In 1959 the film John Paul Jones starring a young Robert Stack in the title role, gave the old sailor the Hollywood treatment. However, in this case Hollywood cannot be solely blamed for the numerous historical inaccuracies in the film. Scholarship on Jones was badly skewed by Augustus Buell in a two-volume “scholarly biography” which appeared in 1900. Buell was a charlatan who made up many incidents about Jones and then invented sources to support his fabrications. Buell was not completely exposed until Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard professor of history, and an Admiral in the Navy, wrote his definitive biography of Jones. Here is a list of the fabrications of Buell compiled by Morison. Morison’s book appeared after the movie, which is to be regretted.
One of my favorite sequences in the film begins at 1:45 in the video clip with Jones in Russia. With the ending of the Revolution he was without employment. In 1788 he traveled to Russia to take up a command in the Russian fleet. Jones was willing to do so under the two conditions that he would retain his American citizenship and his commission as an American naval officer. Tsarina Catherine the Great appointed Jones a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy and sent him off to take command of the 24 gun flagship Vladimir fighting against the Turks in the Black Sea. While in Russia Jones went by the name of Pavel Dzhons. Jones quickly proved that he retained his prowess as a fighting sailor, repulsing the opposing Turkish naval squadron. However, jealous Russian naval officers preferred false charges of misconduct against Jones, and he was relieved of command and ordered to report to Saint Petersburg for further orders. Awarded the Order of Saint Anne, Jones left Russia in July 1788, disgusted at the intrigue that ended what would be his last taste of naval combat.
Bette Davis gives an unforgettable portrayal of Catherine, initially attempting to tempt him from the path of duty, and then giving him grisp orders, and a clear-headed assessment of the military situation when Jones indicates that he had come to Russia to fight and not to spend his time carousing at the Russian court. If only the real Catherine had been as discerning of the merit of Pavel Dzhons!