Cultural Legacy- Movies

In the twentieth century, three Tripolitan War movies were made:  Old Ironsides (1928, released by Paramount Pictures), Barbary Pirate (1949, Columbia Pictures), and Tripoli:  The First Marines (1950, Paramount Pictures).

Old Ironsides, a silent film with a rousing musical score, is available on VHS and features slapstick comedy and swashbuckling adventure.  The story follows a young, patriotic American farm boy who enlists in the navy to fight the Barbary pirates.  He also finds time to woo an American girl travelling on his ship.  The movie impressed me by incorporating various historical details, such as an American sailor saving Stephen Decatur’s life by using his head (literally) to receive a blow from a Tripolitan scimitar (astoundingly, the man survived!)  However, the ending distorts reality by showing the American officers and seamen storming Tripoli’s capital city in August 1804 and hoisting up the American flag.  In reality, William Eaton and Hamet Karamanli led their troops (primarily composed of Arabs) against the town of Derne in April 1805.  American forces never invaded the capital city.

Old Ironsides came out in 1926, an era in which U.S. policymakers pursued an isolationist foreign policy.  Perhaps the film argues that the United States should take a more active role in international affairs?

I cannot confirm that Barbary Pirate was ever released on VHS, but according to, the plot goes as follows:  “The U.S. government sends Major Thomas Blake (Donald Woods) on a secret mission when the Bey of Tripoli (Stefan Schnabel) starts demanding tribute from American merchant ships in the Mediterranean in the early 1800’s. His pose as a Tory on the ship alienates his fellow passengers, Anne Ridgeway (Trudy Marshall), and her brother Sam (Ross Ford.) Off Tripoli, the ship is captured by the Bey’s pirates, but Blake makes a friend of the Bey when he saves his life.  Blake learns that a servant girl, Zoltah (Leonore Aubert), and her friends ate plotting to kill the Bey, and that the Bey also has a spy in the State Department, Tobias Sharpe (Matthew Boulton, who has been sending advance information about American ship movements.”

Finally, Tripoli:  The First Marines is available through Netflix streaming.  As with Barbary Pirate, I am unaware of it being released on VHS.  It lacks the charm of Old Ironsides (by having a bland and cliché-ridden script) and, more troublingly, it offers a highly inaccurate depiction of the coup attempt.  The film presents Presley O’Bannon (and not William Eaton) as the primary American leader of the Derne attack (Eaton barely appears in the film).  Further, Tripoli:  The First Marines tarnishes Hamet Karamanli’s character, depicting him as a playboy who idles away his time in leisure and is more focused on courting a French countess than regaining the Tripolitan throne.  SPOLIER ALERT!  Hamet eventually betrays the Americans by providing information about the coup attempt to an agent sent by his brother (in exchange for half of the kingdom).

Tripoli:  The First Marines reflects the political currents of its time, the early Cold War.  It endorses American exceptionalism, particularly when O’Bannon testily tells Hamet that “my country is not used to people breaking treaties!”  This quip ignores the innumerable U.S. violations of treaties made with Native Americans.  The film also implies that since the United States cannot trust other countries to remain loyal, policymakers should pursue a unilateral and aggressive foreign policy.

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