You’ll go to sea when you go to see Treasure Island. You’ll sail on the Hispaniola with Long John Silver, Captain Flint, Blind Pew, and Israel Hands… cutthroats all. You’ll meet that strange castaway Ben Gunn. And along with young Jim Hawkins, you’ll meet up with some adventures you’ll never forget… on the trail of pirate gold. What a wonderfully shivery yarn it is when Walt Disney tells it in his first all-live-action picture!
—From 1950 publicity for Walt Disney’s Treasure Island
Shiver me timbers! Here’s a tale that’s fit for sore seagoing eyes. As the 1940s became the 1950s, Walt Disney sailed into uncharted waters by producing his first all-live-action feature film, Treasure Island (1950). “Buried treasure, pirates, excitement, and adventure,” as Walt himself elucidated. “All these combine to make Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island one of the best known—and best loved—adventure stories of all time. It’s a great swashbuckling story of young Jim Hawkins and old Long John Silver. It’s a real sea-going yarn full of excitement and adventure, a story to thrill both young and old.” And the story behind the making of this groundbreaking Disney film classic is buried treasure in and of itself. So look lively, mateys, and attend to this look back at Disney’s first cinematic encounter with full live-action.
Treasure Island was a favorite of its author, Robert Louis Stevenson. The 19th century Scottish author wrote the book for his stepson in 1881. “It’s all about a map and a treasure and a mutiny and a derelict ship,” Stevenson wrote a friend, “and a sea-cook with one leg and a sea-song with a chorus ‘Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,’ which is a real buccaneer’s song, only known to the crew of the late Captain Flint. That’s the kind of man I am, blast your eyes.” And, he added, “I like the tale myself.”
Walt Disney liked the tale, too. It was one of his favorite books, and the master showman saw the cinematic potential in the colorful story. Disney artist Joe Grant recalled that Walt had originally considered Treasure Island as an animated feature in the late 1930s. Walt secured registration rights from MGM shortly after the release of that studio’s 1934 adaptation with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins (produced to capitalize on the popularity of the Beery-Cooper team-up in MGM’s 1931 hit The Champ), meaning that Walt would have first call to produce another film version.
As for live-action, as early as 1941, Walt was actually planning an all-live-action film, and in creating his new Burbank studio, he made provisions for live-action production in the expansive 51-acre plant, including a soundstage expressly designed for such filming. Before Treasure Island, Walt had already produced two major features that were primarily live-action, Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1949). Walt originally planned Treasure Island as an animation/live-action combination similar to Song of the South, with Long John Silver spinning animated animal fables for Jim Hawkins.
Walt finally sailed full-speed ahead with Treasure Island as his first fully non-animated movie through the potentially overriding circumstances of finances and logistics. “After the war, we still had the frozen fund situation in Europe,” he recalled. “So, in order to get the funds out of England, they wanted me to go to England and do something.” Since animation would be almost impossible to produce outside of his California studio, Walt started thinking live-action. “I had this story, Treasure Island, I wanted to do, and I suggested we go over and do Treasure Island—and that way we’d use our funds.”
To bring all the swash and buckle of Treasure Island to the screen, Walt entrusted the production to animation hand Perce Pearce and enlisted director Byron Haskin, who had served as cinematographer on many films since the silent era. It was perhaps significant that, as the colonists returned to the mother country, filming began on Independence Day, July 4, 1949. Exteriors were shot at Denham Studio near London while the sea scenes were filmed at Falmouth in Cornwall. Three units were at work, one shooting out at sea, one filming exteriors and another shooting interiors. For the indoor scenes, a full scale set was constructed on a soundstage. (This elaborate set was later used for the Warner Bros. film, Captain Horatio Hornblower, 1951). For the scenes filmed on the ocean, an 1887 three-master schooner was rebuilt and outfitted with two concealed diesel engines. The specially made sails on the ship allowed the wind to blow through them at the same time it curved them out, avoiding the possibility of being blown off course during the filming.
To add color and expansiveness to his tale of pirate treasure, Walt enlisted the talents of movie magic master Peter Ellenshaw, who had contributed to such British screen classics as The Thief of Bagdad (1940). His atmospheric Treasure Island conceptual paintings helped the director visualize his shots, leaving room in his compositions for Peter’s matte paintings through which, in those pre-CGI days, the artist added ship masts, trees, bays, and many other visual elements through paintings on glass that were placed in front of the camera during filming. Treasure Island was Peter’s first Disney film; later at Walt’s invitation, he permanently joined the Disney Studio staff, contributing his special-effects expertise to such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Mary Poppins (1964).
