When Walt Disney elected to move into the realm of producing live-action movies he effectively touched off a powder keg of controversy from his most ardent critics. It is perhaps pointless to pursue critical popularity as, once revoked, it is rare again to be given; the columnists, by their very virtue and reputation, eager for ways to tear down a work of art by exposing what they perceive as its jarring omissions and/or artistic failings. Those same critics, who had hailed Disney as a visionary after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), almost immediately found his decision to split the company’s energies in two (between cartoons and live-action movie-making) and later, three – and four (with the advent of Disneyland and Walt’s foray into serialized television) a slippery slide into rank commercialism. The question remains: were these other preoccupations interfering with Walt’s abilities as a quixotic storyteller in an art form he had all but pioneered? Debatable. But Walt could afford to ignore his detractors for two reasons – or rather one; because the industry and the public at large continued to embrace his ventures, bestowing Oscars, accolades and high praise in their show of support at the local Bijoux for whatever product on which he chose to stamp his name and stake his reputation. By 1950, Walt’s reputation alone had become synonymous with a distinct niche in family entertainment – a reshaping of our individual childhood experiences into a sort of collective representation, not of childhood as it was, but artfully, as it could – and should – be; at least, in a perfect Technicolor world, cleansed of its more worrisome realities.
In their own time and certainly since, there have been far too many rebukes of Disney’s live-action output; lumped together and readily considered the ‘lesser’ to Walt’s animated legacy. Personally, I disagree with this assessment. While it is nevertheless certain Walt’s live-action movies increasingly pushed toward a proliferation of ‘cutesy quaintness’, wholesome, fresh-faced and undisruptive in their blind-sided innocence (nothing truly bad ever happens in a Disney movie), as with Walt’s animated features, the results were often uneven yet inspired and far better than cloying, if veering between swashbuckling romanticism (The Sword and the Rose, Swiss Family Robinson), thin-sliced odes to the frontier (Davey Crockett, Old Yeller) and turn-of-the-century Americana (Pollyanna, Summer Magic), light-hearted/family-orientated contemporary comedies (The Shaggy Dog, The Parent Trap) and Broadway-esque roadshow musicals (Mary Poppins, The Happiest Millionaire), ambitiously gears to appeal to the young and young in heart. Interestingly, Walt rarely dealt with top-tiered talent in these movies or A-list directors possessing an imprint and/or personalized style. With two notable exceptions, 1956’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and 1960’s Pollyanna, both devoted to an enviable roster of established ‘big names’, Walt fostered his own stable of youngsters, many of whom would get their start on his highly popular, Mickey Mouse Club television program; Walt, turning his focus on actors considered B-grade elsewhere in the industry (Dorothy McGuire, Richard Egan, Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Buddy Hackett), and those looking to re-envision their sagging careers with a change of venue (Fred MacMurray, Jane Wyman, Carl Malden), and, finally, homegrown, pint-sized youth, studio-groomed to do Walt’s bidding – Annette Funicello and, later, Haley Mills.
Exactly how Walt Disney came to remake Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1950), his foray into live-action picture-making, is a story as compelling as anything seen in the movie itself. By the mid-1940s, a series of ambitious, though regrettably unprofitable animated features had virtually eaten away at all of the moneys accrued by Snow White. While Walt’s prestige within the industry could not have been more bankable, his appeal with audiences in the wake of such highbrow offerings as Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940) and then, Bambi (1942) proved a terrible blow to his conceit as well as his pocket book. Worse for Walt, by late 1942, his beloved studio had been commandeered in support of the war effort; making cartoon short subjects and training featurettes for the Armed Forces. In these unusual times, Walt turned hopefully – or perhaps, desperately – to the creation of ‘packaged’ entertainments; the first, The Reluctant Dragon (1941) linking a series of cartoon shorts sandwiched between live-action vignettes. The picture’s modest success prompted Walt to pursue several others using the same template; The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) among them. Yet, Walt’s storyteller’s thirst could not be quenched by these modest endeavors. So, in 1946, he embarked upon his most ambitious live-action/cartoon hybrid yet; Song of the South. In more recent times, Song of the South has endured a rather ignominious reputation for its innocent and, arguably, uninformed social commentary. Even in 1946, the picture attracted minor controversy for its simplistic depiction of the slave/master archetype. However, this was offset by some fairly positive reviews, a superb central performance by James Baskett and respectable box office; regrettably, still not enough to pull the beleaguered company out of its fiscal doldrums. Thus, by war’s end, the Disney Studios was teetering rather precariously on the edge of financial ruin.
