Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. Treasure Island

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Treasure Island

Year: 1950

Source materials : The novel by Robert Lewis Stephenson

Budget: $1,800,000

Box office: $4,100,000

Plot: Jim Hawkins lives with his mother in a tiny country inn which they run. Captain William Bones, a sickly lodger, gives Jim a treasure map after being visited by two pirates, the second of whom gives the captain a note marked with the black spot. That same night Bones is found dead at the inn.

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Jim shows Squire Trelawney the map. Trelawney recognizes the map as belonging to the buccaneer Captain Flint and bankrolls a voyage to discover the pirate’s lost treasure. Trelawney hires Captain Smollett and his ship, the Hispaniola, bringing along his friend Dr. Livesey as the ship’s doctor and Jim as the cabin boy.

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Before departure Trelawney is taken in by Long John Silver, a one-legged inn-keeper, who agrees to gather a crew. Silver strikes up a friendship with Jim and joins the expedition as the ship’s cook. Smollett is concerned about the crew, especially when he reveals to Trelawney that the nature of their journey is common knowledge. At sea, Jim overhears Silver and the crew’s plan to mutiny, discovering that the seamen hired by Silver are Captain Flint’s old crew. Jim reveals the treachery to Smollett who asks Jim to stay friends with Silver to learn more.

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Upon reaching Treasure Island, Silver offers to tow the ship to a safer anchorage, using two of the ship’s row boats. While the ship is being towed, one of Silver’s men, Merry, leads a mutiny on the ship. Smollett, having been warned of the plot by Jim, is able to hold them off with the few men loyal to him and imprisons the mutineers below decks. Silver cuts the row boats from the Hispaniola and heads for shore with the rest of his men, taking Jim as a hostage. Smollett, Trelawney, and Livesey go ashore after them, leaving two guards on the ship.

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On the island, Jim escapes and meets Ben Gunn, marooned by Flint five years ago. Gunn shows Jim the boat he’s built, then leads him to Flint’s stockade, where he meets up with Smollett and the others. Meanwhile, Merry escapes, takes the ship and raises the Jolly Roger. Silver returns to the Hispaniola, arms his men with muskets and makes plans to take the stockade.

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Short of men, Silver attempts to parlay with Smollett, but when he is rebuffed, Silver calls his men to attack. The assault on the stockade fails, but Silver wounds Smollett. Although seemingly protected by the stockade, Smollett surmises that, with the morning tide, Silver could move the Hispaniola into cannon range and level the fort. Jim takes Gunn’s boat and cuts the Hispaniola’s anchor rope. The pirate Israel Hands discovers Jim and chases him up into the ship’s rigging. Hands injures Jim’s arm with a throwing knife but is killed by the boy’s pistol. The Hispaniola runs aground, Jim strikes the Jolly Roger and hoists the Union Jack. Slowed by his wound, which becomes badly infected by swamp water, it takes him all night to get back to the stockade, which is unguarded.

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Inside, Jim searches for the doctor to tend his wound, but the man asleep under Livesey’s coat is Long John Silver. Jim faints on the spot. Silver finds the map on him as his men wake up. Merry wants Jim dead, but Silver states he wants to trade him for the map, which his men believe is with Smollett. The men go outside to vote, pirate-style. From the stockade’s lookout, while calling for Livesey, Silver sees that the ship’s aground, flying the Union Jack, and believes that Smollett’s party has recaptured the ship. The other pirates give Silver the black spot, but he refuses to acknowledge it. Rattled, they let him bargain with Livesey, who has come to treat Jim’s infected wound, for the map.

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Silver secretly barters with Livesey for leniency in court, inadvertently revealing to him that the ship is no longer under his control. Livesey agrees only when Jim refuses to try and escape with him, since Silver saved his life by calling for Livesey. Livesey leaves, and Silver returns with Jim, flaunting the map to convince his men that his bargain was successful. The pirates are overjoyed and take back the black spot, then proceed on a grueling treasure hunt.

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When they finally reach the spot where the treasure, supposed to be 700,000 pounds, is supposed to be buried, they discover instead an empty pit, save for one guinea. The pirates turn on Silver, who manages to kill three of them before Smollett’s men appear to defeat the rest. Greeting Silver, Gunn reveals that he dug up Flint’s treasure and has stashed it in a cave.

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Despite keeping his end of the bargain, Captain Smollett still wants Silver taken back for trial in England for his mutiny. Hawkins, Trelawney and two others take Silver to the Hispaniola aboard a rowboat loaded with a few chests of treasure. Silver snatches Jim’s pistol and forces Trelawney and the others out of the boat, but forces Jim to stay and steer him out of the cove. Jim instead beaches him on a sandbar, and Silver orders Hawkins to push him off at pistol point, though Jim bravely refuses. Silver is unable to carry out his threat to shoot and drops the pistol in the water, attempting to push the boat off himself. Seeing Silver struggle, Jim helps him, waving a hesitant farewell as Silver rows away with the treasure and bids him farewell in return.

