Monday, June 21, 2010


A review of Evan Thomas’s John Paul Jones (2003)

(Rating 5 of 5)

If there is a movie in need of a modern remake Hollywood should look no further than another John Paul Jones movie based on this book by Evan Thomas. Jones is the only military commander during the Revolution who would take the fight to the Great Britain itself. Thomas’s work is an exciting adventure story that is a historical biography.

Born John Paul, Jr. as young man he grew up with little promise in a world that judged your worth by social status of birth. As old orders were challenged, they would bite back making advancement for people like John Paul even harder. Since Paul was only a gardener’s son, the only future he could have at sea was on a merchant ship. He would do well at that earning his way up to captain. Unfortunately, for the captain and a member of his crew, John Paul got into a fight with a sailor unhappy about his pay. In the fight, the sailor was killed. John Paul claimed self-defense that might have been true, but he thought the British courts would never try him fairly so he ran off to America, to become John Paul Jones.

“At first, Captain Paul did not hesitate to turn himself in to the authorities. He was not arrested, but he understood that he would be summoned before a legal proceeding of some kind. His experience in the Mungo Maxwell affair have him some confidence that the courts would ultimately vindicate him. He knew that captains were afforded great latitude to put down mutinies, at least under maritime law. Tobago was an English crown possession, and normally any legal case arising from an action aboard ship would be tried in an Admiralty Court, where the law of the sea—invariably protective of the authority of captains—prevailed. But the Admiralty Court was not sitting in Tobago at Christmastime 1773, which meant John Paul might have to face a normal jury trial in the local court, where he could be charged with murder. Since the Ringleader was a local, one of about 300 white men who lived on the island, John Paul looked upon the jury of his ‘peers’ with some foreboding.” p.33

Whether it was self-defense or a stupid fight we will never know, but on thing is for certain and when the American Revolution happened he answered its call. Jones earned a captaincy of a ship called the Ranger and was incredibly successful at sea, capturing enemy vessels that contained critical supplies that was going to the British troops and would now head over to the Americans. Despite his success, Captain Jones would have a good deal of trouble with the Navy Committee and his commodore. He was given, despite his success the lowest of seniority of the captains, which would send him into a jealous rage.

(Jones's ship the Ranger at battle)

“Jones needed to outsmart his opponent, to get an edge and keep it. He had maintained his ship to windward and just ahead of the enemy to give himself more room to maneuver. He knew that he could not afford to let Drake draw too near, or the superior British forces could board Ranger and take her by storm. But he wanted to keep Drake just close enough, where Ranger’s greater firepower could slowly grind down the enemy. Jones filled the tops, platforms about a third of the way up each mast, with marines, sharpshooters who could keep a steady fire of musket balls raining down on the enemy quarterdeck where the officers stood.” p.130-1

He would later go to France, where under the direction of his new patron, Benjamin Franklin, he would take the war to Britain itself. Captain Jones earned a reputation as mythical pirate who made fools out of good officers of the greatest fleet in the world. He would do this with a crew that was always on the brink of mutiny, which leads one to wonder what this man would have accomplished if he had more dedicated crew.

(Battling the British)

“The game was up. Jones hauled down his false British colors and broke out his Continental Navy ensign. At just that moment, a nervous marine in the Bonhomme Richard’s tops fired his musket. Both ships erupted, loosing their broadsides at once. The sound was appalling: the tremendous concussion of forty-two cannon and scores of small arms fired at nearly the same instant, the cracking of splintered wood, the jarring clang of a cannonball striking an iron muzzle or an anchor fluke, and, very soon thereafter, the shrieks and cries of the wounded. At the range of twenty-year yards, every gun hit home. For the officers standing exposed on the quarterdeck, it must have taken extraordinary willpower not to flinch or cringe, much less diver for cover.” p.183

(The famous line, "I have not yet begun to fight")

Jones would, with permission of the Washington Administration, would go to work for the Russian Empire as a rear admiral. He would have success but once again be undermined by jealous peers and superiors. He would nearly forgotten until President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, needed a historical hero and President Roosevelt was the type of person that really liked Captain Jones. Disney would do a toned down version in 1959, I think a remake might be worth trying.

{Video was posted on Youtube by Creative Quotations}

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