John Paul Jones: Naval Hero Deserves Better Biopic

John Paul Jones (Warner Bros.)

John Paul Jones, the biopic starring Robert Stack, may mean well but this film falls just a bit short in terms of mere entertainment value.

John Paul Jones (Robert Stack) was the first major commander in the Continental Navy. He’s considered the Father of the American Navy along with both John Barry and John Adams. Unfortunately, his life came to a premature end at the age of 45 in 1792.

There isn’t an argument that his life is worthy of a biopic. It’s just that this one doesn’t quite meet standards for entertainment. We also don’t really see major war action until the film’s second hour. The film could certainly stand to be shortened because some of these scenes drag the pace out. Pacing and length issues aside, the film boasts a strong cast led by Robert Stack. Peter Cushing, the future Star Wars star, also co-stars as Captain Richard Pearson, a British Royal Navy officer. If you stay for the end, you’ll also get a special appearance from screen legend Bette Davis as Empress Catherine the Great. Davis only has a few minutes of screen time at best.

When one thinks of films about war heroes, one tends to think of films with a lot of action. This is what is mostly missing in watching John Paul Jones. I mean, the guy is a fricking sea hero! It’s nice to get his origin story and see why he renames himself from John Paul. The film briefly touches on Jones’s years before the Navy. It’s here where we learn his disgust of the slave trade. Following a mutiny on one ship, he visits his brother only to learn that his brother died. We also learn that his brother owned two enslaved children, Scipio (Charles Wise) and Cato (Randolph McKenzie). Jones does the admirable thing here and frees them rather than let them be sold on the slave market. Overall, there’s so much more to his life that the film ultimately falls short.

Biopics in the 1950s aren’t what they’re like during present day. A biopic needs to focus in on a narrow window rather than stretch out so many years. This is the problem with John Paul Jones–it suffers from the same thing that plagues so many biopics. A brief prologue of his being a child in 1759 is understandable but from there, we jump to 1773 when Jones is a master of his own ship for the British. From here, the film stretches out several years in to it’s bloated 2 hour+ run time. Stack was 40 when the film came out but he starts portraying Jones when the Navy father was in his mid-20s! John Paul Jones is bookended by a Navy officer discussing Jones’s legacy with the midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.

It took almost twenty years for producer Samuel Bronston to make this film. At one point, James Cagney was attached to the role. In the mid-1950s, John Wayne was being eyed for the role. Ultimately, it went to Robert Stack and the actor makes the best of the material. Produced on a budget for $4-5 million, the film would fail with a box office take of about $1 million at the domestic box office.

DIRECTOR: John Farrow
SCREENWRITERS: John Farrow and Jesse Lasky Jr.
CAST: Robert Stack, Marisa Pavan, Charles Coburn, Erin O’Brien, Macdonald Carey, Jean-Pierre Aumont, David Farrar, Peter Cushing, Susana Canales, and Bette Davis

Warner Bros. released John Paul Jones in theaters on June 16, 1959.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.