There have been many motion picture versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island (1883). I have already reviewed Muppet Treasure Island (1996). Of any of them I have seen, for understandable reasons it is the least true to the source material. Then again, I have never read the book, so I cannot say with any kind of real authority. Alternatively, it is not saying anything earth-shattering that a film with puppets aimed at children is probably not looking to be completely faithful to nineteenth century literature. Have I covered all my bases yet? At any rate, I decided to watch the Disney telling, or at least its original attempt in 1950, which is available on Disney+. Whatever it is you think of Disney, when they put their mind to a production, the values are evident.
After an inauspicious start to Treasure Island, which is a quote from Stevenson’s novel and does not make a lot of sense, we come to a lonely seaside tavern on the west coast of England in 1765. A dark clothed figure enters the Admiral Benbow, steps up to the bar, and orders a glass of rum from the kid serving drinks, Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll). Child labor laws were non-existent in the eighteenth century. The new patron has the appearance of a pirate, and after taking his drink, asks Jim if Captain Billy Bones (Finlay Currie) is on the premises. Jim denies it, and is handed a piece of paper with a black spot on it. The deliverer of this strange message, after noticing a sea chest with the initials “WB” on it, then leaves. It is then that Captain Bones comes out of hiding. We also learn the reason why other pirates are after him: he possesses a treasure map. Captain Bones hands Jim the map, and the boy goes to find help. When he returns with Squire Trelawney (Walter Fitzgerald) and Dr. Livesey (Denis O’Dea), they find a disheveled Admiral Benbow and a deceased Captain Bones. Jim reveals to Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey the existence of the map. This piques their interest, particularly Squire Trelawney, who is ready to charge off into the open seas to find the riches. Dr. Livesey preaches a little more caution, getting Squire Trelawney to agree to go through the process of finding a sea captain, outfitting a ship, and recruiting a crew. Dr. Livesey also gets Jim’s mother to allow her son to go on the expedition as a cabin boy. Once Dr. Livesey and Jim arrive in Bristol, it appears that while Squire Trelawney has gotten the ship and the captain, but the crew has proved elusive. They believe they have the solution when they stop for a meal and meet a gregarious inn keeper going by Long John Silver (Robert Newton). In the course of their conversation, Silver plies his charms with Squire Trelawney and volunteers to find bodies to fill-out the crew, with the one-legged inn keeper as the cook. When they get to the ship, the Hispaniola, its commander Captain Smollett (Basil Sydney) is not a fan of the new crewmembers Silver has brought aboard. Nonetheless, they set off for their destination. While at sea, Silver ingratiates himself with Jim, and a bond is formed. Their budding friendship is damaged, though, when Jim overhears Silver plotting mutiny. Like the good boy scout, er, cabin boy that he is, he reports the matter to Captain Smollett. It is only when they sight the title island that Silver launches his plan, and he manages to take Jim with him. Luckily, the boy is able to get away, and meets back up with those who remained loyal to the captain inside a stockade built by the pirates who had buried the treasure. During the ensuing siege by the mutineers, Captain Smollett is injured, and their already small numbers are thinned. While recovering, the captain surmises that the pirates will bring the Hispaniola in closer and level the wooden fortifications with cannons from the ship. Hearing this, Jim takes it upon himself to sneak back aboard, nominally overpower the two drunk ex-shipmates on guard, and loosen the boat from its anchorage so that it cannot do any damage. Unfortunately, he is also wounded in the process, and falls into Silver’s hands. In doing so, Silver now has a bargaining chip with the captain, and possession of the map. These are important because many of his cabal are grumbling about his leadership. In exchanging Jim privately, Silver is able to work out a deal that will lead the mutineers into a trap, while also locating the treasure. Silver does this by talking about his care for Jim, and his sadness at seeing the boy hurt. However, when all of this is accomplished and they are rowing back to the Hispaniola, Silver pulls yet another double-cross and makes off with the loot. There is a moment when Jim has the opportunity to stop him, but he lets him go instead of taking the old pirate in to face justice back in England.
For most of Treasure Island, Jim behaves in an exemplary Catholic manner. One might call him a sucker, but he is a kid, after all. Besides, Faith will tell you that trusting another person is never the wrong thing to do, and if it is betrayed by the other person, that is on them and not yourself. There is, of course, a proviso about pitching in with people who are obviously not worthy of your trust. But in either case, the victim of a betrayal is always considered the wronged party. For most of the time, this typifies Jim’s behavior. He puts his faith in the authority figures, which proves the right move as Captain Smollet and Dr. Livesey are above reproach, and Squire Trelawney means well, even if he is a bit bombastic. Admittedly, much of this is probably a function of the times in which the film was made, when we put confidence in people in positions of influence without question. Nowadays, we do not have such blind allegiances, and the same characters would probably have some flaw. I, for one, like to look at God in this manner, though I cannot say that I am always following His commands as readily as does Jim. The boy further shows his magnanimity when he lets Silver go. It is as much an act of mercy as of friendship. Besides, it is doubtful that Silver could get far on the little dinghy in which he escaped.
Still, if you are not clamoring to see Treasure Island, then I can understand. It is an old-fashioned movie in practically every sense of the phrase. Not that such things matter to me. While we do not see the good guys end up with the treasure, we at least see them behaving in an honorable fashion. That is enough for me. What makes it worth seeing beyond personal taste is the level of detail Disney went into in making the film. The sets and costumes are great, and you would not know that Robert Newton actually had two legs unlike his character. Fun fact, too: it was Disney’s first live-action film. Pretty neat.