Walt Disney’s Century: Treasure Island

With its first live-action production, Disney got us all talking like pirates

Movies Features Disney
Walt Disney’s Century: Treasure Island

This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt Disney’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema. You can read all the entries here.

Donald Duck wears a little sailor outfit because of Queen Victoria.

England’s sovereign liked how it looked on her son, Albert Edward (known later in life as Edward VII, King of England and guy whose unbelievably German surname was changed by his heirs to the totally-made-up “Windsor” because England happened to be at war with Germany in 1917). The fancy little sailor get-up became fashionable, and so when Disney wanted to make their irascible duck character Donald seem both like a Navy man and kind of childish, it must have made perfect sense. This is a reminder that totally random bullshit causes vast ripples through societies around the world—like, for example, Donald’s Panamerican entourage being the result of terrible U.S. foreign policy (coupled with a sudden desperate desire to seem friendlier to South and Central Americans than Nazi Germany), or World War II briefly throttling Disney’s overseas box office and causing them to pivot to propaganda.

Don’t feel bad for Disney, though: Every now and then, they are the cause behind a generations-long effect! Consider 1950’s Treasure Island, Disney’s first live-action feature film, which is the reason that, in the 73 years since it came out, pirates talk that way. Yes, that way, matey.

Disney’s production is faithful to the book in the ways that matter, adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and hitting pretty much all of the major points. Young Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll) mans the counter at the Admiral Benbow where resident drunk Billy Bones is menaced by pirates and then dies, passing on the map to a massive pile of treasure to Jim. The un-self-aware Squire Trelawney (Walter Fitzgerald) and cautious Dr. Livesey (Denis O’Dea) both make the discovery alongside Jim and mount a voyage to go recover the lost treasure of Captain Flint, but Trelawney’s loose lips mean their crew can’t entirely be trusted. Most of them were brought aboard by the ship’s cook and the story’s true main character: Long John Silver (Robert Newton).

Newton was, make no mistake, one of the most famous British actors of his time. His name is up there with Errol Flynn when it comes to swashbuckling adventure flicks aimed at the secondary school set back in ‘40s. He shared the stage with Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness, was directed by Hitchcock, and starred in films with titles like Vessel of Wrath and Hell’s Cargo. It is nonetheless not even a question what he’s most famous for: Newton invented what we now know as “talking like a pirate” in this role, in this film.

Newton was a hard-drinking, hard-living veteran of the Royal Navy who died at age 50 just six years after Treasure Island. You’d need to be full of a transatlantic voyage’s supply of piss and vinegar to give the kind of performances he gave in his time, and Treasure Island’s Silver would require another one. Newton played up his West London accent’s foibles and made his face a leering mask of a mean mug. His delivery is never less than fully committed, and if you’re going to sell a character as charismatic as Silver, whose allegiances shift from scene to scene, something this over-the-top is probably the only way to do it.

Obviously Silver is playing his new employers, and all his referrals are mutineers. Hawkins catches wind of their conspiracy and tips off the ship’s Captain and other responsible grown-ups, but by the time they react to the trap, Jim is already a hostage and Silver’s men are headed ashore on Treasure Island. The last reel is full of gunfire, swordplay, child endangerment and double-crosses as the two sides race to find the buried treasure and Jim sneaks around to try to thwart Silver’s mutineers.

The Walt Disney Company had been mulling some adaptation of Treasure Island since the 1930s, figuring it would be an animated feature, but found itself in the late 1940s in an annoying position: Due to certain laws in the United Kingdom, Disney needed to invest a percentage of some of its ticket sales back into British productions. Suddenly, the company was helming its first fully live-action movie (there are live-action portions in earlier films, such as 1943’s Saludos Amigos or 1940’s Fantasia).

There was controversy, of course: Driscoll, you will note from the first moment he opens his mouth, is the only American actor in the production, and this was actually ruled by a British court to be a flagrant violation of U.K. labor laws, which mandated that Driscoll hold a worker’s permit, for which he was—at that time—too young to even apply. Despite that little wrinkle, Disney was able to shoot all of Driscoll’s scenes and get the film in the can. It was (unlike a later attempt to adapt the very same story, also decades in the making) a success, and it remains a fun little gem from Disney’s back catalog that fans of the book will appreciate.

But there’s also its outsize impact. There is, to my knowledge, no evidence that actual 18th century pirates talked like Newton does in the movie, and yet his Long John Silver is so iconic that, like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Lauren Bacall’s many film noir femme fatales, his affect became the way everybody does that kind of character.

Disney’s own Pirates of the Caribbean leans into this a half-century later with Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa. International Talk Like A Pirate Day (observed every September 19) has been running for more than 20 years now, founded by a pair of fellows in the U.K. Disney has bought Lucasfilm Games, which may no longer have any formal connection to its roots, but which was responsible for the game Monkey Island, a point-and-click adventure game series which just released a new installment last year and which leans all the way into a parody of Old Hollywood swashbucklers—meaning that many characters speak exactly the way Newton does in Treasure Island.

Disney would of course go on to make innumerable other live-action films after the success of Treasure Island. It’s just that, like Coca-Cola dressing Santa in red forever and ever, Treasure Island’s grinning, one-legged villain is infinitely more culturally significant than the movie itself.

Next time on Walt Disney’s Century, we venture into the cold darkness of space and enter The Black Hole.

Kenneth Lowe knows a lad I can trust while I’m out doing my duty, and when I come back I’ll have a crew and you’ll have a pistol. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses and read more at his blog.

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