The Treasure Island cast provided its own special brand of on-screen effects. Bobby Driscoll played an important role in the film that Walt was envisioning, and after Bobby turned in his winning performance in Song of the South, he signed the young movie star to a long-term contract with an eye toward having him play Jim Hawkins just as soon as Bobby reached the right age to play Robert Louis Stevenson’s cabin boy. Years before, Bobby had actually acted out Treasure Island with his friends after eagerly reading the book for the first time, and since he was the shortest of his playmates, he neatly filled the role of Jim Hawkins. So when Walt asked him, “Bobby, how would you like to play Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island on the screen?” Bobby responded, “Gee, Mr. Disney, that would be swell! I used to play that when I was little!”
With his Jim Hawkins already in place, Walt cast the brilliant stage and film actor Robert Newton in the key role of the one-legged pirate. Robert had turned in vibrant screen performances in films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), and David Lean’s famed adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948), in which he played Bill Sykes; Robert would go on to play Inspector Fix in Mike Todd’s immensely popular extravaganza, Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Newton’s unforgettable portrayal of the rascally Silver was to become his most famous role, and indeed his performance has become that of the stereotype buccaneer everyone mimics, whether knowingly or not, when they talk like a pirate.
No cinematic neophyte himself, Bobby Driscoll had already more than held his own with such accomplished silver-screen scene-stealers as James Baskett, Burl Ives, and, in Melody Time (1948), Roy Rogers and his movie-screen steed Trigger. But with Robert Newton, Bobby said Jim Hawkins came alive on the screen because the young actor could “easily feel what Jim felt in pitting his wits against Long John Silver and the other pirates on the ship. I never felt like this in any other picture. Always in the big scenes, after the first few minutes, Robert Newton [and the other actors] seemed to become genuine pirates with their scarred, terrible faces and hard talk and shining cutlasses. And I felt they were really after me. I forgot I was only acting and that these men were really my good friends. I guess it was because they are such fine actors. And it was like being saved from actual danger when director Byron Haskin called out a welcome ‘cut.’ But of course it was the kind of excitement and thrills kids—and grownups too—like to see in movies.”
Bobby’s role is unquestionably the most important in the film, and the young hero’s relationship with the wily pirate is the movie’s heart. Silver is a humorous and attractive figure despite his villainy (of course, Jim doesn’t know Long John is a pirate at first), and the cabin boy is naturally drawn to such a colorful character, as is the audience. Long John Silver in turn develops affection for Jim, impressed as he is by the boy’s bravery and virtue. At one point in the non-stop excitement of the story, Silver refuses to kill Jim even though committing this act of murder would save his own life; likewise, Jim enables the pirate to escape at the end of the film, in a heartwarming Disney touch not in the original book.
With production underway, Walt took a summer holiday in England with his family—wife Lillian and daughters Diane and Sharon. (The Disneys also visited Ireland, France, and Switzerland.) In the words of Disney representative William Levy, Walt arrived “in excellent spirits and full of confidence.” The producer enjoyed watching the filming so much that he made another visit later that summer.
An unexpected problem arose when the British government protested that a proper work permit had not been obtained for U.S. citizen Bobby Driscoll to act in England, and the young star and his parents were threatened with deportation. When the Driscolls were granted permission to remain for six weeks to prepare an appeal, director Haskin worked frantically to complete Bobby’s scenes. Despite the trouble, Bobby enjoyed England and particularly had fun camping out in the garden of the countryside inn, the Bull Hotel, where he stayed, playing with the children of the innkeepers. The American youngster returned to England for a 1950 tour of London to publicize Treasure Island, visiting such must-sees as Buckingham Palace, Number 10 Downing Street, Covent Garden, and in an activity that must have pleased both Walt Disney and Mary Poppins, he fed the birds in Trafalgar Square. The British people embraced the diminutive movie star and, upon Bobby’s departure for the United States, reporters asked on their behalf if he would write when he reached home. With charming honesty, Bobby replied that he didn’t like writing but that he would always remember his experiences in England.
Walt took an active hand in post-production, asking that 10 to 12 minutes be trimmed after a test screening, flying the editor from England to Hollywood to supervise the final cutting of the film and requesting a more powerful underscore; the resulting composition was played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The completed film was released July 19, 1950, to critical and financial success. In New York, the film played at the Mayfair in Times Square, opening to lines around the corner underneath a mammoth, stories-high, illuminated sign that wrapped around the building.
The success of Treasure Island led to a bottomless chest of cinematic jewels, for it proved to the world that Disney could produce motion pictures without any animation. Hollywood’s most imaginative impresario retained a great affection for the story that launched a whole fleet of live-action films. “Of all the books of fiction here in our library,” noted Walt, “I believe the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson are my favorites. Of these, the one I love best is that great swashbuckling story of pirates and buried treasure. It’s a yarn filled with excitement and adventure, and one that for young and old will live forever.”
By D23′s Jim Fanning