Laurence Olivier? Spencer Tracy? Anthony Hopkins? Who’s the greatest film actor, you think? Marlon Brando? Robert De Niro? Humphrey Bogart? Add your own contender. Okay, but what about . . . Robert Newton? Robert Newton! Sure, why not?
Perhaps, if the criteria are altered just a bit, to ask, say, the actor who is the biggest ham, the virtuoso of over-acting, the man with an in-your-face persona—the rolling eyes, the sideways glances, the cocked head, the speaking out of the side of the mouth and, above all, the rolling voice and the trademark “aargh” in his most famous role—then the winning choice might well be . . . yes, why not? . . . Robert Newton. So vivid is the hamming that it’s impossible to take the eyes from him. He steals every scene. Especially after 1950—to be revealed why shortly—he exaggerates his facial and vocal tics into caricatures that flavor other performances, almost uncontrollably, as if he has become the part. As critic Leslie Halliwell so accurately wrote, he may be “a ham, but a succulent one.”
Before 1950, in his traditional and respectable pre-farm animal days, he acts in any number of important films, not that his presence makes them important, but here his acting is straight—in Odd Man Out, the British version of Gaslight, David Lean’s Oliver Twist (as Bill Sykes) and a personal favorite, the obscure The Hidden Room. And he does, of course, avoid the hammy tendencies—for the most part—in a number of later films: The Desert Rats, The High and the Mighty and as Inspector Fix in his last theatrical movie, Around the World in Eighty Days, before heavy drinking took its toll.
So what’s the significance of 1950? Despite Newton’s superior acting in a number of films, acting more commensurate with the standards of Hopkins and De Niro, the role that cements his immortality through that “aargh” trademark is the larger-than-life character of Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s first live-action film, one of many versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s enduring Treasure Island. It is the role for which Newton is best remembered above, and despite, all others.
Movie and television versions of Treasure Island have a long history—at least five silent films, including the 1920 with Charles Ogle as Silver and a twenty-year-old actress, Shirley Mason, as the boy hero and narrator of the story. The only film that gives the Disney version any serious competition is Victor Fleming’s 1934 with Wallace Beery as Silver and a sturdy cast of Lionel Barrymore, Otto Kruger, Lewis Stone, Nigel Bruce and Douglass Dumbrille; the only drawback—M-G-M’s production values are high as well—is the stiff Jackie Cooper in the boy’s role.
One of at least two major subsequent efforts in this tale of buried treasure is Orson Welles as Long John, hamming it up flagrantly—not, in this case, in an appealing way—in 1972, with Walter Slezak and Lionel Stander.
Another big star, Charlton Heston, tackles the major role in a 1990 TV movie, supported by another impressive cast of Richard Johnson, Oliver Reed and Christopher Lee. A young Christian Bale is Hawkins. Using the H.M.S. Bounty from the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, and filmed in Cornwall, it is visually impressive, though The Chieftains Irish band soundtrack might strike some as incompatible with the time period and the spirit of Stevenson’s little masterpiece.
Long John Silver, if not always in name then in spirit, lives on in three subsequent Newton screen appearances, all pale shadows, however, of his Treasure Island. Byron Haskin of Treasure Island again directs, now the Australian-made Long John Silver (1954). The TV series The Adventures of Long John Silver, also from Australia, airs 1956-57. And the hammiest reincarnation of Silver, though in the guise of another pirate, is Blackbeard (1954); the ham is now so further flavored with cloves, pineapple and lots of sweet, sweet brown sugar that even Newton fans may find the hamming a bit much. Others will proclaim . . . aargh, delicious, even “succulent”!
Bobby Driscoll is the only American in a film otherwise packed with familiar British supporting players, many from the stage and with Shakespearean experience, and less familiar to Americans than the casts of Hollywood flicks of the ’30s and ’40s. Beneath beards and the eighteenth-century attire, they may elude immediate recognition, but their acting backgrounds speak for themselves and they all provide an admirable ensemble for Newton and Driscoll. Bobby Driscoll, as many have observed, is “better than usual” in this role.
To help place some of these faces—first, Basil Sydney, here a loud-mouthed buffoon, plays a lawyer in The Devil’s Disciple and the emperor of Lilliput in The Three Worlds of Gulliver. From a doctor in Treasure Island, Denis O’Dea turns to police inspectors in Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and Niagara. The Scotsman Finlay Currie, with an almost forty-year career, is probably the most familiar actor in this supporting team, with a number of notable characterizations: Uncle Jim in The History of Mr. Polly, Saint Peter in Quo Vadis? and, most memorably, the escaped convict Magwitch in the 1946 Great Expectations.
Geoffrey Keen, who, let’s say, “grew up” to be either the Minister of Defence or Sir Frederick Gray in many of the James Bond films, otherwise is generally lost among his fellow actors in other productions, though in Treasure Island he proves a credit to the art of the dastardly pirate. Another Scotsman, John Laurie, although largely in television, does make a few theatrical movies, including Olivier’s Henry V and Richard III and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps—the farmer who is suspicious of his wife’s (Peggy Ashcroft) interest in a stranger on the run (Robert Donat).