In these more precarious times, Treasure Island’s gestation came about as almost an afterthought; a way for Walt to tap into a sizable amount of his own capital tied up with postwar restrictions in England. While the moneys could not be used to fund homegrown movies, there was absolutely nothing to prevent Walt from ‘borrowing’ it to make pictures in England with a certain percentage of British cast and crew attached to each project. On the advice of his brother, Roy, Walt elected to produce a slate of four live-action costume dramas overseas in the relatively short period of four years, beginning in 1950 with Treasure Island - the first, and arguably, best of the lot. As a boy, Walt had been thoroughly captivated by Stevenson’s high-flying adventure tale, originally serialized in 1881, and published as a novel two years later. For Walt, Stevenson’s prose captured the quintessence of a young boy’s imagination; daring do with lusty pirates and harrowing intrigues set against a lush, tropical backdrop. Assembling his cast and crew in record time, Walt spent prudently on Treasure Island, going for mood in Freddie Young’s luridly lit Technicolor cinematography rather than scope, as most of his mid to late fifties live-action ventures would later lean.
Viewed today, Treasure Island remains an immensely satisfying adaptation, in many ways, besting MGM’s monumental production from 1934, costarring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. The Metro version, while unforgettable in its own right, took certain artistic liberties with Stevenson’s prose, ostensibly to satisfy the Production Code, but moreover to meet with L.B. Mayer’s glamorized inklings of childhood – or rather, a childhood he himself had never experienced but would have liked to thought of as his own. As example, after looking at the dailies, Mayer ordered his director, Victor Fleming, to reshoot the farewell scene to allow Cooper’s Jim Hawkins to shed a few glycerin tears – an outpouring on which Cooper’s reputation as a child star had been built, though an emotional proclivity not imbued in Stevenson’s diminutive hero. In hindsight, the success of Walt’s remake would converge on the potency of two performances. In Bobby Driscoll, Walt was assured a bankable child star he had virtually hand-crafted from scratch; Driscoll appearing in Song of the South, then again, in another heartwarming bucolic period drama for Disney, So Dear To My Heart (1948). Alas, the promise of Driscoll’s youth was never to be fulfilled in adulthood; Driscoll, destitute and suffering from chronic drug addiction in his late teens, succumbing to an overdose in 1968 only a few days before his thirty-first birthday. What a waste! But for the moment, and, at least in Treasure Island, Driscoll absolutely typifies Stevenson’s precocious hero; his Jim Hawkins, clear-eyed, strong-willed, resourceful, yet bitten by the bug for free-spirited adventure far away from the safety of his mother’s isolated tavern. And Driscoll, yielding to a surprising level of maturity and intelligence well beyond his thirteen years, exhibits a fairly adult introspection in Jim’s torn allegiance to the scurvy pirate, Long John Silver.
Without question, the hypnotic accomplishment in Treasure Island belongs to Robert Newton as the one-legged, free-wheeling and thoroughly lusty, Long John Silver; bold, bawdy and thoroughly captivating in all his agitated outrageousness. Like Driscoll, Newton’s lifestyle would ultimately plague and, in time, wreck his innate gifts as one of England’s foremost classically trained thespians, brought to heel by insidious alcoholism. Nevertheless, Newton’s Long John Silver is perfection itself; so indelibly seared into the consciousness that, for decades yet to follow, his interpretation has steadily remained the go-to for any actor attempting the likeness of a ‘traditional’ pirate. Critical discourse of the day placed Newton’s contributions somewhere between priceless and preposterous. But it thus remains the prototype, transparently on view most recently in Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Newton’s crafty ole salt is a generous mix of the lovable schemer and villainous rogue; wild-eyed, yet possessing a genuine and fantastic streak of incredulous sadism and caustic wit; enterprising to a fault, yet queerly – and as easily – forgiven his sins and shortcomings.
