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Treasure Island (1950) is probably the movie that most inspires people to do the stereotypical "aaaargh!" pirate imitation. The character of Long John Silver has been around since the 1883 publication of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel on which the film is based. There have also been many film and television adaptations before and since, the best known being Victor Fleming's 1934 version that reunited the stars of The Champ (1931), Wallace Beery and child actor Jackie Cooper, as Silver and the young Jim Hawkins. Yet it's Robert Newton's performance as the pirate in this Disney adaptation that has remained the most iconic and the most widely seen.
Stevenson's story, in fact, has been the most influential on our perception of pirates, particularly Long John Silver: one-legged with a parrot on the shoulder, a gnarled face, constantly in search of buried treasure with the aid of a cryptic map marked with an X. Young Jim Hawkins's adventures with Long John Silver in search of such treasure formed the bones of Stevenson's plot, which along with rousing action also offered an atmospheric coming-of-age story and an astute comment on the nature of morality. These essential elements made it more or less intact into Disney's 1950 film version, the studio's first non-animated feature.
Originally, Walt Disney planned to make the movie as a full-length cartoon, but thanks to rising production expenses (not least the costly loss of a bitter labor dispute with his animators), the money men at the studio strongly encouraged Disney to make live-action movies as a way of climbing out of the red. So he chose this project as his first venture into that territory, and it paid off handsomely.
The decision to film in England, rather than the West Indian setting of the story, was also financially motivated. Sales of Disney product had stockpiled quite a bit of money in the UK, whose laws prevented their pounds sterling from being exchanged totally into American dollars, so the studio decided to use the frozen funds to make the picture there, using a director less well known and less expensive. Byron Haskin had been a successful special effects specialist since the late silent period, primarily at Warner Brothers, with such films to his credit as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Passage to Marseille (1944). His directorial career prior to this consisted of only four silents and four post-war B movies including the Burt Lancaster film noir, I Walk Alone . Haskin's work on Treasure Island led to a few bigger projects, among them The War of the Worlds (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), and a non-Disney, Australian-based sequel, Long John Silver (1954), again starring Newton as the pirate.
In an interview conducted by Joe Adamson, Haskin recalled his reason for accepting the Treasure Island assignment: "I needed a film at the time I talked with Walt, and sure, I'd do Treasure Island in England. Who wouldn't? Of course, the deal was for peanuts. Total fee was $25,000. As it turned out we were nine months on the stage with this thing. Me and the gateman were getting about the same wages. And I was there several additional months after."
Despite fairly smooth financial sailing abroad, the Treasure Island production did encounter a problem with Britain's child labor laws. Child star Bobby Driscoll was not quite 13 at the time of the production and only allowed to stay in the country for six weeks. Haskin and crew had to rush to shoot all his scenes in the allotted time and use a double for shots done after his departure. A popular child actor from the age of 6 with a long-term contract with Walt Disney Productions, Driscoll had received an "Outstanding Juvenile Actor" Academy Award as the beleaguered boy in the noir thriller The Window (1949). His final job for Disney was voicing the title role in the animated Peter Pan (1953), after which his career went into a sad decline. As he got older, roles became harder to come by, and he fell into a tragic downward spiral of hard drugs and poverty. He was found dead of a heart attack at the age of 31 in an abandoned New York building in 1968.
Regarding Robert Newton in the role of Long John Silver, Haskin recalled how he handled the delicate situation of directing him since the actor, at the time, had an infamous reputation as a drunkard on sets. "Right off, I figured the best way to generate some personal enthusiasm in this guy," Haskin said, "was to suck him in as my helper with production problems. He knew all about English theatre. He was hung over when I first met him. I said, "Well, there will be about eight weeks before we shoot. Why don't you go fishing? When you come back you'll have the job of casting the most delightful part in the show -- Ben Gunn." Ben Gunn was the crazy guy marooned on Treasure Island...So Bob went fishing in Ireland for a week. He came back sunburned, his health restored. I kept drawing on him for advice about production problems and got him hunting for a real good character actor to play Ben Gunn. We had almost landed Alec Guinness, but he was tied up for run-of-the-play at the Savoy Theatre...Throughout the shooting he [Newton] came to work sober and full of good ideas...But he was unfortunate. The booze had really taken an advanced hold on him. He was unable to portray his concepts fully when the camera was rolling. Something going on in his subconscious, and when the camera turned, he stiffened up and became a bit mechanical...losing the charm of the role...He gave a performance, but never one with that original genius shown in the rehearsals."
The camerawork in Treasure Island was by legendary cinematographer Freddie Young, who won many accolades in his nearly 60-year career, including Academy Awards for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Ryan's Daughter (1970), all of them for director David Lean.
Director: Byron Haskin
Producers: Walt Disney, Perce Pearce, Herbert Smith
Screenplay: Lawrence Edward Watkin, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Editing: Alan L. Jaggs
Production Design: Thomas N. Morahan
Original Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Bobby Driscoll (Jim Hawkins), Robert Newton (Long John Silver), Basil Sydney (Captain Smollett), Finlay Currie (Billy Bones), Walter Fitzgerald (Squire Trelawney).
C-96m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon