Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Johann Wyss, a Swiss minister, originally wrote the book in 1812 for his four sons in order to impart life lessons about family values and self-reliance. Walt Disney believed that it had all the makings for a grand family adventure film that would be perfect for Disney audiences. The Swiss Family Robinson had been made into a movie before in 1940, but Disney wanted to put his own stamp on it.
In 1959 Disney discussed the project with director Ken Annakin, with whom he had previously collaborated on The Sword and the Rose (1953) and Third Man on the Mountain (1959). Annakin loved the idea and jumped on board with enthusiasm. Disney was just as excited. "There are endless possibilities," he told Annakin. "What I'd like you to do is to start thinking of all the things you'd like to happen to that family if it were yours. Think of anything, no matter how crazy!"
Soon Annakin and Disney were meeting every morning at Disney Studios with a handful of other executives to discuss how best to bring Swiss Family Robinson to the big screen Disney-style. "What we did was more or less throw Wyss' book away," said Annakin in a 2002 interview. The original story was tweaked to include a new female love interest (Janet Munro) for one of the sons as well as a subplot about pirates attacking the island.
Walt Disney brought in the accomplished sketch artist John Jensen to storyboard the new ideas for Swiss Family Robinson, specifically for the action packed second half of the picture involving the pirates. Jensen's work, according to Annakin, was an invaluable contribution to the final film, with much of the film's dialogue directly inspired by Jensen's sketches. "As a director," said Annakin in his 2001 book So You Wanna Be a Director?, "I discovered that there is nothing, no matter how way-out it may seem, that cannot be broken down in sketches to its essential elements. Then, you and everyone, the camera crew, the special effects, stunt people-everyone in the team can see the magic they are going to achieve, before a foot of film is exposed."
Once the script was ready and the film was cast, Walt Disney told Annakin and the production team to start scouting for locations to be used for the Robinsons' tropical island paradise. They looked at Jamaica and Trinidad first, but neither area was right. However, a local in Trinidad told them about a nearby island about 25 miles north called Tobago that might be exactly what they were looking for.
When Annakin and his team arrived in Tobago to check it out, they fell instantly in love. It had six different beaches, a giant tree for the Robinsons' famous treehouse, swamps, mountains, and four hotels that could comfortably accommodate the cast and crew for the duration of the shoot. It was perfect. After Disney's approval, the studio told the actors and crew to get their shots and passports in order and prepare for a six month location adventure of a lifetime.
"I've been all over the world to shooting locations," said John Mills in a 2002 interview about Swiss Family Robinson, "and I don't think I've ever been to a more lovely location." The remote island was stunning and practically untouched in 1959. "Unlike a sugar island like Barbados," he said in his 1981 autobiography Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please, "it was lush; the scenery was varied and very beautiful. I was lucky to see it before it became popular, with the inevitable golf course and noisy water sports. It was simple and totally unspoilt: miles of empty golden beaches lapped by the sea which was full of exotic and highly-coloured fish that, as they were never shot, were so tame they poked their noses against our facemasks as we swam amongst them."
Before shooting began on the island, the crew had to build all of the outdoor sets from scratch with materials specially shipped in from Trinidad. The elaborate Robinson family treehouse was the crowning glory of the set pieces. "It was really solid-capable of holding twenty crew and cast and constructed in sections so that it could be taken apart and rebuilt on film by the family," said Ken Annakin. Dozens of animals were also shipped in from all over the globe including 8 dogs, 2 giant tortoises, 40 monkeys, 2 elephants, 6 ostriches, 4 zebras, 100 flamingos, 6 hyenas, 2 anacondas, and a tiger.
Although Tobago was beautiful, the shooting conditions were often treacherous, especially with the actors doing many of their own stunts, which included being dragged through dangerous currents, wading through murky swamps, swinging from vines across a river, dodging explosives, wrestling snakes, and weathering a typhoid epidemic and hurricane. John Mills described the various difficulties in a 1959 interview with the London Evening News: "If a scorpion doesn't bite me during the night I get into the car, and if it doesn't skid off the edge of a cliff, I reach the mangrove swamp. I walk through; and if I'm not sucked in by a quick-sand, eaten alive by land crabs, or bitten by a snake, I reach the beach. I change on the beach, trying to avoid being devoured by insects, and walk into the sea. If there are no sharks or barracudas about, we get the shot and then do the whole thing in reverse, providing, of course, we haven't died of sunstroke in the meantime."
The close quarters and shared difficulties led to a bonding experience between all the actors, who became fast friends. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case for the crew, who, according to Ken Annakin, were miserable. "We had a crew that were fighting all the time," said Annakin in a 2002 interview, "they were a British crew, and they were grumpy and mad at everybody. They didn't want to be there. They wanted to go home. And it became very difficult for the Production Manager to keep them there. So he took all their passports away from them."
When principal photography finally wrapped on Swiss Family Robinson, Annakin discovered that there was a problem with the sound: almost every word of recorded dialogue was unusable. Therefore, the entire cast was brought back to England for 28 days where they re-recorded every word in the picture at Pinewood Studios.
At $4.5 million, Swiss Family Robinson was a very expensive film for Walt Disney Studios. However, Walt Disney himself couldn't have been more pleased with the results, calling it "one of the greatest adventure stories of all time." Audiences adored the film, which quickly became one of Disney's biggest hits. "In this grand adventure yarn, based on Johann Wyss' family classic and stunningly photographed in color in the West Indies," said the New York Times review, "Mr. Disney is one jump (or two days) ahead of Santa with a seasonal treat from his own bag...any parent who denies it to the kids deserves to be ship-wrecked on a remote island, at least till the new year." Variety said, "Photographically, it is a striking achievement...Several sequences have a heap of genuine excitement, particularly the opening raft scene in which the family battles treacherous ocean currents to get from wrecked ship to island."
Producer: Bill Anderson; Walt Disney (uncredited producer)
Director: Ken Annakin
Screenplay: Lowell S. Hawley; Johann Wyss (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Peter Boita
Cast: John Mills (Father Robinson), Dorothy McGuire (Mother Robinson), James MacArthur (Fritz Robinson), Janet Munro (Roberta 'Bertie'), Sessue Hayakawa (Kuala, Pirate Chief), Tommy Kirk (Ernst Robinson), Kevin Corcoran (Francis Robinson), Cecil Parker (Captain Moreland), Andy Ho (Auban).
by Andrea Passafiume