known to the world by Byron's immortal words: 'He left a Corsair's name to other times, Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes.'"

"Three American Presidents condemned, pardoned, and again condemned this Pirate. But Fate placed in his hands the destiny of the United States, during its struggle for existence in the War of 1812 with Great Britain."

The President's Palace in Washington, August 1814. A slave rushes into the dining room to tell First Lady Dolly Madison that the British are coming. The American soldiers are running every which-away from Blainesburg.

[The British landed their army of 4,370 soldiers at Benedict, Maryland on the Patuxen River. The army proceed up the river. On August 24 commander Ross moved his forces east to Bladensburg, eight miles (12 km) northeast of Washington, D.C. The Battle of Bladensburg followed. It was "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms" and opened the way to Washington, D.C.]

Dolly dismisses the dinner party. She gives instructions to remove the painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart by destroying the frame around it. Daniel Carrol tells the people that they must keep their heads. He helps Dolly with her coat and tells her she must hurry. After going back to get the Declaration of Independence, she's ready to go.

[Messrs. Barker and Depeyster took the painting. Jean Pierre Sioussat, a Frenchman, directed the servants during the crisis.]

The British arrive at the President's Palace. They meet with John Crawford, who was dining with Molly and her guests, just moments ago.

[The soldiers burned down the buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives. Then they set the White House on fire.]

The British have dinner in the White House. They speak about New Orleans and the best way to capture it. Crawford tells them that Andrew Jackson will be commanding there. He also tells them about how to get through the bayous of the area that are rife with pirates. Jean Lafitte is the leaders of the "privateers". How do they get the cooperation of this Lafitte? Crawford says: "He can be bought." A British officer tells him: "Then buy him!" While the group has a toast to the capture of New Orleans, a soldier sets fire to the drapes over the windows in the dining room.

New Orleans. The American ship the Corinthian is set to sail today. There is a reward poster up: $500 dollars for the capture of Jean Lafitte dead of alive. It is signed by Governor William C. C. Claiborne. A young Dutch woman named Gretchen will be traveling on the ship. She says her father died and she has to go back to Holland.

Gretchen sits down on a bail of hay, but is soon being accosted by a man named Gamby who likes the way she looks. He gets too touchy and she slaps him across the face. The rude man sees a chest of gold being placed onboard the ship. He's definitely interested. He now leaves.

A young woman named Marie and her sister Annette come to pick up Marie's beau Charles. He soon disembarks from the ship and the couple kiss. Charles tells Marie that the captain of the ship will marry them when they are three miles out. Their one big worry is if tough old Aunt Charlotte should come down to the dock and stop them. They say goodbye to Annette and go aboard.

Gretchen sees an advertisement: Sale of rare and notable goods this day at the Temple. Signed by Jean Lafitte.

Lafitte's men are selling goods right from their small boats filled with treasure. Senator Crawford of the Louisiana legislature is there and he speaks with Lafitte. He says he came to buy some fine sherry to drink, but he is really here to bribe Lafitte.

In a fancy coach Aunt Charlotte arrives with Annette at the grand sale. A stout fellow named Dominique tries to sell them some goods. Aunt Charlotte asks if the man got these goods honestly? Dominique asks her, don't I look like an honest man? No.

Jean Lafitte sees Marie's pretty sister and motions for her to come over to him. When they get alone, the two kiss. Obviously, they know each other. Jean asks Annette to marry him, but she says she will only marry him if he becomes respectable.

The pirates learn that Governor Claiborne is headed their way. They quickly close up shop and paddle away. Claiborne is on his way with troops. When the governor gets out of his coach, he sees a lot of wealthy and influential people from New Orleans here, but the privateers are gone. But Jean Lafitte is there and so are many of his men, some of which are hiding nearby.

Lafitte asks the governor if he can be of any assistance? No. The governor starts to call for his troops to arrest Lafitte, but the privateer tells him not to because with a whistle he can have 100 armed men here.

So the governor turns his anger onto the citizens of New Orleans. He says that these good citizens must realize that by buying goods from Lafitte they are robbing the city of revenue. "Those goods are stolen. The men are desperate criminals with a price on their heads."

