- Release date: 29 July, 1950
- Run time: 96 mins
- Director: Byron Haskin
- Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Robert Newton, Basil Sydney
- Inspired by: Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)
“Pirates, Captain Flint! Pirates!”
Having stamped his mark on animation, by 1950 Walt was turning his attention to live action movies. With two hybrid films, combining cartoons and live action, under his belt (the best forgotten Song of the South in 1946 and the long forgotten So Dear to My Heart in 1948), Disney embarked on his first conventional feature-length film. But what caused this change of heart? A desire to be taken more seriously? A yearning to move away from animation? The simple answer is much more mundane – it was all down to cold, hard cash.
Following the Second World War, the UK imposed tight financial restrictions on businesses, designed to keep money in the country. This meant that Disney could not transfer any profits made in Britain from cartoons back to the USA. So Walt hit on a genius idea – he would use these profits to make a new movie to be filmed in the United Kingdom. Using a mixture of location footage and studio work at Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire, he would create a film that would allow him to eventually claim back the money elsewhere. The question, of course, was what should he film?
Original idea? If his previous film, Cinderella, was firmly aimed at girls (sexist it may be, but there is no getting away from the fact that in the 1950s stories about princesses finding their princes were very much targeted at the young female audience), then Disney’s next movie was going to appeal to the male demographic. In many ways, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island couldn’t be a better choice; Stevenson himself said that his idea for the novel was that “it was to be a story for boys”. In fact, there are absolutely no female characters at all in the film; the only reference made to any women at all is a passing acknowledgement of Jim Hawkins mother – and she is quickly dismissed in the space of a sentence.
Perhaps what is most interesting is how closely the film sticks to the original book. With only a few minor changes, Disney chose to remain faithful to Stevenson’s story – something which was rare for Walt. He had no qualms about altering the plot or removing and adding characters if he thought it would serve the cinematic telling better; it is a habit which the studio has failed to shake, even to this day. True, sometimes things which work on paper would not work on the silver screen – a movie needs to focus on the visual storytelling. Yet there are times when it seems the only thing being taken from the source are the title and character names. Not that Disney is the only studio guilty of this Two later versions by Disney would play around with the story (Muppets’ Treasure Island and Treasure Planet); it’s fair to say, both do it brilliantly. But we’ll get to those another time. For now, those who are familiar with the novel will find most of the story they know and love has made it into this version.
Family situation? As we’ve already seen, Jim Hawkins’ mother is given short shrift, barely registering a mention; Hawkins’ father, a good but weak man who dies early in the novel, doesn’t even get a mention in the movie. It’s all just conveniently brushed under the carpet to allow Jim to join the crew of a ship containing unsavory characters without too many awkward questions being asked. Instead, the responsibility of father figure lands on three key people – Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey and the infamous Long John Silver.
Interestingly, it is the villainous Silver who proves the most adept surrogate dad; he clearly cares for Jim and, though his moral compass may be dubious when it comes to buried treasure, he has all the hallmarks for a great father: he listens to Jim; he protects him from the more dangerous pirates; and he obviously wants what is best for him. The other two men are less successful – Trelawney is reckless and often puts his young ward in dangerous situations; Livesey is somewhat wet and rarely makes any impact on the young Hawkins.
Y’know – for kids? Well, this is a story about cut-throat pirates. But as far as bloodlust and frightening scenarios go, this is rather tame. There is an attack by the pirates on the heroes as they find themselves barricaded in a hut on the island, but there is never really any sense of serious threat (although the Captain does get shot). The story (in both the original novel and the movie) is more interested in derring-do than in an accurate portrayal of pirates on the high seas; this is about pure adventure . So while the subject matter is far more serious, this is quietly skirted around to make a more palatable ripping yarn.
Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Let’s start with the main character – young Jim Hawkins. The casting of American Bobby Driscall came under some negative scrutiny at the time and it isn’t hard to see why; his whiney American accent is hugely at odds with the rest of the film. As a result, he comes across as more of an annoyance than character who children will look up to. There are times when you want to throw him overboard or pray that one the pirates will finally get to use their cutlass on him. It is a shame as it is the biggest let down of the whole movie.
Of course, the villain of the piece is Long John himself, played with great aplomb by the excellent Robert Newton. According to legend, his broad West Country accent that he used for the character was so appealing to audiences that it has become the standard voice for pirates ever since – when you find yourself saying ‘Ahh, Jim lad’, it was Newton who started it. His Silver is a brilliant creation: on the one hand, a vicious pirate out only to get the long buried treasure for himself, never letting anyone or anything get in the way of his plan; on the other, as we have already seen, he cares deeply for Hawkins and shows real depth of kindness towards the boy, bringing a sense of empathy to the character. He is more of an anti-hero – we know what he is ultimately doing is wrong, but we can’t help feeling affection for this lovable rogue. Clearly the audience of the time thought so as well, with Newton going on to play Silver in both a further film and a television series before his own booze-fueled lifestyle tragically killed him at just 51.
Sing-along a showtune? Unlike his animations, Disney’s first live action film dispensed with turning Treasure Island into a musical. It’s probably a good thing – I’m not sure if it would have been the same if Long John Silver had burst into song during one of his fights (although a sea shanty could have worked, as it does in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – but more that when we get to it in a few movies’ time). It certainly would have made Driscall’s Hawkins even more annoying than he already is. That said, the score by British composer Clifton Parker features various rousing numbers that work splendidly and is well worth digging out if you can.
I have questions: Aside from wanting to know who decided casting Driscall as Hawkins, rather than going for an English child, my main question is about what the young boy’s mother was thinking allowing him to go on this voyage in the first place? Clearly Squire Trelawney is a completely incompetent figure to be entrusting with your off-spring. How did nobody spot this? I also wonder why the other pirates choose to follow Long John Silver in this version – he isn’t really very ruthless and, despite telling his band of brigands otherwise, doesn’t really seem to have a plan. He’s just far too nice.
Feel-good factor: Poor casting choices aside, this is a fairly rip-roaring tale that does great justice to the original novel. It does seem a little quaint to a modern eye, but that said it speeds along at a fairly good pace and keeps the action going. It may not be the best screen adaption – Disney’s later versions are so much better – but for those after a bit of old-fashioned swashbucklin’, you can’t go far wrong with this. Plus it gets extra points for Newton’s excellent Long John Silver – and for inadvertently starting Talk Like A Pirate Day. I’d give it a feel-good rating of 7 out of 10.
You can watch the trailer below:
Next movie: We go back to animation as we head down the rabbit hole for Alice in Wonderland (1951).