Francis De Wolff, dark-faced and menacing in Treasure Island, becomes the Spirit of Christmas Present in the definitive 1951 version of A Christmas Carol and Dr. Mortimer in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Finally, although many of the supporting Brits are omitted lest this inventory becomes too tedious, there’s Patrick Troughton, who takes time out from his long TV career to appear in Olivier’s Hamlet and Richard III and in a personal best-remembered role as the priest harassing Gregory Peck in The Omen with warnings of satanic doom.
The American Byron Haskin also directs The Naked Jungle, Robinson Crusoe on Mars and, most famously, the original War of the Worlds. The cinematographer, listed as F. A. Young on the screen, is Freddie Young, David Lean’s choice for three of his epics.
Stevenson’s little novel begins straightforward enough, but with an opening that brims with excitement and expectation, something like the first paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, though here the tone is of desolation and death. To borrow a familiar movie term, the reader knows immediately that the Treasure Island story is a flashback and that the location of the island remains a secret because there’s still more treasure to unearth:
“Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentleman having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the ‘Admiral Benbow’ inn, and the brown old seaman, with the saber cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.”
All one sentence, ninety-one words, but who notices!
Likewise, the opening of the Disney movie, aided by Clifton Parker’s atmospheric, sea-tinted score, sets the tone of adventure and the delights to come. In the opening of the main title appears an anticipatory motif, several times repeated, with changing instrumentation and growing excitement. A cymbal crash introduces a lyrical string theme with counterpoint in horns. What would a salty sea saga score be without horns?! With a flurry of flutes and piccolos comes a more assertive quote of the opening motif, segueing into the first scene——
A brief melody on the oboe, supported by strings, provides a tone of expectation, and, added, a little ominous mystery, as a lone figure treads the road along the rocky Devon sea coast. It is 1765, and his destination, the Admiral Benbow Inn. Already a sinister expectation is aroused, now in the visual, as the man’s hand moves along the outside stone wall and opens the door. A black cat scurries from its place on a table and flees to behind the bar.
Inside, the man (De Wolff), “a pale, tallowy creature,” as Stevenson describes him, doesn’t give his name—why should he when asking for a shot of double rum?—but inquires if the boy behind the bar, Jim Hawkins (Driscoll), has seen a seafaring man, a William Bones. Jim is pretending, as learned later, that he’s never heard the name. “ ‘Bones,’ sir?—” When the visitor sees a sea chest with the initials “W.B.,” he quickly leaves.
When Captain Billy Bones (Currie) appears on the staircase and Jim says the man had a cut across his face, Bones exclaims, “Black Dog!” Soon, the captain is visited by Blind Pew (Laurie) and given the Black Spot with the inscription “until dark.” Well, Bones says, their gang won’t obtain what they’re after and opens his chest, cuts the lining of the lid and sticks a folded piece of paper inside Jim’s shirt. The drunken, sick man collapses and dies, and Jim runs for help.
Later, Jim Hawkins gives the paper to Squire Trelawney (Walter Fitzgerald) and Dr. Livesey (O’Dea)—a treasure map from the notorious pirate Captain Flint, with coordinates and the proverbial “X” marks the spot. Livesey, a blowhard who is free with the news of buried treasure, sets about to acquire ship and crew for the voyage. To engage a crew, he recruits a gregarious one-legged “sea-cook,” as Stevenson calls him, Long John Silver (Newton), the proprietor of a tavern, who immediately ingratiates himself with everyone, especially the young lad. Even Silver’s pet parrot, Capt’n Flint, with its continual squawk of “pieces of eight, pieces of eight,” finds a way to the boy’s heart. Maybe this is the origin of that possible myth that real pirates, certainly movie pirates, always carry parrots perched on their shoulders.
Captain Smollett (Sydney) of the Hispaniola is immediately suspicious of the crew and concerned that the mission of the voyage is common knowledge, thanks to Livesey’s loose tongue. At any rate, the ship sets sail, with Trelawney, Silver as ship’s cook, Livesey as the on-board doctor and Jim as cabin boy.
Parker, with a number of maritime scores to his credit, both before and after 1950, including Western Approaches (a World War II documentary), The Blue Lagoon (1948), Sink the Bismarck! and Damn the Defiant!, captures the elation of the Hispaniola’s leave-taking, with a dancing, jig-like tune in the strings and, of course, echoes from those horns. To his possible credit, the composer avoids the cliché of “Rule, Britannia,” which, to cite just two, is used in the two versions of Mutiny on the Bounty when that ship departs Portsmouth.
In one of the signature scenes of the book and all those films, Hawkins goes to fetch an apple, climbs into an almost empty barrel and overhears Silver and his pirate comrades planning a mutiny. As Jim relates in the novel, “ . . . I understood that the lives of all the honest men aboard depended upon me alone.” Smollett asks Hawkins to remain friends with Silver and keep him informed of the pirates’ activities.
