Aug 242011

Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Users: [ratings]
Warner Brothers, 1959, 126 minutes
Cast: Robert Stack, Marisa Pavan, Charles Coburn, Erin O’Brien, MacDonald Carey and Bette Davis
Screenplay: John Farrow and Jesse Lansky, Jr.
Based on the story “Nor’wester” by Clements Ripley
Producer: Samuel Bronston
Director: John Farrow

Historical Background

Born John Paul Jr., the son of a gardener who managed a Scottish estate, John Paul went to sea when he was thirteen. A diligent, motivated young man, he had become captain of a merchant ship by the time he was twenty-one years-old. After killing a sailor at Tobago during a dispute over pay in 1773, he feared that the sailor’s friends would take revenge, so he fled to the American colonies, changing his name to John Paul Jones. Unfortunately, he had left most of his savings in Tobago, and he reached Virginia only to learn that his elder brother had died. Having little money and few connections, Jones struggled to survive until the start of the American Revolution offered him a career. Joining the Continental Navy, he was not given a high command because it was a small navy. Although angered that he ranked low on the captains’ seniority list, his share of captured British merchantmen made Jones wealthy, and he bought an estate in Virginia.

Despite an abrasive personality and few political connections, Jones was given command of the Ranger and sent to France to take command of a Dutch-made frigate. Although British pressure prevented the Dutch from selling the frigate to the rebels, Jones raided the English port of Whitehaven in April 1778 to bring the war to England for the first time in over a century. Impressed by the feat, the French Navy gave him the Bonhomme Richard, an old East Indiaman, and command of a squadron of five ships, which was sent to raid British shipping and distract the Royal Navy, while a combined Spanish-French fleet prepared to invade England. An epidemic of typhoid and smallpox ensured that the invasion fleet never sailed, but Jones won a stunning victory when he captured the British frigate HMS Serapis after a bloody fight on September 23, 1779. At one point, the battle appeared to favor the British, and Jones’ emphatic refusal to surrender has been recorded as “I have not yet begun to fight,” although the exact phrase is unknown. While the victory made him the toast of Paris, the Continental Navy failed to make him an admiral or give him another ship.

When the British finally acknowledged the colonies’ independence in 1783, Jones was bursting with ideas about the formation of a proper fleet, but the new-born republic was struggling to pay off the debts from the war. Too young to retire to his estate and still thirsty for glory, Jones accepted Tsarina Catherine’s offer of the position of rear-admiral in the Russian fleet during her war against the Turks (1787-1792). Jones won several victories at sea but lost the political battle, so most of the credit went to a rival who was more skilled at diplomacy. Returning to Paris in disgrace and ill-health, he died in obscurity in 1792, two weeks after his forty-fifth birthday.

Plot Summary

John Paul Jr. (Robert Stack) grew up in Scotland surrounded by the Jacobite followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who resented the harsh rule of the English king. Joining a ship’s crew when he was thirteen years-old, he had become a navigator by the time that he was seventeen. The future appeared bright since he was a captain and part-owner in his early twenties but when he killed a sailor in self-defense during a mutiny at Tobago, he flees and changes his name to John Paul Jones. Traveling to Virginia, he discovers that his older brother had died, leaving him a very generous inheritance.

Buying a farm, Jones hopes to settle down but discovers that he can not marry the woman that he loves because he is not a gentleman, so he joins the Continental Navy when the American colonies rebel against England. Denied a command, he has to settle for second-in-command of the flagship of the new fleet. The commodore soon comes to trust Jones, so he follows Jones’ plan when he is ordered to seize a British fort at Nassau in order to capture gunpowder for the rebel army. The success of the expedition wins Jones command of a sloop and orders to hunt merchantmen on the east coast. However, he suffers a personal blow when his plantation is burned to the ground by men commanded by Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virgina, who takes his servants to Jamaica to be sold into slavery. Learning that he has been placed number eighteen on the captains’ seniority list, Jones travels to Valley Forge to resign his commission, but General George Washington persuades him to fight for liberty, not his career.

After reaching France, Jones leads the Ranger to attack the port of Whitehaven on the British coast even though Britain had not been invaded since the reign of William III. While in command of the Bonhomme Richard, he capures the British frigate HMS Serapis, which makes him famous. The war comes to an end shortly after the defeat of the Serapis, and Jones throws himself into building a navy to defend the new republic. Since the young republic has no money for a fleet, he accepts the rank of rear-admiral in Tsarina Catherine’s navy during the war against the Turks. Overcoming the opposition of Russian politicians and his fellow captains, Jones wins numerous battles, ensuring a Russian victory in the war. However, he has become seriously ill and dies young, unable to enjoy the fruits of his victories.

Historical Accuracy

The story begins and ends with an officer in the United States Navy telling new recruits about John Paul Jones, one of the founders of the American navy. Jones would have disappeared into obscurity but President Theodore Roosevelt needed a naval hero to give the rising American navy a glorious history. Jones was selected not just because of his undoubtedly astonishing victory over the Serapis, but because the record of the rest of the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War was so dismal. The navy had a total of fifty-seven ships, but thirty-four were either sunk or captured by the Royal Navy, four were lost at sea, and another four simply disappeared. Jones’ body was brought back to the United States from France by a squadron of four cruisers, received by Roosevelt, and buried in the crypt of the chapel of the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1905.

While the script gets most of the basic facts right, severe alterations were made to Jones’ life to make him a suitable symbol of the American Navy. The result is a two-dimensional stock hero who has Jones’ bravery but otherwise bears little resemblance to the real man.