Interestingly, Newton forgoes the eye-patch and the wooden leg of Stevenson’s robust sea pirate; utilizing a crutch in lieu of that second limb (his own, actually bent behind him and convincingly concealed in an oversized pant leg and coat tails), while keeping both his beady orbs focused on the prize at hand; a king’s ransom in gold doubloons hidden somewhere on a remote tropical island. Walt had an abiding admiration for Newton’s talent. Having made a promise to remain sober during the shoot, Newton kept true to his word; his addiction and occasionally hot temper in perfect balance; rechanneled into a spellbinding interpretation of his character. As theatrical as Newton is, and even better still for the picture, he emanates a fair-weathered benevolence, reciprocated in Bobby Driscoll’s adoring gazes. There is an internalized father/son relationship; equally, a part of Stevenson’s novel, but even more fully realized in Lawrence Edward Watkin’s screenplay, gently coaxed by Byron Haskin’s direction and, of course, Walt’s own intuitions about a young boy’s adulation for this older/brashly corrupt figure of misguided influence.
Treasure Island’s supporting cast reads like a who’s who of stalwart Brit talent; Basil Sydney as the proud and valiant, Capt. Smollett; Denis O’Dea, a noble, Dr. Livsey; Findlay Currie, stern and expiring Capt. Billy Bones; Ralph Truman, as ruthless, George Merry; Walter Fitzgerald, a portly figure of fun as Squire Trelawney, and finally, Geoffrey Keen - an absolutely terrifying Israel Hands, who nearly murders Jim atop the crow’s nest of the good ship, Hispaniola. Determined to keep a tight handle of the production, Walt elected to shoot Treasure Island in its entirely in England, exteriors lensed in and around Cornwall, Devon, Bristol and Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire convincingly substituting for the South Sea locales luridly visualized in Stevenson’s novel. Less successful on the whole are the interiors, shot with some superb ‘mood lighting’ though nevertheless giving every indication of having been created in a studio - Denham Studios, to be exact – their transparently painted backdrops, a part of that ancient vintage in film-making when artistic impressions of realism carried a greater ballast with audiences than reality itself. As Treasure Island’s pre-planning phase moved beyond the drawing board, Walt became personally invested, spending a good deal of his summer vacation to oversee the shoot, frequently conferring with Haskin over dailies and making unobtrusive cameo visits to the set.
In just a little over an hour and a half, Treasure Island evolves into a tightly woven minor masterpiece, begun in earnest on the West Coast of England, circa 1765. Jim Hawkins helps his mother (whom we never see) manage a remote country inn, The Admiral Benbow. Young Jim is skilled in tending bar and performing other menial tasks. On this particular windswept afternoon, the inn is visited by a pair of pirates, George Merry, and Black Dog (Francis de Woolf), each inquiring after the whereabouts of a Capt. William ‘Billy’ Bones. Suspecting some harm may come to their sickly lodger, Jim lies to the men, unknowing they have already spied Bones’ steamer trunk under the stairs, engraved with his initials. Afterward, Jim attempts to warn Bones. Knowing of his demise, Bones offers Jim a secret map to a hidden treasure before quietly drinking himself into a stupor. Hurrying into town, Jim returns several hours later with Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livsey only to discover Bones dead on the floor. Trelawney is immensely intrigued by the prospect of securing this king’s ransom and, against Livsey’s grave concerns, elects to take young Jim along as cabin boy on the journey. Alas, Trelawney’s eagerness supersedes his good sense to play his cards close to his vest. In port, he openly shares his good fortune at having already secured passage aboard the Hispaniola; the rumblings, rediscovering gold belonging to the late Capt. Flint are overheard by John Silver, a one-legged cook, using his tavern as a front.
Silver is a sly one indeed, effortlessly ingratiating himself to Trelawney, while assuring that in addition to his strengths as a cook, he can amass a crew for this expedition at short notice. Silver also brings along his parrot, uncannily named Capt. Flint. While Livsey is highly skeptical, Trelawney naively chalks up his impromptu discovery of Long John as another good fortune. Alas, Smollett, the captain of the Hispaniola, and his second in command, Mr. Arrow (David Davies) are cautious regarding the crew Silver has assembled. Indeed, they are a dim lot of rough-trade mariners whom Smollett almost immediately comes to distrust, ordering Arrow to keep a watchful eye upon them throughout the voyage. Furthermore, Smollett makes every man on board surrender his firearms. While several, especially George Merry, reluctantly resist, Silver pledges ‘good faith’ by securing virtually all their weapons; a sense of false security to ease Smollett’s mind, though undeniably leave the ship more vulnerable to mutiny than ever. Determined to outnumber Smollett’s men, Silver elects to quietly poison Mr. Arrow with strong drink during a stormy night at sea. The next morning, Smollett discovers Arrow gone, presumably washed overboard. Jim proves a loyal cabin boy, hurrying below decks to fetch some apples for himself and the ship’s first mate. Alas, crawling into the barrel to reach for the few remaining pieces, Jim is privy to Silver’s truer intensions; to bide his time until the Hispaniola has successfully taken them to the island, then murdering virtually all of Smollett’s crew, along with Trelawney, the doctor and Jim.
