Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Treasure Island

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Treasure Island

In the back of my mind, I had always assumed the story behind Treasure Island went something like this. As a boy, young Walter Elias Disney had read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and, like most boys, had fallen in love with it. He wanted to make it into a movie but not a cartoon. Walt wanted to live the adventure, to smell the sea air, feel the ship beneath his feet and assemble his own motley pirate crew.

There may well be some small element of truth to that idealistic tale but the real story behind how Treasure Island became Walt Disney’s first fully live-action feature is much more prosaic. In the years following World War II, the British government levied a steep import tax on American films. Monies earned by American studios were frozen with the condition that it must be put back into the ailing British economy. They’d also imposed a quota that mandated that 45 percent of all films shown in British cinemas had to be made in England.

Walt wasn’t about to build a new animation studio in London. But he could use the frozen assets to shoot a live-action feature using a mostly British cast and crew. And so it was the accounting department that decided Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island would become Walt Disney’s first live-action feature film.

While most of the below-the-line crew was British, including the great cinematographer Freddie Young and matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, the top guys were all Americans. Producer Perce Pearce had been with Disney for years, working on Fantasia and Bambi before moving over to live-action production with Song Of The South. Screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin had been hired by Disney a few years earlier to adapt Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill stories into a screenplay. Watkin would write several more films for Disney before that project was finally realized in 1959.

Director Byron Haskin had been a cinematographer and special effects man at Warner Bros. before becoming a full-time director with the 1947 film noir I Walk Alone. Treasure Island would be Haskin’s only film with Disney. He’d later collaborate with George Pal on such movies as The War Of The Worlds and Conquest Of Space, as well as directing the cult sci-fi film Robinson Crusoe On Mars.

Watkin’s screenplay condenses Stevenson’s novel down to a tight 96 minutes. Most of the iconic characters are represented, even if some, like Blind Pew, are nearly reduced to cameo appearances. Fortunately, the cast is strong enough to make an impression with even the smallest roles. Geoffrey Wilkinson, a stage actor with no other film roles to his credit, makes for an ideal Ben Gunn, the half-crazed pirate marooned on Treasure Island. The pompous Squire Trelawney is brought to life by Walter Fitzgerald and Denis O’Dea makes for a sympathetic and understanding Dr. Livesey. Both actors would later return to the Disney fold in Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

And then there’s Robert Newton, the living, breathing embodiment of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, as Long John Silver. Newton wasn’t the first actor to take on the role of the one-legged pirate but he made it his own like no one before or since. Newton sets the tone for the entire picture with a broad, caricatured performance straight out of a British pantomime. Subtle, it is not. But it is effective and impossible to forget.

There was really only one choice to play young Jim Hawkins. Bobby Driscoll had been the first actor signed to an exclusive contract with Disney. In the years since his debut in Song Of The South, he’d been kept busy in movies like Melody Time and won a special juvenile Academy Award for So Dear To My Heart and the RKO thriller The Window. Bobby’s all-American voice and demeanor makes him an odd fit for the West Coast of England in 1765. But he gets by on spirit and attitude and it helps that he and Newton have a fun, natural rapport.

Cover art for the Dell Four Color Comics adaptation of Treasure Island

Treasure Island would be the beginning of the end for Bobby Driscoll at Disney. Walt had planned on casting him as Tom Sawyer, which would have been a perfect fit, but couldn’t secure the film rights. Other potential live-action vehicles also fell by the wayside. Bobby’s next work for the studio would be as the voice of Goofy Junior in the shorts Fathers Are People and Father’s Lion. We’ll see him in this column one last time, in animated form.

One character who didn’t make it into the movie was Jim Hawkins’ mother. Mrs. Hawkins only appears briefly in the novel but in the film, she’s simply referred to in passing. We’re assured that a good word from Dr. Livesey will be all that’s needed to secure her permission for Jim’s sea voyage. Her presence isn’t really missed all that much but it does make Treasure Island a very testosterone-heavy movie. There isn’t a single female character in the entire picture.

Apart from Robert Newton, it’s Freddie Young and Peter Ellenshaw who emerge as the film’s MVPs. Young’s Technicolor cinematography is vibrant and colorful, ideally suited to a rousing boy’s adventure. This would be his only work for Disney but he of course went on to become one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, winning Oscars for his work on Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

For matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Treasure Island would be the beginning of a long association with Disney. When someone describes the look of a live-action Disney film, it’s often Ellenshaw’s beautiful background paintings that come to mind. He’d go on to win an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins and rack up additional nominations for Bedknobs And Broomsticks, The Island At The Top Of The World, and The Black Hole. We’ll be seeing a lot more of his work in this column.

Theatrical re-release poster for Treasure Island

Years later, Disney would submit Treasure Island to the MPAA ratings board prior to a theatrical re-release. The board slapped it with the dreaded PG. At the time, Disney had a strict policy of only releasing G-rated fare, so they cut about 9 minutes out of the film. By the early 1990s, that policy was gone and the movie was restored to its original length.

Even today, Treasure Island is a bit more violent than you might expect from Disney. Pirates are shot in the face at point blank range. Jim gets skewered by a sword and has to stagger back to shore alone. By the end, hardly anyone emerges unscathed. It certainly isn’t Peckinpah levels of blood and gore but the body count is pretty high for a kids’ movie.

Treasure Island was a solid hit at the box office and with critics, proving once and for all that Disney was capable of more than just animation. Despite its success, Walt decided not to pursue a sequel. But since Stevenson’s novel was in the public domain, there was nothing to stop others from cashing in on Disney’s success. In 1954, Robert Newton reprised the role in Long John Silver, directed once again by Byron Haskin. It did well enough that Newton and Haskin went on to a short-lived TV series, The Adventures Of Long John Silver. Twenty-six episodes were produced but most of the world didn’t get to see them until after Newton’s death in 1956 at the age of 50.

Even though Walt Disney himself didn’t produce a sequel, this was far from the last time he’d venture into pirate-infested waters. In 1967, Pirates Of The Caribbean would debut at Disneyland. The attraction was one of the last rides personally overseen by Walt himself. In 2003, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp would turn it into a surprise blockbuster, launching four sequels so far.

Pirates would also play key roles in Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson and Blackbeard’s Ghost. In 1986, the Disney Channel would air the miniseries Return To Treasure Island, with Brian Blessed starring as Long John Silver. Ten years after that, Muppet Treasure Island marked the second co-production between Disney and the Jim Henson Company. And in 2002, the studio would give the story a sci-fi makeover with the costly flop Treasure Planet.

The one-two punch of Cinderella and Treasure Island made 1950 Walt Disney’s most profitable year in nearly a decade. On Christmas Day, NBC aired Walt’s first foray into television. One Hour In Wonderland featured Walt himself, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, the young star of his next feature, Alice In Wonderland. Walt was one of the few studio heads to grasp the potential of television. Within a few years, he would be a regular presence on the small screen.

The Disney empire was expanding into new mediums and new formats. Treasure Island was the opening salvo into the world of live-action production. It’s a world that, at its peak, will threaten to overshadow animation completely.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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