The movie’s version of the circumstances that drove Jones to leave Tobago is not exactly what happened. He did kill a sailor during a small mutiny over pay, but he feared that the sailor’s friends would take revenge, so he fled to the American colonies.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was an extremely influential pamphlet that helped influence public opinion in favor of revolution and independence, but it was actually published on January 10, 1776, after the fighting had started.

The movie shows correctly that Jones’ brother had died before he reached Virginia, but there was no large inheritance, and he had burned through most of his savings when the American Revolution started. Admittedly, the real Jones did purchase a plantation, but he used the profits from the merchantmen that he had captured during the revolution. Low on finances and eager to become an officer and gentleman, he leapt at the chance to join the Continental Navy. Furthermore, he did not free any slaves. In fact, it seems unlikely that he would have been particularly bothered by slavery since he had served on a ship that transported cargoes of slaves for three years. The screen Jones may have thrown the cat o’ nine tails out of the porthole, but Jones was actually a strict disciplinarian, who did not hesitate to flog troublesome sailors.

Although the real Jones was the second-in-command of the flagship of the Continental Navy’s small fleet, the commodore had not been ordered to seize a British fort at Nassau, but to attack Lord Dunmore’s fleet, which was raiding the coast of the Carolinas. Aside from disobeying his orders, the commodore bungled the expedition so badly that the British managed to hide most of the gunpowder. Returning to the colonies, Jones swiftly accepted command of a sloop in order to avoid being tarnished by the embarrassment.

While the black workers on the fictional Jones’ plantation are called servants, slavery was widespread in Virginia, and Lord Dunmore had offered freedom to any slave who left their Patriot owners to join the British. Realizing that the fight for liberty did not include them, thousands of slaves accepted his offer.

The screen Washington makes a noble speech about liberty to persuade Jones to stay in the Continental Navy, but Jones was driven by ambition and a hunger for glory, so he never considered resigning. Most important, while Washington was optimistic about the colonies’ long-term prospects in the war, he was not so confident of a victory at Saratoga that he kept a warship idling at a dock waiting for Jones to run the British blockade to take news to American ambassador Benjamin Franklin in France in order to win a French alliance. Moreover, the raid on Whitehaven was a disaster, and he only managed to burn a single ship. Although Jones’ raid on an English port did spread fear in England, where he was considered to be a pirate, not a legitimate enemy, it did not actually cause Lloyds of London to raise their insurance rates for ships.

The idea that Jones’ girlfriend smuggled a letter to the French king, and convinced the queen to pay for Jones’ ship is undeniably romantic, but the real Jones relied on the backing of the French Minister of Marine.

The fight between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis was a blood-drenched struggle to the death that left half of each crew dead or writhing in agony while waiting for the tender mercies of the ship’s doctor. The screen battle was accurate but it was a limp, unsatisfying excuse for a climax. Another ship in Jones’ squadron did fire on him, but the cause might have been simple incompetence, especially since it was night.

The movie spent so much time on Jones’ romances and exploits during the American Revolution that his service in the Russian Navy was limited to a few quick montages that show him winning battles in the Black Sea. However, the Black Sea campaign was won despite the scheming of his rivals, who repeatedly claimed credit for his victories, and he left Catherine’s navy after admitting that he had had sex with a twelve-year-old girl, which is not mentioned in the movie.

The real Jones became ill in Paris several years after he had returned from Russia, and died alone and friendless. Benjamin Franklin was certainly not at his bedside, since Franklin had died four years earlier.

The script takes a puritanical view of his love life, giving him a single love interest at a time, even though he was a dedicated skirt-chaser throughout his life, often pursuing married women. Both of the screen romances fail because he is a commoner and their fathers stop them from marrying Jones. There is evidence that Jones did court Dorothea Dandridge and that his proposal was refused because he was not a proper gentleman, but the second romance is a complete fabrication. Patrick Henry did marry Dorothea, his second wife, in 1777. Henry was a lawyer, who lived in the same area, so it is only a mild stretch of the writer’s imagination to make him Jones’ lawyer and friend.

Despite transforming Lord Dunmore from the first large-scale emancipator in North America to a slaver, the film is relatively fair to Englishmen. Jones comments that most Englishmen value freedom, while a scene in Parliament shows an MP quoting Edmund Burke while explaining that the colonists are the children of Englishmen, so they naturally want freedom.

There is no denying that Jones was an extremely capable captain and that he had been treated badly by the navy of his adopted country, but his abrasive personality and constant politicking for the command of a warship is ignored by the movie.


Max Steiner’s intrusive musical score fills much of the movie.

Stack is noble but lifeless, unlike the real daring and deeply ambitious man. The only actor who seems bring any vitality to the movie is Bette Davis. Although Davis was 51 years-old, nine years younger than the real Catherine, who was fat and had wooden teeth, she does a good job in what is essentially a cameo.

The film looks as if it is an epic that had been cut down to normal size, and producer Samuel Bronston later made several epics, including El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

How is it possible to make a boring movie that is set at sea? John Paul Jones may not have been the easiest man in the world to get along with but he deserves a better movie.

  • The main problem for me with this film was the casting of Robert Stack as Jones.  This wasn’t so much any defective acting on his part as much as what it reveals about the main problem of using movie stars to play historic figures.  Stack’s screen presence is mostly as himself: his looks and deep resonant if somewhat flat voice are so strongly impressionistic that I never got to see Jones.  All I saw was Stack trying to play the part, all the while seeing him in the background in a fedorah and wearing a badge as an FBI agent.

    • historyonfilm

      Stack was not the best casting choice. I have seen him in a few other movies from that period and he is always the gruff, decent cop, regardless of the role.