Unnoticed in his secret hiding place, Jim later confides his discovery to Capt. Smollett, Trelawney and Livsey; the trio reasoning they are still able to ambush Silver and thwart his treason. Upon their arrival to the island, Silver offers to tow the Hispaniola to safe anchorage, using a pair of rowboats. He also offers to take Jim along. The plan now is for George Merry and Silver’s remaining crew aboard the Hispaniola to waylay Smollett and his men. But Smollett, having prepared for just such a plot, instead holds Merry and his mutineers at gunpoint, forcing them into the brig below decks. Realizing his plans have been foiled, Silver severs the towlines to the Hispaniola, making for the shore post haste and threatening to slit Jim’s throat should any of Smollett’s men pursue them. Skillfully, Jim finagles his own escape with Silver’s musket gun once the rowboats have made it to shore, eluding his captors in the murky swamps and thick jungle. Inadvertently, Jim meets Ben Gunn (Geoffrey Wilkinson) a half-mad castaway marooned by Capt. Flint nearly five years earlier. Gunn leads Jim to a small boat he has built from scratch, presumably to escape the island, and later helps Smollett and Livsey to Flint’s former stockade.
Alas, George Merry manages to free himself from the brig, taking back the Hispaniola and raising the Jolly Roger. Silver retreats to the ship, arms his motley crew with muskets, and together makes plans to storm the stockade. Short of men, Silver attempts to broker a truce. Rebuffed by Smollett, he next sounds the attack. However, despite wounding Smollett, Silver’s assault on the stockade is a miscalculation. Smollett wisely construes that, with the morning tide Silver will move the Hispaniola into cannon range and decimate their stronghold. Hatching a plan without Smollett’s knowledge, Jim sneaks off in the dead of night, steals Gunn’s homemade boat and rows it back to the Hispaniola, severing its anchor rope. Regrettably, not all hands are below deck; the pirate, Israel Hands pursuing Jim up the ship’s rigging to its crow’s nest. Hands slyly proposes a truce after Jim produces the musket revolver Silver gave him at the start of their voyage. Instead, believing the boy will never use the gun, Hands plunges his knife into Jim’s shoulder. Jim retaliates by shooting Hands in the head. The pirate plummets into the sea far below and Jim hoists the Union Jack aboard the Hispaniola, grounding her on a reef. Greatly weakened, but as determined to make it back to the stockade, Jim is stunned to discover Silver and his men hold up inside with no sign of Smollett, Gunn or Livsey. Fainting dead away in Silver’s arms, Silver discovers the treasure map on Jim’s person; later, using it to barter for Jim’s life and have Livsey stitch together the wound.
The last act of Treasure Island plays out against a pantheon of ever-shifting alliances and honor among thieves. Silver’s men, under George Merry’s encouragement, give Silver the ‘black spot’ – a sign their faith in him has evaporated. But Silver, ever the deceiver, pretends to barter with Livsey for the treasure map already in his possession, returning to the fold with both the map and Jim as his captive. The pirates are elated until their arduous trek across the island leads them on a fruitless excursion: no 700,000 pounds sterling to be had anywhere. The pirates turn on Silver, who manages to kill three of his shipmates before Smollett’s men conveniently resurface to defeat the rest. Greeting Silver, Gunn reveals he has long since dug up Flint's pirate gold, leading everyone to a nearby cave where the loot has remained untouched these past five years. Smollett now demands that Silver is taken back for trial in England where he will surely be found guilty and hanged for his crimes. Climbing into a rowboat bound for the Hispaniola, Hawkins, Trelawney, Jim and two other seamen are ambushed after Silver takes back the musket pistol he previously gave to Jim; ordering everyone except Jim to abandon ship and swim for shore. Silver commands Hawkins to steer their rowboat while he rows them beyond the barrier reef. Instead, Hawkins deliberately beaches the boat. Now, Silver threatens to shoot Jim unless he pushes them free. But Hawkins bravely refuses. Having developed an affinity for the boy, Silver cannot bring himself to commit murder now. Witnessing Silver’s belabored struggles to escape, and realizing, that should Smollett catch up, Silver will surely be put to death, Jim releases the boat with Silver in it; contented to quietly observe as the ole salt rows beyond the reef towards open waters; his future uncertain, though nevertheless, having momentarily been spared his life. Jim and Long John regard one another with mutual, if bittersweet, admiration; Silver’s ship fast becoming a tiny speck on the horizon.
