TREASURE ISLAND: FROM PAGE TO SCREEN TO CABLE

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow–a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Thus begins the second paragraph of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, as it first appeared in The Young Folks Magazine as a serial, under the title “The Sea Cook,” in October, 1881. It would be published in book form as Treasure Island  by Cassel & Co., in London. So much for novels of the 1800s having lumbering starts. The story’s appeal to youths was recognized by the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons when it published the book in the U.S. in 1911, with dramatic illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.

N.C. Wyeth painting for Treasure Island, Charles Scribner’s Sons (Simon & Schuster)

It didn’t take long for the movie industry to recognize the cinematic appeal of Treasure Island, even if the only woman in the story was Jim Hawkins’ mother.  The Edison Company produced the first film version in 1912, with a Fox version produced in 1918 with a cast of children (now a lost film – see my post on films lost in fires here. A 1920 production of Treasure Island was made at Paramount, with Lon Chaney starring as Blind Pew and Charles Ogle playing Long John Silver.

M-G-M’s silver screen classic version from 1934 set the tone for Treasure Island from then on. It’s own visual style for pirates was heavily influenced by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921). The film was directed by Victor Fleming and starred Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, Wallace Beery as Long John Silver, Lewis Stone as Capt. Smollett, Nigel Bruce as Squire Trelawney, and Otto Kruger as Dr. Livesay.  The film plot follows the novel fairly closely, whereby Billy Bones’ sea chest contains a treasure map, and Bones was right to be looking over his shoulder for Blind Pew, and then for Black Dog who comes to deliver the dreaded “black spot.” And then several men attack the Inn. But with a treasure map safely in their hands, Livesay, Trelawney, the young Hawkins, and Capt. Smollett  will use Smollett’s sloop to sail for Treasure Island in the Caribbean. They only need a crew, and harmless-looking, one-legged, sea-cook John Silver knows just the Bristol shipmates for the job.

Jackie Cooper at left with Wallace Beery in M-G-M’s Treasure Island, 1934

Stevenson’s novel and the first 1934 classic had firmly established pirate looks, lore, and vocabulary in popular culture before Walt Disney. Stevenson himself acknowledged borrowing seafaring and lost treasure lore and iconography in his novel. Long John Silver’s parrot was borrowed from Robinson Crusoe, published by Daniel Defoe in 1719. This was written as a novel but the first edition stated it was written by Crusoe and most people thought it was an autobiography. The story was about the shipwrecked protagonist who spent 28 years on an island off the coast of Venezuela and Trinidad. One of the characters in Treasure Island is Captain Flint, although he is is already deceased in the story and it is his buried treasure everyone is after. Stevenson also borrowed the visual imagery of a pointing skeleton from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug.” But Stevenson borrowed most heavily from The General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724 and written by the unknown Captain Charles Robinson. The book contains the embellished biographies of legendary pirates including Anne Bonny, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Calico Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Mary Read and William Kidd.

The colorful language and accents of pirates has become well known and imitated for decades — largely originating from the  book, film and later screen versions of Treasure Island. Right off the page we have the drunken Billy Bones singing sea songs and telling tales to frightened Inn guests about men walking the plank. Common seafaring men, and the English-speaking pirates that had come from them, had spent so much of their lives on ships that they used the words for parts of ships or weather for their own anatomy or condition.  Belay there! meaning to stop came from the belaying pin used to hold fast a rope. Abaft meant rear or aft of the ship or backwards. Yardarm was the wood spar where the sails hung from. In the British Navy, it was used on ships indicating , “you could drink once the sun was above the yardarm.” The word buccaneer is used in Treasure Island. Buccaneer refers to pirates that operated in or out of the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the word origin is attributed to the wood racks used to smoke wild game (boucans or buccans) on Tortuga Island, the French word for a male goat is bouc, and a boucan is to make a racket or hubbub — the latter a good description for buccaneering.

The great actor Lionel Barrymore played Billy Bones in the 1934 Treasure Island. Although Wallace Beery played a fine sweet and sour Long John Silver, I think Barrymore could have done much more with the role. And at least he would not have tried to steal scenes from Jackie Cooper like Beery did. But alas, Barrymore’s arthritic hands did not allow him to maneuver himself on a crutch. The cast of this version included many M-G-M contract players, and comprised mostly Americans.  With the Disney version produced in 1950, that all changed. American studios commonly had to spend part of their U.K exhibition profits making movies in England, and this was the case with the Walt Disney studio.  Walt Disney had wanted to make Treasure Island for fifteen years as an animated feature, and he finally got the film rights from M-G-M. But the “frozen” funds changed his mind into making it a live-action feature — Disney’s first full live-action movie.  It was produced and filmed in English locations including  Bristol, Falmouth and the coast of Cornwall, as well as London’s Denham Studios. Disney’s cast were all from the U.K except for Bobby Driscoll who played Jim Hawkins. English actor Robert Newton played Long John Silver in the Disney 1950 version of Treasure Island and its sequel Long John Silver (or Long John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island, 1954)For the  July 1950  release of Treasure Island, the Disney Company did an extensive advertising campaign. A treasure hunt was launched involving treasure chests full of merchandise that could be opened by “keys” printed in some 350 local department stores and drug stores in 40 states.

Robert Newton’s use of a Cornish accent in these movies has come down as the standard pirate accent in subsequent pirate movies. As for Billy Bones’ old sea song that featured so prominently in the Stevenson text, this was now a Walt Disney movie, so new words were composed for the “Yo Ho” song, dropping “and a bottle of rum.” We wonder if this made an impression on Robert Newton, who died soon after making the Treasure Island sequel from alcoholism.

Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton in Disney’s Treasure Island, 1950

Orson Welles had been an admirer of Stevenson’s book since his youth. He had wanted to make a version of it in the 1960s, and a version of it with him cast as Long John Silver was made in 1972. It was such a low-budget production that it is not worth watching.

Even in the days of Robert Louis Stevenson, writers of stories knew about “in media res.” This is Latin for start your plot in the middle of things. With Treasure Island, several characters are already out to get Billy Bones at the beginning of the story, and one of the lead characters is already dead. Leaving so much untold, however, left plenty of story material for a prequel to Treasure Island in the long-form cable television show Black Sails. Here we see John Silver when he had two legs, and Captain Flint when he was  a British Naval Officer and turning into a pirate. And Nassau in the Bahamas as an important town before it becomes a pirate haven.

Black Sails (2014-2017) is one of the best and most unique television series I’ve ever seen. That this should be set within a “pirate” story is surprising, but then The Sopranos took place within a mafia family. As with any movie or show, the writing and acting set within solid production values and direction will achieve high quality. But with Black Sails, individual characters were plumbed to the depths as they sought their freedom, destinies, redemption, and in some cases, revenge. And more, the characters developed over the four seasons to become very different persons from who they were at the beginning – those that survived anyway.

The ensemble cast was superb. IMDB should be consulted for all the actors, but most were from England, Australia, Canada, and farther away in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Toby Stephens (son of Maggy Smith) played Capt. Flint, Luke Arnold played John Silver, Hannah New played Eleanor Guthrie, Toby Schmitz played “Calico Jack” Rackham, Tom Hopper played Billy Bones, Clara Paget played Anne Bonny, and Zach McGowan played Capt. Charles Vane among many more.

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny at left and Toby Schmitz as Jack Rackham in Black Sails.

From the first episode the ways of the pirate life are made clear in dialogue and action: they are not paid wages and are bound to no one. If you join a crew you share in whatever spoils you take from Spanish or merchant ships. Capt. Flint has his own vision. Civilization is coming to the Caribbean, and to its rulers, people like them are monsters that should be eliminated. Only by uniting can they survive. John Silver is an opportunist just looking to stay alive. He just happened to find a page from a ship’s log book showing the route of the treasure ship the Urca de Lima, which Flint has been seeking for weeks. If only John Silver could read. After a dramatic battle to take over a merchant ship and a subsequent fight over who will be be the pirate captain,  part of the Flint crew land at Nassau where more pivotal characters are introduced.

The interaction of each character is fascinating to watch as each already has – or will develop – antagonisms. alliances, or even become mortal enemies. All of this set within the win or lose competition for treasure and power, and the coming attacks of Spanish or English armed forces – neither of which tolerated pirates. As in the case of the historic Brethren of the Coast, Captain Flint attempted to make a federation of pirates, inhabitants of Nassau, former slaves living in nearby islands, and whoever would join them in fighting British forces to keep Nassau a free pirate state. But in Black Sails, each strong-willed character is intent on fulfilling their own destiny.

While I can’t be sure what Paddy Nolan-Hall would have though of of all this, I’m sure she must have seen the M-G-M and Disney classic versions of Treasure Island.

This blog post is part of the Caftan Woman Blogathon honoring Patricia Nolan-Hall on May 6, 2020 by the Classic Movie Blog Association, The Lady’ Eve’s Reel Life and Another Old Movie Blog.

18 thoughts on “TREASURE ISLAND: FROM PAGE TO SCREEN TO CABLE”

  1. Reading all this piratey goodness reminded me of a chat I had with Paddy on Twitter some time ago. She mentioned her favorite adaptation of Treasure Island is the 1990 made for TV film with Charlton Heston as Long John Silver and Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins.

    I have yet to see it, but if Paddy says it’s good, I’m in. Your excellent post reminded me to check it out and made me aware of these other pirate classics. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ari. I have not seen this TV movie version of Treasure Island but thank you for letting me know that it was Paddy’s favorite. I’ll have to search for it. With those two actors it sounds good -especially with Paddy’s blessing.

  2. Disney’s version of Treasure Island was the first I can remember seeing, and I have been fascinated by piracy on the high seas ever since! I am glad you mentioned Black Sails, as I am a big fan of that series. It certainly is unique in its treatment of pirates. Anyway, I think Paddy would love this post. She was always up for rip-roaring adventure yarns.

    1. Thanks for your comment Terence. You are the first one to comment who has watched Black Sails. Aside from Westerns it seemed that pirates were the fascination of many boys – even in the days of comic books. And with Black Sails, the women have as much agency as the men. We don’t know if Paddy saw the series, but she would have approved of that.

  3. Christian, you’ve inspired me to seek out Black Sails! My challenge with the other adaptations is that the actors who play Long John Silver tend to ham it up too much. He’s such a colorful character that overplaying is a constant danger.

    1. Rick I think you would enjoy Black Sails – it is so different than a movie treatment. Especially since John Silver starts out young – a bit cocky but no ham but smart and he has a lot to learn before he starts earning the respect of the pirates around him. And as I think I stated in the post but can’t emphasize enough, the series has a lot of character change and development from beginning to end.

  4. I know Wallace Beery was a notorious scene-stealer in the 1934 version, but I can’t help but regard this version as my fave. Your post has it all – pirates, adventure, history, and a wonderful tribute to Paddy. I enjoyed it very much.

  5. I greatly enjoyed your write-up, