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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. Swiss Family Robinson

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: Swiss Family Robinson

Year: 1960

Source materials : The 1812 novel Der Schweizerische Robinson by Johann David Wyss.

Budget: $4 million

Box office: $40,000,000

Plot: A family on their way to New Guinea is chased by pirates into a hurricane. The captain and crew abandon the ship leaving the family shipwrecked off an uninhabited island. Father and his two eldest sons Fritz and Ernst salvage as much as they can from the wreck including livestock, tools, and even an organ.


As they gather what can be removed from the ship, the pirates return and begin shooting at the ship. Fritz and Ernst begin readying the ship’s cannon, but they only have one shot. Suddenly, the pirates turn around; Father has put up a flag indicating the ship is under quarantine and that there is Black Death aboard. The three men construct a tree house home on the island while the youngest boy Francis investigates the wildlife and starts an impressive collection of animals including a young elephant, a capuchin monkey and two Great Danes rescued from the ship which they name Duke and Turk.

Fritz and Ernst head off to explore the island to see if anyone else lives on it, or if it is connected to any other lands. While at a distant corner of the island, they again spot the pirates who originally drove them into the storm. The pirates have captured another ship and have the ship’s captain, Captain Moreland, and cabin boy “Bertie” captives for ransom. Fritz and Ernst rescue Bertie but Captain Moreland, Bertie’s grandfather, stays behind. The three dodge the pirates and head back to the family’s tree house. En route, they discover that Bertie is really Roberta and not a boy at all. The three fend off snakes and hyenas as they head home and even rescue a zebra foal, then lead it home.


They arrive back at the treehouse at Christmas. Father realizes the pirates will try to reclaim Roberta and decides to make a stand against them. Defenses are prepared by building booby-traps and fortifying a rocky outcropping. They blow up the ship’s wreckage in an attempt to make it difficult for the pirates to remember where the family went aground. While prepping for the pirate attack, Fritz and Ernst vie for the affections of Roberta. They eventually come to blows over her and are stopped only by the intervention of Father. He declares the next day the first holiday for “New Switzerland” in an attempt to divert everyone.



While prepping for the race, Mother fires the gun to signal the start of the race; the pirates, who are at that time sailing the coast looking for the place they last saw the ship that brought the family to the island, hear the gun and know the family is near. The pirates storm the island. The family manages a brave defense. When the pirate leader waves a white flag the family imagines they have routed the pirates, but the pirates instead are sneaking around the back of the fort.

The family begins defending the fortress but are soon down to only a few shots with their muskets. At this critical moment, a ship appears on the horizon captained by Roberta’s grandfather Captain Moreland and fires its cannons while the retreating pirates are trying to make a desperate escape. The cannon fire hits the pirate ship while the family rejoices.

Father, Mother and Francis choose to remain on the island with Duke, Turk, and Francis’ collection of animals while Captain Moreland notes that Father will likely be recommended as Governor of the new colony. As for the rest of the family, Ernst chooses to return to Europe with the rescuers in order to enroll in a university to continue his studies while Fritz and Roberta plan to marry and make New Switzerland their home.

Background: Walt Disney and Bill Anderson decided to produce their own version of the story after watching an earlier version produced by RKO. There were several meetings to decide filming locations. They visited Jamaica and Trinidad, but it was not what they wanted. Somebody in Trinidad told them of a nearby island, Tobago. When they saw the island for the first time, they found it fitted to their needs.

The treehouse was constructed in a 200-foot tall saman in the Goldsborough Bay area. Besides causing logistical problems, the weather also introduced other difficulties. The tropical storm Edith arrived at Tobago during filming. The script required animals, who arrived from all around the world. The animals that were brought included eight dogs, two giant tortoises, forty monkeys, two elephants, six ostriches, four zebras, one hundred flamingos, six hyenas, two anacondas, and a tiger.

After filming, the local Tobagonians convinced Disney, who had intended to remove all evidence of filmmaking, to let the treehouse remain, sans interior furnishing. It became a popular attraction among locals and tourists, before the structure was finally destroyed by Hurricane Flora in September 1963.