That Long John is other that what he appears to be is evident, already, in his fooling Jim into obtaining some rum, on the pretense of making a tasty dish; he gets Mr. Arrow (David Davies), one of the honest members of the crew, drunk and, with his crutch, Silver pushes him topside during a storm. At the funeral, after Arrow has washed overboard, Silver is the first to pronounce “A-a-a-men,” with his deepest “sincerity.”
Upon reaching Treasure Island, and in towing the Hispaniola to a safe anchorage, Silver asks if Jim might accompany him in one of the two longboats. Smollett foolishly gives permission. Now, one of Silver’s men, George Merry (Ralph Truman), leads a mutiny against the ship, but Smollett captures the mutineers and locks them in the hold of the ship. After Silver has cut the ropes to the Hispaniola, they row ashore, followed in another boat by the captain, Trelawney and Livesey.
Silver had taken Hawkins hostage, but Jim is able to escape and now flees into the woods. There he meets a strange creature, themed by the xylophone, “his skin . . . burnt by the sun [and] . . . clothed with tatters of old ship’s canvas and old sea cloth . . . ” Ben Gunn (Geoffrey Wilkinson) was marooned five years ago—three in the novel—by Silver. Gunn shows him Flint’s treasure, already “lifted” and hidden in a cave. He directs him to Flint’s stockade, where Smollett and his men have taken refuge.
The men of the stockade now see the Jolly Roger flying from the ship: Merry and his men have taken over the Hispaniola and Silver has returned to arm his men with muskets. The pirates assault the stockade but are repulsed, though Smollett is wounded.
Parker’s music for the stockade assault is exciting and straightforward, effective in its own simplicity, without any over-complicated orchestration, as this, really, is a simple story. The music reveals, however, a slight hint of the mechanical, the failing of many movie scores where wild, continuous physical action must be underscored, often at the same hectic pace, often a marking of time until slower-paced moments arrive when a composer can write a melody with a distinct human emotion. One passage may remind listeners of music by another Englishman, Ron Goodwin, in his score for Where Eagles Dare.
Smollett fears that, with the morning tide, Silver might maneuver the Hispaniola within cannon range and level the fort. That night, Jim takes the initiative and rows to the ship in Gunn’s little skin-covered skiff. Coxswain Israel Hands (Keen) comes after him with a knife. Jim climbs the shrouds to the foretop and Hands throws his knife, and, as Stevenson speaks for Hawkins, “I felt a blow and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast.” Then, “without a conscious aim,” he fires his pistol, sending his foe falling to his death. Jim strikes the Jolly Roger and hoists the Union Jack.
Returning to the stockade, Hawkins looks for Dr. Livesey, only to find Long John. The pirates have taken over! After Jim faints, Silver pulls the map from his shirt as his men awaken. He decides to deceive them, suggesting they exchange Jim for the map, which the cutthroats believe is in Smollett’s possession. The men gather outside to vote, and in their absence Long John climbs the little turret of the stockade and spots the Union Jack flying from the Hispaniola, and realizes his options are limited. When the men return, they give Silver the Black Spot.
By sheer will and retaliatory anger, Silver convinces his men that he should bargain for the map from Livesey and Trelawney. Livesey treats Hawkins’ wound on neutral ground. No deal is made, but Silver returns with Hawkins and, from his shirt, tosses the map on the ground.
All grievances forgotten, the pirates, with the boy in tow, now head through the woods, following the instructions on the back of the map, clues that are reminiscent of Poe’s The Gold Bug: “Tall tree, Spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point to the N. of N.N.E. . . . ” The jaunty music score repeats a lively version of “Yo-Ho-Ho,” the supposed tune of jolly pirates, thanks again to Stevenson’s poem.
The pirates find the place marked on the map . . . but there is no treasure, just a depression, overgrown with vegetation. Only Jim Hawkins knows why. Again the men turn on Silver. The old sea-cook manages to kill some of them before Smollett and his men arrive and defeat the rest. Gunn shows the victors the cave and Flint’s treasure.
While in a longboat for transfer to the Hispaniola, Silver takes Jim hostage with his own gun, but the boy runs the longboat aground on the shore. Long John threatens to shoot him with Jim’s own pistol, but he cannot and, by himself, struggles to free the boat from shore with an oar. Parker’s music, now in the lower strings, adds a soft touch of supporting sympathy for the old sea-dog. Jim takes pity and assists him in pushing free the boat. As the little craft moves toward the open sea, Long John waves a hearty farewell. Jim shyly waves back.
So ends Walt Disney’s Treasure Island, different from the novel where Silver and two other pirates are left on the island, marooned—as Jim relates, “to the huge glee, I must say, of Ben Gunn . . . ” In the final line of Stevenson’s flashback, Jim Hawkins says that nothing could return him to “that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears, ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’ ”