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An opening credit reads: "This picture was filmed on the island of Tobago, the West Indies." Unlike all previous Buena Vista releases, in which the company is credited onscreen as "Buena Vista Film Distribution Co., Inc," the Swiss Family Robinson credits mark the first time the company is listed as "Buena Vista Distribution Co., Inc." The publication on which the film was based originated with Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss (1743-1818), who told the story verbally to his sons. The story was first published in 1812-13 under the title Der schweizerische Robinson and was subsequently re-published several times by different authors, each of whom added and subtracted material.
Of the many publications, the first to use the title Swiss Family Robinson was an 1818 version, and the first version registered with the Library of Congress has a publication date circa 1872. Reviews noted that the Walt Disney version added even more adventures to the book's storyline, including the romantic rivalry, the pirate attack and the wild animal race, and deleted most of the depictions of the difficulties of creating a comfortable life on a deserted island.
Associate producer Basil Keys stated in a December 1960 Saturday Evening Post article that Disney and producer Bill Anderson decided to make their version of the film after viewing the 1940 RKO version (directed by Edward Ludwig and starring Thomas Mitchell and Edna Best; see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). According to a July 1959 Los Angeles Times article, director Ken Annakin used the 1940 version as "an example of what not to do," eschewing the earlier film's studio reproductions and focusing instead on realistic location shooting and art direction.
In November 1957, Hollywood Reporter reported that Lawrence E. Watkin would write the adaptation, and in June 1958 a Hollywood Reporter news item declared that the story would be shot for a television series. By early 1959, however, Hollywood Reporter items noted that the film was set as a theatrical release, and in March 1959 Lowell S. Hawley was signed to write the screenplay. Although a February 1959 Hollywood Reporter item reported that filming would take place in Kenya, the only shooting to take place outside of Tobago was some interior shooting in England.
The following information was taken from studio press materials: Anderson persuaded Disney to film on Tobago, necessitating the creation of a makeshift studio there. Over three hundred crew members, plus period props and equipment were shipped in from America and Europe. Over two hundred animals and birds were brought to the island, where a zoo was constructed to hold them. Production lasted for six months, with photography taking place on thirty sites throughout Tobago. Local towns and townspeople were paid or hidden so they would not show up in the backgrounds; the studio paid Tobagan homeowners $20 to paint their houses green so they would blend into the hillsides. Hurricane Edith interrupted filming with torrential rains and the loss of many temporary stages. In addition to the massive treehouse set, built from scratch in a saman tree, and a working sea craft, the crew also erected a wrecked ship set. That model, featuring two 60-foot steel towers, was modeled on Capt. Cook's Endeavour. The final cost of the film was $5 million, a figure, according to a Saturday Evening Post article, that was a half million over budget. John Mills's autobiography adds Freddie Clarke as Mills's stand-in and a stunt man.
The reviews of Swiss Family Robinson were mostly positive, although many critics noted the story's lack of realism, especially in the scenes in which the house is built and the pirates are fought. The picture became one of Disney's top-grossing films. After the original release, Disney created a feature at his Disneyland amusement park called the Swiss Family Treehouse, a 70-foot reproduction of the family home. A promotional teaser for the film, entitled "Escape to Paradise," aired on Walt Disney Presents on 18 December 1960.
The studio re-issued the film in 1969, 1972, 1975 and 1981 and released it on home video in 1982. The many other film and television versions of Wyss's book include a 1903 silent film by S. Lubin Productions (see AFI Catalog. Film Beginnings, 1893-1910); the 1940 RKO version discussed above; a 1975 television movie, directed by Harry Harris and starring Martin Milner and Pat Delany; a television series entitled The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson, starring Richard Thomas, which ran from 1Sep-October 15, 1998; and a 1995 television movie called The New Swiss Family Robinson, directed by Stewart Rafill and starring James Keach and Jane Seymour. In June 2005, Walt Disney Pictures announced that it would be producing another version of the film, with Jonathan Mostow set to direct.