Swiss Family Robinson, by Albert W. Vogt III

One of the first cable channels I became familiar with as a child was the Disney Channel. While I could recall reruns of the original The Mickey Mouse Club from the 1950s, the one that became more familiar to me was its relaunch as The All-New Mickey Mouse Club in 1993. Actually, I probably watched more of the classic Disney cartoons than anything else. I was a bit of a cartoon aficionado back then, and still like a few to this day. I also enjoyed the live-action programming the station had to offer, and Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier had me wanting a raccoon-skin cap and a Kentucky long rifle. While I never got either of those items, shows like that captured my sense of adventure. One of Disney’s more famous films from its bygone era, Swiss Family Robinson (1960), also did the trick.

Had Swiss Family Robinson been made today, it probably would lack the schmaltz of the Cold War Era, when portraying traditional values was part of the fight against communism. While there have been a couple of other iterations of the classic tale, the 1960 version is still the most famous. Thankfully it has not gotten a modern treatment, which would probably have Father (John Mills) on the run from the law, somehow, fighting with Mother (Dorothy McGuire), and the three sons all a bunch of delinquents. As it is, the story is simple enough to understand, thankfully. On their way to a Dutch colony in the South Pacific, the Robinson family is shipwrecked off a deserted island. The captain and crew abandoned them, and the rest of the cargo, to save themselves. After the storm dies down and the ship is secure, having fixed itself on a rock outcropping, they emerge to find themselves alone. They all come ashore on the island, bringing with them the ample supplies left over on the boat. They also decide that, with pirates in the area, they better not light signal fires to alert passing ships lest the pirates find them too. Thus they begin to set up for themselves one of the coolest homes in cinematic history in a banyan tree, complete with lower living room and loft bedrooms higher up in the branches. They are content, but alone. Thus they send out the two oldest sons, Fritz (James MacArthur) and Ernst (Tommy Kirk), to sail around the island and see if they are in fact as isolated as they believe. Along the way, the two brothers discover that the pirates had landed on the other side of the island and were deciding what to do with a couple of captives. They are bound at a bit of distance from the arguing pirates, which allows Fritz and Ernst to sneak up and attempt a rescue. They are only able to make off with the younger one, the other, Captain Moreland (Cecil Parker), believing that he can be ransomed and that he would come back for them. As Fritz and Ernst make their way home, they find that the person they had rescued is actually a girl, Roberta (Janet Munro), which causes a brief rivalry for her affections. It is not long after they return to the family that they decide to start to prepare for a pirate attack. They complete their defenses in the nick of time, too, and when the pirates do land the Robinsons are able to fend them off until Captain Moreland arrives. Now safe, Captain Moreland informs the Robinsons that they have started a new colony and that Father is to be its governor.

At the beginning of the previous paragraph I suggested that Swiss Family Robinson is schmaltzy, as if there is something wrong with showing the kind of values you believe in. An example of what I am talking about is how early on, when the Robinsons set foot on their island, the first thing they do is kneel down to pray in thanksgiving to God for their lives. It is something that you might expect seeing in pictures of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Of course, when the movie was made there were certain standards that needed to be upheld. But the characters were also believers, so it was not like this scene felt forced. Another aspect I would draw attention to is the relationship that develops between Roberta and Fritz. One could say that Roberta is somewhat of a “modern” woman, shooting guns and riding a zebra astride (women in the eighteenth century, when the film is set, more often rode with both legs on one side, known as side-saddle). Yet here again, had this been filmed more recently, there probably would have been some more graphic tryst between the two in the jungle somewhere, as if affections cannot be conveyed any other way. At any rate, God seemed to provide everything the Robinson needed, including futures for their sons, and the movie did not have to resort to cheap tricks to show it.

It goes without saying that Swiss Family Robinson is a bit of a nostalgia-piece for me. There is a certain danger in nostalgia, and the Church teaches that it is not healthy to have an inordinate attachment to the past. At any rate, what happened before always seems so much simpler through the lens of history, but it is equally true that there is no going back to it. Nonetheless, I recommend seeing this movie so that you can know that it is possible to have a good movie without sex and/or extreme violence.

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