Treasure Island is very fulfilling, more so as a coming-of-age story than a rollicking actioner with canon flare and muskets ablaze, the latter arguably, for which Walt had virtually no stomach and zero interest to make anyway. Virtually all of Walt’s four films shot in Britain made money for the studio. But Treasure Island is unique among them, elevated by Newton’s impossibly sturdy central performance, squeezing every last drop from the melodrama; a simple, concise and thoroughly effective screenplay, staged with finesse by Haskin’s straightforward direction and capped off by an unusual vigor during the action sequences. Like MGM’s raja L.B. Mayer, Walt Disney firmly believed in the Oz-ifed edict, “there’s no place like home” and took his strength from its fundamental precept; that to look for a heart’s desire elsewhere outside of one’s own backyard was faintly ludicrous, virtually to lead right back to the ole homestead, principled in God, country and ma’s homemade apple pies. Disney’s live-action movies of this particular vintage steadfastly maintain the sanctity of such childhood innocence. Yes, Jim Hawkins is reformed by his experiences with Long John Silver. And yet, his wide-eyed optimism persists intact; perhaps tinged with a bittersweet intuition and appreciation for imperfect amities. Disney’s Treasure Island shares a more uncanny fidelity with its source material than most of Walt’s other literary adaptations. But it deviates from the novel, most unapologetic, sincere and truer to Walt’s own mindset regarding ‘family entertainment’. There have been many other adaptations of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s time-honored tale committed to celluloid before and since. Arguably, none has been as lyrical in evoking the conflicted camaraderie between young Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. As such, we depart the picture with a subtler clairvoyance and appreciation for their friendship.
Treasure Island looks particularly smart and glorious on this relatively new Disney Club Exclusive Blu-ray release. I have reiterated as much in the past, and will do so again herein, briefly; that for a big outfit like Disney Inc. to have provided such limited access to these long unseen gems in Walt’s catalog, represents a fairly obtuse notion and a market strategy that, quite frankly, eludes me. The Disney catalog of classic movies is a cherished part of most every home video library being assembled today, by both ardent collectors and casual movie-goers alike. Exactly why the studio would resort to creating a niche market for their most fondly recalled past – and, in the case of Song of the South – ignore it entirely – is extremely disheartening. Mercifully, there is nothing discouraging about the studio’s efforts to preserve some of their finest achievements in hi-def. Despite limiting access to this release, the disc itself represents a quantum leap ahead of the tired old DVD release, still in wide circulation.
Photographed by visual artist extraordinaire, Freddie Young, Treasure Island positively glows incandescent off the screen in 3-strip Technicolor. Not only is the image perfectly aligned, allowing for a residual crispness and veritable visual explosion of fine details unseen since the picture’s theatrical release, but we are treated to a robust color palette with enviable contrast levels and a modicum of film grain lovingly preserved. Disney Inc.’s archival remastering efforts have gone all the way back to original nitrate negatives for this meticulous frame-by-frame restoration and it shows. The DTS audio, in perfectly restored mono as originally recorded, sounds clear and precise, showcasing Clifton Parker’s exuberant score and providing a subtly nuanced treat when listening to Robert Newton’s gritty vocalization. Of course, being a Disney ‘exclusive’ we are given NO extra features, a profound oversight and shame for a company usually on the cutting edge of jam-packing their releases with lots of goodies to sift through. Bottom line: if you don’t belong to the Disney Club, you can still order this one – at considerable expense – through third-party retailers via Amazon.com. Trust me, when I tell you, it is definitely worth the effort and money. Treasure Island is a classic – period! This Blu-ray will make you rediscover the many reasons why. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)