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John Paul Jones Film Summary

Marissa Pavan as Aimee de Tellison and Robert Stack as John Paul JOnes in 1959 Colimbia film/


The 1959 film John Paul Jones is the only major Hollywood movie about the naval hero. Portsmouth, NH is the only American site of a John Paul Jones house museum. The film premiered here as a fundraiser for the founding of Strawbery Banke Museum. Click to read ourr abridged version of the film plot.



1959 Paul Jones Film is Half Accurate, Half Hollywood

MUCH MORE on John Paul Jones

The so-called "true" story of John Paul Jones appeared in film in 1959 as American battleships were poised to enter foreign waters during the Cold War. Just as President Teddy Roosevelt dug up Jones' body in 1905 to promote his Great White Fleet, the "father of the American Navy" was used once again as a symbol of the highest American ideals.

VHS release of 1959 movie John Paul Jones with Roberts Stack/SeacoastNH.comThe 1959 John Paul Jones was pasteurized for an Ozzie and Harriet audience. This Jones, played by Robert Stack, murders a crewman in self defense, but an earlier murder charge is not even mentioned. The historic John Paul changed his name in Tobago to escape a murder trial. In the film, the Scottish captain is ordered to change his name by a superior officer. His profitable career as a slave trader is not mentioned in the film where he has rejected the "abominable trade." In fact, here he adopts two slave boys from his brother William's farm, calling them Cato and Scipio Jones. There is no evidence for this in history. Here Jones, who never married, is presented as a robust tall male who makes women swoon in America, France and Russia. Here he even woos Catherine the Great, played by veteran actress Bette Davis.

The movie received lackluster reviews, but it does offer a surprisingly accurate summary of Jones' life. It has also become, in the last half century, the only full length feature film to depict the captain’s life and exploits. Stack plays Jones as a Revolutionary War Elliot Ness, nearly untouchable, unshakable in battle, and justifiably angry at a corrupt and ungrateful world.

This film is better history than it is drama. The chronology is generally accurate, taken, it appears from Samuel Elliot Morrison's biography, which was published the same year as the release of the film. The most noticeable flaw is the tall, dark haired Robert Stack who owns not a hint of a Scottish accent. Jones was about 5' 6", likely with reddish hair and Scottish accent. Short, formally uneducated, foreign and low-born, the real Jones was largely ignored by the founding fathers, except when used as an unpaid soldier of fortune. The screenplay makes this point clearly.

But there many departures from fact, likely taken from earlier biographies including the highly inaccurate study by August C. Buell, published in 1900. Jones did not attempt to operate the Virginia farm of his deceased brother, as he does in the film. The scandal of his dismissal over a trumped up sex crime is ignored. But other moments, shots of tall ships under sail, for example, are stirring and authentic. The soundtrack, patriotic, saccharine and melodramatic is less easy to forgive today. Compressing history always leads to inaccuracies.

The final scene in "John Paul Jones" also played as an Annapolis cadet's fantasy. Jones actually died alone in Paris, while his doctor attended a party. In the film, Robert Stack is attended by his beautiful French noble who, like all of his women, gazes on him admiringly as he succumbs to bronchitis. Ben Franklin, who had left Paris seven years earlier, is also at Jones' deathbed in the movie. Jones expires dictating the apocryphal code of the Navy officer, still used today, but largely invented by Buell in 1900. -- JDR


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