While the governor is talking, Lafitte puts up a wanted poster offering $10,000 dollars for the governor's ear. Claiborne doesn't think that's funny one bit. He tells Lafitte that soon General Jackson will be here and the tables will be turned.

Lafitte says Louisiana is making money illegally by selling sugar and cotton to the British. The privateer also says he respects the American flag and they have never taken over an American ship.

One of Lafitte's ships under Captain Brown captured an American merchant ship, taken its treasures and then set it afire. The captain says he's taking no more orders from Lafitte.

Gretchen and her little dog hid in a corner of a life boat and was taken aboard the pirate ship by none other than Gamby.  He still has a hankering for the young woman.

Lafitte learns that one of his own ships stopped an American ship, the Corinthian, taken its valuables and then set it afire. Lafitte jumps into immediate action.

Captain Brown hears Gretchen's little dog barking. The men look for the dog. They find the dog and Gretchen. The captain says he's going to make Gretchen walk the plank. She gives her dog to a huge fellow and asks him not to hurt the dog. Gretchen works her way to the end of the plank and then jumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

The dog gets away from the big man and jumps off the plank. Lafitte and some of his men are in a boat and they hear the dog barking. They start looking for a dog, but first they find Gretchen in the water. They pull her into the boat. Then the dog comes near and barks. Now they grab the dog.

Lafitte has taken Captain Brown's ship already. He asks how many boats did Brown put the Corinthian's crew and passengers in?  None. Lafitte says he's going to hang Brown. When Brown says Lafitte's not going to hang anyone, Lafitte socks him in the face and down he goes. When one of Brown's crew says they are no longer taking orders from Lafitte, the privateer shoots him down.

Brown is hoisted by a rope off his feet. Gamby now tries to stand up to Lafitte and exposes himself to the danger of a hanging or a shooting. Lafitte relents when Gretchen begs him that there be no more killing. They will take Gretchen with them because she is a witness to what happened to the Corinthian and she might rat them out. 

The pirate Dominique, who is taking care of Gretchen, tells her that she will only be safe if she sticks very close to the captain. She does so, but then she has to open her trap and say that she can tell that Lafitte is not a gentleman. With one finger ring a man is a gentleman, but a man with two finger rings is not a gentleman. Lafitte wears two rings.   Dominique scolds her for telling the captain that he is not a gentleman. Now the captain is mad at Gretchen. Gretchen says she will try again to stick to the captain.

The captain is sitting down and talking to his cockatoo bird who knows some words. Gretchen shows up in the cabin with her dog and the dog barks at the cockatoo. Lafitte tells his aide to take the dog and bird away. He then tells Gretchen that she has good reason to be afraid of the men because she is a witness who has the power to hang all the men.

Lafitte assigns Gretchen to scrubbing the floors. As she works, someone blows loudly on a horn. A British war ship approaches the pirates' lair. They send a row boat out under a flag of truce. Lafitte tells his aide to lock up Gretchen, while he talks to the British. Gretchen is not happy about this.

Captain Lockyer comes with two others to talk with Lafitte. Lafitte says he will not talk to them until after they have had dinner. While they start to eat, Gretchen starts shouting for help. Thank goodness for her, she soon stops screaming.

The British offers Lafitte money to show them the way into New Orleans through the bayous.

Gretchen finds a key and lets herself out. All of a sudden the British see what looks like a Dutch girl. They want to know who is this girl? Lafitte tells Gretchen to tell these distinguished men of the Royal British Navy who she is. She thinks for awhile. Gretchen puts her arms on Lafitte's shoulders and says that she is a "friend" of Mr. Lafitte. Lafitte asks Dominique to take Gretchen away. He does so.

Lafitte wants to know when the British want their answer. They want it today. As the British say, Britain can make a good friend, but also a very bad enemy. If they don't get Lafitte's cooperation, their orders are to blow up Barataria. Lafitte insists that he have an entire week. He says he has to discuss this with the men because, after all, they are a republic.

