(director/writer: John Farrow; screenwriters: story “Nor’wester” by Clements Ripley/Ben Hecht/Jesse Lasky, Jr.; cinematographer: Michel Kelber; editor: Eda Warren; music: Max Steiner; cast: Robert Stack (John Paul Jones), Bette Davis (Empress Catherine the Great), Marisa Pavan (Aimee de Tellison), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Franklin), Macdonald Carey (Patrick Henry), Jean-Pierre Aumont (King Louis XVI), David Farrar (John Wilkes), Peter Cushing (Captain Pearson), Susana Canales (Marie Antoinette), Georges Riviere (Russian Chamberlain), Tom Brannum (Peter Wooley), Bruce Cabot (Gunner Lowrie), Basil Sydney (Sir William Young); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Bronston; Warner Bros.; 1959)

“Dramatically stiff but visually pleasing costume historical drama on American Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Farrow (“Hondo”/”Calcutta”/”The Big Clock”) directs this dramatically stiff but visually pleasing costume historical drama on American Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones (Robert Stack), a lavish production that was shot mostly in Spain.It’s adapted by writers Ben Hecht andJesse Lasky, Jr. from the fictionalized historical story “Nor’wester” by Clements Ripley. It’s mostly an awkwardly shot and tedious affair, with the characters seeming more like historical figures than real characters, but it perks up occasionally with some excellent sea action scenes.

John Paul Jones (Robert Stack) was Scottish born in 1747 to a gardener father. At 13 he runs away to be a seaman on British merchant and slave ships and excels as a navigator so by age 21 he commands his own boat. When in charge of a boat in the West Indies involved in slave trafficking, Jones discovers he couldn’t go on because of his distaste for the slave trade business and quits the British navy to join his businessman brother William in Virginia, only to learn he died a few months ago. Jones hires colonist attorney Patrick Henry (Macdonald Carey) to free a couple of slaves his brother wanted freed before his death, but soon finds himself the patriot’s romantic rival for socialite Dorothea Danders (Erin O’Brien). Jones decides to settle in Virginia as a farmer to pursue his love interest, but her family considers him an ill-suitor because of his commoner background and he also discovers he doesn’t care for farm work. Jones, an action man, again yearns to ply his trade as a navy man, and to prove his loyalty to the revolutionary colonies he is commissioned in the Continental navy as second-in-command on a battleship in the Bahamas. Showing great leadership in battle against the British, Jones soon commands his own ship and accomplishes impressive victories. The heroic Jones is honored in France for his victories at sea and Benjamin Franklin (Charles Coburn) is his tour guide in Paris. There Jones meets the love of his life, Aimee de Tellison (Marisa Pavan), the illegitimate daughter of the king, Louis XVI, but is told a commoner can’t marry royalty. Franklin then encourages Jones to command a newly built frigate in Holland and invade the British Isles. Jones raids British ports and destroys many vessels, which gives the Brits a distaste for this costly war. When Congress accepts a false report from a weasel aristocrat Jones disciplined that he can’t lead men, he returns to Paris without a ship. But reunited with Aimee and Franklin, the French king is convinced by them to build a new ship for Jones named Le Bonhomme Richard in which Jones flies the American flag over it and rewards France with any ships he captures. Jones’ most impressive feat was defeating the HMS Serapis and its Captain Pearson (Peter Cushing). Jones when facing certain defeat is asked to surrender, but replies “I have not yet begun to fight” and then presses onto victory. After the colonies win independence, Jones’ appeals to Congress to continue a peacetime navy are ignored as he’s told they are not financially feasible because of outstanding wartime debts. Instead he’s loaned out in 1790 to Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great (Bette Davis) to be a rear-admiral. There Jones leads her downtrodden fleet to stunning victories over her Turkish enemies on the Black Sea. But Jones returns from Russia a sick man and even though he’s now able to wed his dream French noblewoman Aimee because King Louis has bestowed on him the rank of chevalier, it’s too late and he passes away after dictating a letter to her on what it takes to be an American naval officer.

The legacy of John Paul Jones, the first great hero of the American navy, is chronicled with great respect and awe for his sea heroics. It also shows that even though he was branded a troublemaker and was not an easy person to get along with, as he took on the political elites in his fervent belief that America must always be protected by a vibrant navy. Eventually he was proven right, and his fighting spirit lives on in the modern navy. It’s just too bad this historical biopic was so lifeless and dull, especially since Jones was such an engaging and lively heroic figure and deserved a better biopic.