Extended Thoughts on ‘Treasure Island’
Directed by Byron Haskin
Written by Lawrence Edward Watkin
Walt Disney and the word “simple” don’t go together. Disney and the concept of simplicity don’t go together, either. This isn’t to say that some attractions at the various Disney theme parks aren’t simple in their design or their impact, or that some classic Disney movies don’t have simple story structures or character development. No, this means that while Walt Disney was able to tap into the inner recesses of people’s psyches for maximum effect, something that may seem simple, he rarely created something that didn’t have some complex thought placed behind it. So there is–I hope–some complex idea behind the first fully live-action film from Walt Disney Productions, 1950’s Treasure Island. I just don’t know what it is.
Based on the classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island is a boy’s adventure through and through. Though we get a mention of a female character–the lead character’s mother–we never meet her, and no other women have dialogue, let alone important roles. Seeing as most of the film takes place on a large ship as its male denizens hunt for buried treasure, this isn’t much of a shock. Still, I was struck by the gender imbalance during the opening section. We meet our lead, Jim Hawkins, a young boy who runs an inn with his aforementioned mother. Jim tries to shield one of the inn’s residents, Billy Bones, from some nefarious characters including one who gives him an ominous black spot foretelling his doom. The plan doesn’t work for long, as Bones dies the very night he receives the black spot. What he leaves behind, though, is a map to massive amounts of treasure. Joined by local elders Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey, Jim decides to go on an adventure unlike anything he’s ever experienced. But what, Livesey and Trelawney wonder, will Jim’s mother think? Will they be able to take the boy on their trip? Should they ask? Why does it matter, seeing as she’s never onscreen?
That aside, most of Treasure Island is uncomplicated, unfettered, unpretentious entertainment. There’s a treasure, and the characters onscreen want to find it, often at the expense of their fellow man. Jim, Trelawney, Livesey, and the captain of the ship they’re sailing, the Hispaniola, Mr. Smollett, are all honorable enough. They’re men who know that, sure, they’re hunting down buried pirate treasure, but they’re also not cutthroats. The problem is that, as such honorable men, they’re initially blinded to the fact that they are surrounded by the scum of the earth on this voyage. You all know about Long John Silver, the pirate with a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder. Long John is the cook of the Hispaniola, and he has plans for mutiny so he can get ahold of the treasure. In this version–and perhaps in the original story, which I’ve never read–Long John Silver lucks his way onto the ship, as he happens to be the cook at a harbor inn where Jim and friends have a fateful lunch before getting their crew together. Though Jim’s been warned of a man with a peg leg, he’s won over by Silver’s jovial nature. He should know better, though, as Long John Silver’s intent is clear almost from his introduction, his eyes bulging at the very thought of unlimited gold.
This is a story that’s seemingly as old as time itself, but Treasure Island is fun without trying too hard. I suppose that’s one of the most interesting elements of this movie: it doesn’t try that hard. The behind-the-scenes crew don’t include many of the usual Walt Disney Productions suspects; it was directed by Byron Haskin, who would go on to direct the 1953 sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds, but nothing else notable for Disney. In fact, considering this movie’s importance in the overall Walt Disney Studios canon, there’s not much notable about it. Not being notable isn’t the same as being creatively unsuccessful, certainly, but there’s only one other movie in the Walt Disney Studios canon that matters as much as Treasure Island: 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There’s little point in debating the quality of the two movies–partly because I’ll be talking about the 1937 film on the next episode of the show and partly because…well, we’ll just leave it at that–but for being the first of their kind for the studio, their importance can’t be understated. And yet Treasure Island gets zero hoopla. Though it didn’t come first, I imagine most people consider 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be the true first live-action Disney film, if only because of its ambition, big names, and technical prowess. While Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver isn’t too outlandish or outrageous, he can’t hold a talent to the starpower of Kirk Douglas and James Mason.
What’s more, though Treasure Island mostly looks realistic enough, it can’t hold a candle to the major leap taken with the production design in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For Disney to adapt boyhood tales by Stevenson and Jules Verne makes perfect sense, but in some ways, the former story feels like small fries. Honestly, watching this movie compared with watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is like watching a TV-movie compared with a big-budget epic. Disney’s heart was not, I fear, in this movie as much as it was in the later film. Considering how touch-and-go the film studio was back in the late-1940s, though, I can understand Disney wanting to be cautious with his first foray into an arena that had many seasoned, skeptical veterans. I just wish he’d been more able to let his imagination run wild, or allow the filmmakers’ imaginations to run wild.
The best thing I can say about Treasure Island, outside of it being purely fun, is that it didn’t make me angry. Most of the live-action Disney movies I’ve reviewed for the show this year have made me angry, for one reason or another, be it Tron, The Black Hole, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. All of those films, though, did have ambition even if it was misplaced. The sole driving force of ambition in Treasure Island is wanting to make a live-action movie and just do it well enough to make people think that Disney could do it more than once, and in a more innovative sense. Treasure Island is not forgettable, but unlike the triumph of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, by not being first to the party of making live-action films, Walt Disney was only able to make a serviceable pirate movie in his first attempt to break out of the animation mold.