Friday, November 6, 2015

Treasure Island


Today, I'm celebrating the 100th anniversary of the swashbuckler with an article about the Walt Disney version of Treasure Island (1950) starring Bobby Driscoll (left) as Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton as legendary pirate Long John Silver.

This article is part of the Swashathon hosted by Movies Silently.

There are few films that are as much fun as the 1950 version of Treasure Island. This movie, which was the first live action feature from Walt Disney Studios, is full of buried treasure and exotic locales, and features a scene-stealing performance from Robert Newton as the "pirate of all pirates" Long John Silver.

Treasure Island tells the story of Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll), an 18th century English boy who helps his widowed mother run the Admiral Benbow Inn on the western coast of England. Through a series of mysterious circumstances, Jim becomes the owner of a pirate's map leading to buried treasure on a South Seas island. Jim joins an expedition to Treasure Island, and he becomes best friends with the ship's cook Long John Silver, a colorful character who may be a ruthless one-legged pirate.


Treasure Island is based on the beloved 1883 children's novel by Scottish author  Robert Louis Stevenson. Like many writers, Stevenson was inspired by a wide variety of sources, including his own circle of friends  (Stevenson later admitted that  poet and critic William Ernest Henley, a garrulous man with one leg, was the model for Long John Silver). Stevenson also drew from real pirate adventures like the legendary buried treasure of Captain Kidd, but the story mostly sprang from his own imagination.  Stevenson began the novel by drawing the map of  the fictional Treasure Island (it is recreated in the movie) and most of the plot and characters came into his mind while he was filling in the details. 

Treasure Island was a massive bestseller, which made it a prime candidate for an old Hollywood adaptation. MGM made an entertaining version in 1934 with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper playing the roles of Long John and Jim. Walt Disney bought the rights from MGM with an eye towards making an animated feature, but he changed his mind after his studio took a big financial hit during World War II because they could not distribute their  animated features in Europe. Disney needed some fast cash to finance new animated movies and his dream project of Disneyland, so he decided to greenlight Treasure Island as a live action movie with Disney's popular child star Driscoll in the lead.

Long John Silver (Robert Newton) and his parrot, Cap'n Flint.
Thanks to arcane tax laws the ever shrewd Disney also saved a great deal of money by filming  in England, although this did backfire somewhat because Britain's stricter child labor laws meant that poor Driscoll had to be shuttled about a great deal to cover up the amount of time he was actually working on the movie.

Treasure Island was filmed on location in Cornwall, Devon, and Bristol, England, which gives the movie an authentic feel.  It also gave director Byron Haskin access to wonderful British actors like Geoffrey Wilkinson, who gives a memorable, Gollum-like performance as castaway Ben Gunn, and Walter Fitzgerald, who provides comic relief as the blustery, dim-witted Squire Trelawney. The movie also greatly benefits from cinematographer Freddie Young, who would go on to collaborate with director David Lean on classic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Young uses Technicolor to its full advantage, getting beautiful shots of the rocky Cornish Coast, the colorful costumes, and most memorably, a skull and crossbones flag waving against a clear blue sky.

Bobby Driscoll (left), Robert Newton, Walter Fitzgerald and Geoffrey Wilkinson inspect the pirates horde in Treasure Island (1950).
As great as all of these elements are, the success of Treasure Island rests on the colorful shoulders of Robert Newton as the "pirate of all pirates" Long John Silver. Newton was a widely respected stage actor who dabbled in British films with memorable appearances in Jamaica Inn (1939), Oliver Twist (1948), and Odd Man Out (1947). Stevenson's novel portrays Long John Silver as one of the most charming villains in literature, and Newton performance, although it is hammy to say the least, successfully puts the audience under Long John's spell. Long John's appearance alone is memorable with his bright red coat and parrot on his shoulder, but Newton adds more layers to the character by giving Long John a bizarre squint and a unique accent. Newton drew from his own regional accent (he was from Dorset) and from seafaring terminology to create a unique argot (or should it be "argh"-ot) that became one of the most widely imitated screen performances of all time.

Treasure Island was a huge hit for Disney, and its success was followed by a series of highly successful live action films that continues today with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Meanwhile, Newton's performance as Long John defined the rest of his career. He played a series of pirates until his death in 1956, and he even reprised his role as Long John Silver in a 1954 Treasure Island sequel and in an Australian TV series. In fact, Long John Silver became something of a fifties pop culture icon. Treasure Island kitsch, like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, abounded, and businesses even picked up on the trend with Long John Silver's fast food restaurants and Admiral Benbow Inn's sprouting up across the country. 


Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver is still a popular today, thanks to International Talk Like a Pirate Day (it's Sept. 19 if you want to mark it on your calendar), where bored office workers across the country entertain their co-workers with their best "argh's" and "ahoy there, mateys," although I think many people under 40 don't actually realize who they are imitating. I'll leave you with a clip from the Treasure Island sequel that is designed to help wannabe pirates perfect their best Newton impersonation.


Treasure Island is available on DVD and video on demand.


Go here for articles from my past blogathons.


17 comments :

  1. Truly, Robert Newton as Long John is the first movie pirate that every springs to mind. I remember watching this movie as a kid with my eyes wider than the skies. Such adventure!

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    1. Treasure Island was the first classic movie I discovered as a child, so I might not even be writing for this blogathon if Robert Newton hadn't made such a big impression on me.

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  2. About the only versions of Treasure Island I have ever watched are Animal Treasure Island (1971) and Treasure Planet (2004). This more traditional take looks like a great ball of fun though!

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    1. I really love the book and allow the movies changes the ending, Newton is still the iconic Long John Silver.

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  3. Thank you so much for joining in and sharing this absolutely intriguing backstory. I love hearing about the little legal loopholes and backroom deals that made all the difference in getting classic films made. Arrr! indeed.

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    1. I don't think Uncle Walt ever missed an opportunity to stretch a buck : )

      Thanks for hosting

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  4. This was my favorite pirate film as a child and I still love it - you're right; Newton really makes the film (though it is a wonderful film all around); he is the ultimate pirate! Even Geoffrey Rush in Pirates of the Caribbean seems to be imitating him a bit. I didn't realize that the role of Long John Silver came to define him.

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    1. I think for Newton Long John Silver was a lot like Sherlock Holmes is for other actors. He was so good at that role that the public really couldn't think of him as anyone else.

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  5. The blogathon wouldn't have been complete without this classic - I had it recorded off the TV and watched it again and again as a kid. I haven't thought about it for years, and clearly there were a lot of gaps in my knowledge beyond the actual film - it was good to put it in a bit of context!

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    1. I'm glad so many people remember this film. I wasn't sure if anyone else besides me really liked it.

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  6. Wait a minute. There's an International Talk Like a Pirate Day? Man, I will be READY for that next year!

    P.S. Great post, by the way!

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    1. Talk Like a Pirate Day was the highlight of the year for one of my former coworkers, although not so much for the rest of us. It got a little old by lunchtime ;)

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  7. Hi Silver Screenings. I'm very happy you included this version of Treasure Island. Robert Newton gave a remarkable performance. The success of this movie led the Disney people to realize that they could make easier profits from live action films than from animated features, which required so much work. I guess we can thank this movie for The Absent-Minded Professor and That Darn Cat.

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    1. According to Neal Gabler's Disney biography, he just basically looked at the live action movies as cash cows. He also liked to film on location so he could take his family on vacation.

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  8. "Oooo for ten toes!" For me Robert Newton will always be Long John Silver no matter how many actors attempt to portray the character. Treasure Island never gets old, even after 100,000 viewings ( I wouldn't attempt to prove that point however ). Great post. :)

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    1. That ten toes line makes me LOL every time

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  9. I'm more familiar with the 1930's version of TREASURE ISLAND starring Wallace Beery, but I will definitely check this one out thanks to your write-up.

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