Changes from the Source Material:

  • The pirates and Roberta do not appear in the novel. A young lady named Emily comes to live with them towards the end of the novel. She was shipwrecked on a different part of the island.
  • In the novel, the family builds a number of structures, including a much-less-elaborate treehouse, but ultimately settles in a cave.
  • The novel includes a fourth son named Jack who is the third in order of age.
  • Many more large mammals in addition to those seen in the film, including bears, jackals, lions, leopards, buffalo and walruses, are present in almost all versions of the book.
  • In the book the family is headed to Australia; in this film they are headed toward the German colony of New Guinea (in order to avoid involvement in the Napoleonic Wars).
  • Turk is the name of one of the dogs while the other is named Juno in the novel, while Turk is accompanied by Duke in the film.


Sir John Mills 8 as William Robinson. His film début was in The Midshipmaid in 1932. He also appeared in The Ghost Camera, Britannia of Billingsgate, A Political Party, The River Wolves, Those Were the Days, The Lash, Blind Justice, Doctor’s Orders, Car of Dreams, Brown on Resolution, Charing Cross Road, The First Offence, Tudor Rose, The Green Cockatoo, Goodbye, Mr Chips, This Happy Breed,Waterloo Road, The Way to the Stars Great Expectations, So Well Remembered, The October Man, War and Peace, Around the World in 80 Days, Town on Trial, The Vicious Circle, Dunkirk, Tiger Bay, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Tunes of Glory, Trial by Combat, The Devil’s Advocate, The Big Sleep, The Thirty Nine Steps, Zulu Dawn, Gandhi, and Sahara. He received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Ryan’s Daughter. In 1976 he was knighted by the Queen. Dorothy McGuire 9 as Elizabeth Robinson. She played the mother in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1947 for Gentleman’s Agreement. Other notable films include Till the End of Time, The Enchanted Cottage, A Summer Place, Three Coins in the Fountain, Friendly Persuasion, Old Yeller, The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

James MacArthur 10 as Fritz Robinson. He is best known for the role of Danny “Danno” Williams on Hawaii Five-O. He appeared in roles in movies including The Interns, Spencer’s Mountain, The Truth About Spring, and Cry of Battle, as well as The Love-Ins. He made several television guest appearances, which included roles in Studio One, GE Theatre, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Eleventh Hour, The Great Adventure, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Combat!, and The Virginian. Janet Munro 11 as Roberta “Bertie. ” She appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, The Trollenberg Terror and The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

Sessue Hayakawa 12 as Kuala, the Pirate Captain. Hayakawa was the first actor of Asian descent to achieve stardom as a leading man in the United States and Europe. He probably best known for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He appeared in Daughter of the Dragon, The Daughter of the Samurai, and Tokyo Joe. Tommy Kirk as Ernst Robinson. He appeared in Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Pajama Party How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, The Monkey’s Uncle, The Sons of Katie Elder, Catalina Caper, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and It’s a Bikini World.

Kevin Corcoran 13 as Francis Robinson. His many roles include Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Pollyanna, Toby Tyler, Savage Sam, A Tiger Walks and Blue. After hegraduated from California State University, Northridge with a degree in theatre arts, he returned to Disney, this time working behind the camera as an assistant director and producer. He worked on Superdad, The Island at the Top of the World, Pete’s Dragon, The New Mickey Mouse Club, Treasure of Matecumbe, Return from Witch Mountain and on The North Avenue Irregulars. Cecil Parker 14 as Captain Moreland. He appeared in The Lady Vanishes, Under Capricorn, Storm in a Teacup, 23 Paces to Baker Street, Dangerous Moonlight, I Was Monty’s Double A French Mistress, The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit, The Court Jester, Indiscreet, I Believe in You, The Magnificent Two, and Oh! What a Lovely War.

Critical Reception: Upon the film’s initial release, New York Times film critic Howard Thompson lauded the film by writing, “it’s hard to imagine how the picture could be better as a rousing, humorous and gentle-hearted tale of family love amid primitive isolation and dangers.”

Legacy: The Swiss Family Treehouse opened November 18, 1962, in Adventureland at Disneyland, two years after the film. Imagineer Bill Martin worked out the treehouse’s design, and Disney animator Wolfgang Reitherman, who designed the treehouse for the movie, contributed. At 70 feet tall and 80 ft wide, constructed of concrete and reinforced steel, the attraction weighed 150 tons. Sir John Mills and his daughter Hayley appeared at the attraction’s opening. Simikar attractions opened in Orlando, Paris, and Toyko. The original attraction in Disneyland was rethemed in 1999 based of the movie Tarzan.

My take: The best thing about this movie is all the critters. I also enjoyed the Ewok-like battle against the pirates.

Next Week: Old Yeller