[Barataria was an island in Barataria Bay. It is part of the Mississippi Delta southwest of New Orleans.]

So the men are together to discuss what they should do. Among the group are a few trouble-makers, like Gamby, who would love to overthrow Lafitte. Gamby tries to sow discontent among the men. Lafitte reminds the men that they had no home to go to before he took them into Barataria. They were the scum of the earth. A pirate named Jacques says: "Ah, what do you know?" Lafitte walks over to Jacques and grabs him. He tells Jacques and everybody else that Jacques murdered his father. Lafitte then pushes him to the floor. Then he goes around the room telling of the different criminal offenses committed by various sailors. Then he comes to Gamby. He says that in Pensacola there was a nun that prayed for Gamby's soul with his knife in her throat.

Lafitte then gives a somewhat patriotic speech about the United States being a good home for them and he doesn't want the men to go running after the money the British can toss around. The home of the privateers, the mother to the privateers, the USA needs some help and the sailors just want to turn their backs to her?

Lafitte stands up and asks who will fight with him and for Louisiana and the United States? Dominique and Gretchen are the first two to say "Me!" But the others come around to support Lafitte. That is all of the men, except for Gamby.

Lafitte now goes to see the governor of Louisiana. He hands him the plans of the British and the governor is impressed. The governor comments: "I didn't expect this exhibition of loyalty from you, Lafitte." The two men shake hands.

With flowers Lafitte goes to speak with Annette. He tells her that now he has attained respectability. He and Gov. Claiborne are as thick as thieves. At first, Annette does not believe him. But he keeps repeating what happened until Annette does believe him.

They kiss. Aunt Charlotte comes in and is shocked and repulsed. She tells Annette to check on their silver because the pirate probably stole everything silver.them. Then she tells Lafitte to get out of her house. Lafitte says since he is branded a thief, he will take a large broach with a portrait of Annette in the center.

The spy Crawford looks at the papers given by Lafitte to the governor and says they are pure forgeries. The governor doubts Crawford but the other men in the room agree with the spy.

On Barataria the men and some women celebrate their recent surge of patriotism. Lafitte tells Dominique to take half the men to New Orleans to block the Bayou Catalan. He then tells Gretchen that she is living today for Holland, her home. Gretchen is upset and says that Holland is not her home. America is.

Gretchen says she will stay with Lafitte, but he objects that women can't fight. Gretchen tells him: "You don't know anything about women." Lafitte responds: "Does any man?" He takes out the broach with the portrait of Annette and puts it prominently on his desk. Now Gretchen gets even more upset. She gets so upset that she now says: "I will go, boss."

Two war ships arrive and Lafitte, seeing they are American ships, thinks they are to be welcomed. He sends his men out on boats to meet the ships. Crawford is on one of the ships and the captain gives the order to open fire on Baratari. Quite a few of the boats are destroyed and a cannon ball nearly hits Lafitte himself.

The men want to fire back at the ships, but Lafitte says no. He is going to wave the American flag at the ships hoping they will realize that they are firing on friendly forces. Gretchen runs to get the American flag. Meanwhile many men on shore are being killed and the cannon balls are wrecking the buildings on Baratari.

Lafitte gives the order for the men to head out to the bayous and hide. A cannon ball smashes near one of the Baratari cannons and kicks up a lot of debris. Dominique gets trapped under some of the debris. Gretchen runs over to him to try and get him free, but can't lift the debris off Dominique, who tells Gretchen to get out of here and save herself.

Lafitte is still waving the American flag back and forth. A rifle bullet clips the flag staff in two and the flag lands in the water. Gretchen runs into the water after Lafitte and pulls him back on shore.

The battle is over. The Americans have captured a group of the pirates. They are put in shackles. Dominique and Gamby are two of those captured. Crawford comes over to Gamby and asks that the pirate be put in jail. He wants to speak with him.

Crawford talks with Gamby who gives him information on Lafitte's plans to stop the British. Gamby tells Crawford to go up Bayou Catalan, but stop before they reach the pirate blockade. They can walk around the check point and head into New Orleans.