Background: The film came about in an unusual way. After World War II, in order to revive the post-war economy, The United Kingdom passed laws that stated that any money earned in the UK had to be spent in the UK. Disney had money that was earned in the UK from previous animated films, but could not access that money in The United States because of that law. Walt decided to spend that money by filming a movie in the UK.

Exterior scenes were shot in Cornwall, Devon, Bristol, and Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire. Interiors were filmed at Denham Film Studios, Denham, Buckinghamshire. Bobby Driscoll only had a 3 month work permit in the UK so all his scenes were filmed first, a long way out of continuity, in order to complete his role in time.

Changes from the Source Material: Jim’s mother doesn’t make an appearance. There are no women seen in the film.

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Cast:

Bobby Driscoll returns as Jim Hawkins Robert Newton as Long John Silver. He appeared in such films as Jamaica Inn, Poison Pen, Hell’s Cargo, Gaslight, Channel Incident, Major Barbara, Henry V, and Hatter’s Castle.

Basil Sydney as Captain Smollett. He made over fifty screen appearances, most memorably as Claudius in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, as well as films like Ivanhoe and Around the World in Eighty Days. Walter Fitzgerald as Squire Trelawney. He appeared in Blanche Fury, The Fallen Idol, and H.M.S. Defiant.

Denis O’Dea as Dr. Livesey. He apoeared in The Informer, The Plough and the Stars, Odd Man Out, The Mark of Cain, The Fallen Idol, Under Capricorn, The Bad Lord Byron, Landfall, Marry Me!, Captain Horatio Hornblower, The Long Dark Hall, Mogambo, Niagara, Never Take No for an Answer, The Rising of the Moon, Captain Lightfoot, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and Esther and the King. Finlay Currie as Capt. Billy Bones. He appeared in Great Expectations, Ben-Hur, Francis of Assisi, The Fall of the Roman Empire, People Will Talk and Ivanhoe.

Ralph Truman as George Merry. His best-remembered film roles include Tigellinus in Quo Vadis, Mountjoy in Henry V, Monks in Oliver Twist and the Police Inspector in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Geoffrey Keen as Israel Hands. He appeared in Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man. He quickly became one of the busiest character actors, typically doing five films a year. He played the role of Frederick Gray in six James Bond films: The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and The Living Daylights. He also appeared The Spanish Gardener, Doctor Zhivago, Cromwell, Born Free, and Taste the Blood of Dracula.

John Laurie as Blind Pew. His films include Juno and the Paycock, The 39 Steps, The Edge of the World, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Medal for the General, The Way Ahead, and Fanny by Gaslight. Francis de Wolff as Black Dog. He appeared in such films as Fire Over England, Scrooge, Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, Saint Joan, From Russia with Love, and Carry On Cleo. He is perhaps best remembered, however, as a supporting player in horror movies including Corridors of Blood, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, Devil Doll, and The Black Torment. His last film appearance was in The Three Musketeers.

Sam Kydd as Cady. He is best remembered for films such as Chance of a Lifetime, The Cruel Sea, Sink the Bismarck, The Yangtse Incident, Reach for the Sky, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Too Many Crooks, Smokescreen, Island of Terror, Too Late the Hero, Eye of the Needle and Steptoe and Son Ride Again. Patrick Troughton as Roach. He played the second incarnation of the Doctor in the long-running British science-fiction television series Doctor Who, which he played from 1966 to 1969; he reprised the role in 1973, 1983 and 1985.

Critical Reception:

  • Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times called the film “a grand and glorious entertainment” that “captures the true spirit of the novel.”
  • Variety praised the film for its “sumptuous” set pieces and “a virtual tour de force” performance by Newton.
  • Sonia Stein of The Washington Post wrote that the film was “like a treasure chest of precious stones,” with “some of the most beautiful color photography ever shot.”
  • Harrison’s Reports called it a “first-rate adventure melodrama that should thrill young and old alike.”
  • Philip Hamburger of The New Yorker called it “absolutely first-class … mounted in Technicolor with such meticulous and imaginative care that I had the feeling throughout that I was watching a handsome illustrated edition of the book come to life.”

Legacy: Return to Treasure Island, a 10-part 1986 Disney Channel sequel co-produced by Disney with HTV and starring Brian Blessed as Long John Silver.

Availability: Released on DVD in 2003

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My take: Robert Newton is pretty much exactly what you expect a pirate to be. His performance is so iconic in his speech and mannerisms, that when someone thinks of a pirate, his performance comes to mind even if you’ve never seen the film. Can you blame Jim for being entranced by him?

Next Week: A whale of a tale