This being a Walt Disney movie, I was let down a tad by this one. I mean, there wasn’t an asinine song and dance number to be had, not one crappy comic relief sidekick, and no bloodless, goofy violence to give the kids in the crowd the idea that pirates were lovable scamps who talked funny and needed a bath. That’s not to say that Long John Silver wasn’t someone to be admired for the way he played both ends against the middle and eventually won the respect of the kid whose throat he periodically threatened to slit.
The way that Robert Newton wears the role of the one-legged pirate like the filthy three days growth of beard he perpetually sports throughout the film will leave you wondering why anyone else would bother tying their leg up for this part in the future.
He nails everything perfectly in this performance, from the sweaty greed to the snarling “avast ye mateys” blather you’ll be running around repeating for weeks to come all the way down to the way he squinted, winked, and bugged his eyes out depending on the situation.
If Newton was the only good thing about Treasure Island it would still be worth your time but this movie is an hour and a half of pirate action and treachery, with that dastardly Long John Silver seemingly always one step ahead of the game. Of course he’s not exactly going up against Rommel or anything.
In fact, the biggest competition he gets is from little Jim Hawkins. Hawkins (So Dear to My Heart‘s Bobby Driscoll) is one of the toughest little buggers you’ll ever see. He befriends pirates, goes on a treasure hunt, battles the pirates, single-handedly rescues the ship from them, takes a knife in the shoulder and shoots one pirate in the face! He’s like Rambo without pubes!
I should have guessed that this was a manly movie when right off the bat, some scalawag named Black Dog comes into Jim’s bar (don’t ask me how a ten year old is running a bar – this is the 1700s after all) and demands a double rum. I’ve seen enough bottles of Captain Morgan’s to know that rum is a pirate’s booze of choice.
Black Dog is looking for Captain Billy Bones (I think this movie had probably the single greatest collection of character names that I’d ever seen), but Jim plays dumb. Billy is really there and he’s an old timer who’s about to shuffle off to that big pirate cove in the sky, but not before he can give his treasure map to Jim.
Before he croaks, Billy Bones manages to warn Jim Hawkins about a one-legged pirate. Of course, once Jim runs into Silver, he doesn’t exactly trip over himself to tell his squire or captain that the dude they hired as the sea cook is actually a blighter who’s better at cooking up doublecrosses than ham and eggs.
Jim shows the squire and the friendly neighborhood doctor the map and the squire immediately decides that he is going to launch a secret voyage to Treasure Island to recover the loot. The squire is a bit of a buffoon as he has a habit of babbling about how they’re looking for treasure as they stroll along the docks so that every shady character can hear.
Jim is taken in by Silver and he befriends the pirate. It probably helps that Silver gives him a gun to carry. What kid wouldn’t pal around with a guy that gives him a rod to protect himself on a long voyage in search of pirate treasure? Besides, it’s been my experience that you want to be on the good side of the guy who’s cooking your food.
Jim eventually hears of Silver’s plot to mutiny and take the treasure for himself and finally tattles to the captain, squire, and doctor. In spite of their efforts, the ship is taken over by the pirates and the good guys have to escape to a stockade on Treasure Island.
Since this was a Disney movie, the respect and buddy-aspect between Jim and Silver at the end is played up with Jim helping Silver escape and Silver not being able to shoot him in the face. It’s nice to see that a crusty old salt like Long John Silver deciding that he doesn’t have it in him to shoot an unarmed ten year old kid at point blank range in the head can pass for sentiment, but the fact that this is as close as the movie ever gets to slathering on the goody-goody stuff shows you that this movie was made before Disney became the bland Disney we know today.
The locations are highlighted by the early Technicolor effort and everything is just dripping with pirate atmosphere, with pirates drunk on rum, big ships, treasure chests of gold, and a seaside village. Unlike, the Sunday school version of the Revolutionary War presented in Johnny Tremain, Treasure Island has an ornery streak running through it that presents a fairly adult look at pirates and their penchant for treachery, drink, and booty. (Of course since this is a boy’s wish fulfillment movie and not a man’s, the only booty these pirates are interested in are doubloons.)
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