Gretchen uses a pole to push the boat on which a dejected Lafitte sits with his head bend over. He can't stop thinking about the loss of so many of his men. Gretchen tells Lafitte that she's in love with him. She's in love with him because he is a "very bad little boy".

Lafitte says he's going to New Orleans to get his men released from jail. Then he remarks that Gen. Jackson must have known about this.

The American soldiers under Jackson march into New Orleans. Many of the towns people are not impressed by the look of the soldiers, many of which are in the clothes of frontier men.

Jackson learns that the British are at Lake Borgne. Senator Crawford walks into Jackson's temporary headquarters. Crawford is congratulated for his victory over Lafitte and the Baratari pirates. This news nearly floors Annette who was just speaking with Jackson.

State senator Crawford tells Jackson that they are going to surrender New Orleans to the British. "That's the most dastardly suggestion I've heard during this war." says Jackson.   Crawford says that Jackson's army of back-woodsmen can't possibly stop the British. Jackson replies that these woodsmen are first-rate fighters, not a bunch of New Orleans dandies.

Jackson now thanks all the people who came out for this wonderful reception. He says he knows that many of the people are French, while others are Spanish. But today they are all Americans.

He now asks for what his army needs to fight the British: powder, food, flints and the to fight beside them. Crawford and his cronies come over a little later and say that they will surrender New Orleans to the British. Jackson says he'll burn New Orleans to the ground before he would give it over to the British. He then adds that Crawford and his sympathizers are pro-British. He tells his aide to kick these men out. The men leave.

Jackson sits alone in a large room. Lafitte comes out from behind some drapes and gets the drop on Jackson. Jackson asks who the man is and Lafitte tells him. Jackson asks, Lafitte the pirate with a price on his head? Lafitte tells him it's Lafitte the privateer. And he wants Jackson to release any of his privateers held in jail and/or prison.

Jackson's aide sneaks up on Lafitte and Lafitte has to acknowledge that he is at a disadvantage. Jackson asks him if he has anything to say before he advises his aide on what to do? Lafitte says he has 800 flints and 30 kegs of powder. Jackson sends his aide out of the room. Jackson wants the flints and the kegs, but he says he will not release the privateers before he gets his hands on Lafitte's supplies.

Lafitte grabs his pistol again. Jackson tells him even if Lafitte but a bullet in his head he would have enough time to shoot Lafitte. Lafitte says he has enough men to defeat the British by himself. They are about to reach an agreement.

A Frenchman comes into Jackson's room to tell him that the British have showed up at his father's plantation on the Bayou Catalan. Jackson looks at the map and says that the Americans will hold the line at Rodriguez Canal. Major Butler and he will march at once to the Shalamat Road. Major Hinds will get his Mississippi dragoons into shape and take the advance. Major Foche will hold the line in front of the McCottle plantation. Jackson tells Lafitte to arrest Crawford, put him in jail and keep him there.

Gamby and Crawford are just about to leave the jail, when Lafitte stops them. Crawford thrusts his sword at Lafitte, but misses. Lafitte has his pistol next to Crawford's chest. Back to jail goes Gamby.

Lafitte gives Crawford a sword and the men start fighting. Lafitte wins the match. The pirates in jail were holding Gamby by the throat. Lafitte now tells the giant pirate that he can let loose of Gamby. The giant does so and Gamby falls dead on the jail floor. It looks like the giant held Crawford with a little too much force.

Lafitte asks the men whose going to fight on the American side with him? The men feel betrayed by the USA and won't fight for the Americans. Lafitte tells the men they can stay in jail and be hanged by the Americans. Or they can fight for the Americans and earn themselves their pardons via Gen. Jackson. The men will fight for their freedom.

The jailers open the jail cells and the men pour out. Lafitte makes Dominique and Beluche captains. Their first order is to go get their supplies and bring them to the battleground.

Some of Lafitte's men go through the bayous and collect people who want to fight the British. The turn out is overwhelming.

Dominique supervises the men getting their rifles and other supplies. Gretchen insists that she is going. Dominique tells her no several times, but she threatens to divulge some embarrassing information to the pirates. So he agrees to let her go.

Jackson sets up his main line of defense. Gov. Claiborne asks who's going to cover the center of the line? Lafitte and his men. But where are Lafitte and his men? Jackson tells them to remain quiet for a moment and they will know. They remain quiet and hear the singing of the oncoming men of the bayous.

The British are all lined up and ready to attack Jackson's well-fortified defensive positions. The men start marching toward the American lines. They are met by lots of cannon fire and rifle shot. The British have a long way to go and they start taking very heavy casualties while the American are mostly fighting from behind huge bales of cotton.

The Americans win the battle decisively. Gretchen is still very unhappy. Dominique says that she should marry him. Gretchen isn't really interested. She wants to go to the victory ball. And she wants to make Lafitte love her.

Jackson is honored by the city for his victory at New Orleans. Lafitte shows up. There is applause for Lafitte and many people thank him and his men for what they did for the city and for the United States. Lafitte and Annette dance a little and then go find a quiet place where they can be alone.

Captain Dominique and Gretchen come into the ball. Gretchen dances with an officer. Gretchen asks the officer to introduce her to Lafitte. He does so. She flirts with Lafitte but he is not interested. Annette asks about the dress. Gretchen says she had it made for her in Paris. Annette says no she didn't because her sister had exactly the same dress custom-made for her by a dress-maker right here in New Orleans. She took the dress with her for her wedding taking place on the Corinthian. At the mention of the Corinthian, Gretchen takes off. Annette suddenly realizes that Gretchen sailed with her sister on the Corinthian. She says she will go ask Gretchen.

Gretchen tries to run out, but the man who took her to see Lafitte grabs her and wants to dance with her. Somebody recognizes Gretchen. He says he put Gretchen on the Corinthian. What happened to the Corinthian?  The man takes Gretchen over to see the governor. He tells the governor that he personally put this young woman on the Corinthian and now she is here. Feeling trapped Gretchen says she fell off the Corinthian and was picked up by Captain Dominique. They don't believe her story and want to know the truth about the Corinthian.

Lafitte sees the terrible situation Gretchen has gotten herself in. He tells Dominique to get Gretchen out of here and onto the ship. Lafitte himself is going to stay here. Lafitte changes his mind somewhat because he tells the governor to leave that girl alone. The governor says she was a witness. Lafitte says he too was a witness. Now they let go of Gretchen and rush over to hear from Lafitte. Dominique now grabs Gretchen and takes her out.

Lafitte says that the Corinthian was sunk and every person aboard went down with it, except for one. Annette asks Lafitte to tell her that it wasn't any of his doing. He says as the commander of the privateers, he is ultimately responsible for the sinking.

The crowd is going to lynch Lafitte. Jackson hears about this and rushes to save his friend. He walks over toward Lafitte who is now tied up. Jackson says he is in command here because New Orleans is still under martial law.

Jackson asks Lafitte if he is responsible for what happened to the ship? Lafitte says he is responsible. Jackson tells the crowd that he promised a pardon for the privateers and an hour head start for Lafitte. He looks at his watch and tells the privateer that his hour has now started. If they catch him after the hour has passed, Lafitte will be hanged.

Lafitte walks out while men threaten him with various punishments. He stops to tell Aunt Charlotte that he had no knowledge of her niece being aboard the Corinthian. He turns around and says to the people: "Gentlemen, I leave you an American New Orleans."

On board his ship Lafitte says they will head out into the sea. Dominique sees Gretchen in her Dutch outfit on the boat. She says hello to Lafitte. He tells her she shouldn't be here, but she says she goes where her boss goes. Lafitte says: "You are a funny one, eh?"


Good movie. In its broad outline the history is pretty good. The details of the story (the love story parts) are fictional. There's quite a bit of action in the film. Fredric March did a very good job as Lafitte the pirate. Akim Tamiroff provided some comedic relief. I didn't care too much for Franciska Gaal as Gretchen with the effervescent personality.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



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