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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


 1959 Robert Stack Movie Plot 

Imaginary scene of John Paul Jones meeting with George Washington at Valley FOrge from the 1959 film, signed by RObert Stack from the collection Complete Film Summary
Columbia Pictures

The film opens to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as a 1959 Navy crew is being lectured aboard a US battleship. John Paul Jones is presented as an example to this Cold War crew as the first man to sail the American flag into foreign waters. "It was he, more than anyone else, who set the pattern of everything about us," the officer tells his men.

Flashback to 1759 in Scotland where young John Paul, "not favored by birth or circumstance" is showing a healthy disrespect for British soldiers, as they harass his fellow Scotsmen for wearing kilts. The red-haired boy, son of a gardener, goes to sea at age 14. Signed on as ship's boy, young John learns every aspect of sailing. His service aboard slave ships is quickly glossed over with no visuals.

Three years before the Declaration of Independence, John Paul is prospering as a ship owner in the West Indies. Robert Stack, as young Capt. Paul kills a mutinous crewman in self-defense and is forced to go ashore in Tobago to report the incident. In the film, he is advised by the British magistrate to flee to America rather than wait a year or two in jail for an Admiralty Court.

"Get away from here, young man, as fast as you can, and change your name before you go - Smith, Brown, Jones," the magistrate demands.

Incognito as John Paul Jones, the captain arrives in Fredericksburg, Virginia to learn that his wealthy brother William has recently died. Jones inherits the family farm. Patrick Henry (Macdonald Carey) appears in the doorway and is hired as JPJ's lawyer. Henry invites Jones to a party that same night. Demonstrating his newfound American patriotism, JPJ cold-cocks a British officer who badmouths the honor of local American women. A starry-eyed Dorothea Dandridge (Erin O'Brien) falls for the poet-buccaneer.

Jones "swallows the anchor" and attempts farming and pitches woo with Dorothea. But the land is not kind to the captain. The farm paperwork is overwhelming and Dorothea's well-connected father turns down JPJ's proposal to marry her. The Revolution is suddenly underway, and in a cruel twist, Patrick Henry instead wins Dorothea's hand.

Fighting for America

Grudgingly, JPJ accepts a commission as second in command of the ship Alfred. In a patriotic moment, The persuasive Jones gets to raise the first American flag. Jones shows himself a capable mariner and military strategist. Without a shot fired, the marines aboard the Alfred take their first British fort in the West Indies and steal badly needed gunpowder for the American cause.

Back home, the Declaration of Independence is read, while JPJ gets his first independent command aboard the twelve-gun ship Providence. Mr. Bean arrives from Virgina with bad news. The Tories have burned the family farm, and worse, Dorothea is definitely going to marry Patrick Henry. Jones heads off to fight with a vengeance.

Never losing a fight, Jones plunders, sinks or seizes 18 "enemy" vessels with his tiny ship, sending home blankets, uniforms, munitions, medical supplies that would have gone to British Gen. Burgoyne's army. Despite all the prizes won, the Continental Congress places JPJ at the bottom of their list of maritime commanders.

Jones is enraged and meets with John Hancock who says his hands are tied. Jones shouts, "Eighteenth below bunglers and cowards and captains who have never been to sea! Rather than a shipless captain begging to Congress, I'd rather shoulder a musket!"

Jones heads instantly to Valley Forge where Gen. George Washington (Jack Crawford) is dictating a despondent letter. The colonies are losing the war to frostbite and hunger. Jones is moved by Washington and agrees to return to any ship in any capacity.. A ship is needed, Washington says, to break the British blockade and get news to Ben Franklin in France that reinforcements are needed.

"Do you know of the ship Ranger, now at Portsmouth?" Washington asks. "Aye, sir. Out of commission. No sails, no rigging and without a crew?Jones replies. "If I can steal the Ranger, could you refit, steal a crew, and make ready for the welcome news that I am sure will be ours?" the general asks. "With the help of Providence and the inspiration of my commander in chief, yes sir!"JPJ announces.

Despite the moving scene, there is no evidence that JPJ met with Washington at Valley Forge. Jones does not board the Ranger and head to England for almost a year (November 1777).

Without a glimpse of Portsmouth, the Ranger is quickly at sea and, arriving off the fort at Brest in France where she receives the first salute given to the flag of the United States.

Jones pushes his way in to see Doctor Franklin (Charles Coburn) with his dispatches from 3,000 miles away. Franklin introduces Jones to his new love interest Aimee de Tellison (Marisa Pavan and) asks his "fire-eating friend" to wait for a better ship. Jones woos Aimee who says he may be a fool for attempting to invade the British Isles with a tiny ship. Jones explains his plan for distracting the entire British Navy while he plays will-o-the-wisp. After his raids, insurance rates will skyrocket, he tells her. Popular opinion will shift. She is impressed. They kiss.

Aboard the Ranger again, Jones explains his plan to attack the port of Whitehaven. Just to get a landing party ashore, he must again battle his own crew and particular Mr. Simpson of New Hampshire. Pistols drawn, the landing party sneaks into the British fort and, without bloodshed manages to steal ammunition, burn boats and damage the fort cannons. The locals refuse to put up a fight, and Jones gallantly marches through town and back to the Ranger.


 1959 Robert Stack Movie Plot (Continued)

Signed film still of Robert Stack as John Paul JOnes meeting Catherine the Great (Bette Davis) in 1959 film / Collection

The Bonhomme Richard

Jones is honored by the French, but the American maritime committee will not pay for his crew or repairs. Simpson files charges and the Ranger is withdrawn to America. Jones gives up his ship and his command and remains in France with Franklin. He woos on. Aimee admits to being fathered out of wedlock, Jones admits to her his assumed name.

Jones is landlocked in France and regrets that he has been unable to build an American Navy that is above politics and privateering. His closest crewmen have abandoned Simpson to stay with him. Jones and Franklin finally get an audience with the King of France who regrets he cannot provide a ship for Jones. Franklin convinces the Queen to privately invest in Jones who names his purchased Dutch ship the Bon Homme Richard after Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac." Outfitted with French money and flying the American flag, Jones sets off with the 28-gun frigate. With reject guns and a crew made partially of the "reject scum of the port," they're off to worry the British. His two accompanying privateering ships are not required to follow his command.

Off Flambeau Head the Bonhomme fights a fierce sea battle with HMS Serapis. The attack is surprisingly accurate and even stirring as the two ships are grappled together and fire on each other at point blank range. Although his ship is sinking, Jones announces that he has not yet begun to fight, even when his companion ship the Alliance begins to fire on him and then retreats. But the British surrender just in time for the American crew to transfer to the captured vessel and the Bonhomme is lost. With 87 British, and 77 Bonhomme Richard crewmen killed, Jones asks the defeated British captain to read the funeral prayers with him.

Jones is again rewarded by King Louis, this time with the high rank of "chevalier.". He seems, however, more concerned with the whereabouts of Aimee. But Franklin informs him that Aimee is of the blood royale, and cannot marry a commoner like him.

The Final Days

With a temporary peace at hand, Jones is called back to America by the Congress to appear before the Marine Commission. Jones proposes the creation of a naval fleet with highly trained men, but his idea is beyond the budget of the new country. (Jones dies before Old Ironsides is built to attack the Barbary Pirates as he has suggested.)

Jones then takes his final assignment as a rear admiral in the navy of Russia's Catherine the Great. After waiting 32 days for an audience with the empress, Jones is ushered in to the sumptuous chamber to meet her (played by Bette Davis). She tries to seduce him to stay among the pleasures of the Russian court, but Jones is all duty and wants to get right to his ship. Catherine likes his bravado, and he's off to war.

Franklin is in France talking to Aimee. Despite constant interference and poor ships, he reports, Jones has won great battles in the Black Sea for the czarina. The bad news, Franklin says, is that Jones is critically ill. Jones lies helpless in the back of an array of carriages as he returns from Russia to France.

In the final scene in Paris, Jones is attended by Franklin and Aimee. With patriotic music, Jones dictates the famous "code" for officers in the US Navy. This never happened, but the code is a collection of ideas, many of which appeared over time in letters by Jones. The death scene dissolves to images of the modern Navy as Jones' fading voice suddenly strengthens for a fully patriotic ending. The narrator reminds us that the spirit of John Paul Jones lives on in the modern US Navy.

Jones final film movie words are:

"The keel timber of this new navy must be in the selection of the list of officers. It is by no means enough an officer be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course. But he must also be a great deal more. He must, as well, be a gentleman of liberal education, with a fine manner, punctilious courtesy and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience , firmness, justice and charity. As he should be universal in his rewards, so should he be judicial in reproof. When a commander has properly exercised these qualities, he has only to await the appearance of the enemy. His ship and his men will be ready."

Film summary by J. Dennis Robinson
© All rights reserved.
Movie stills from Columbia Pictures.

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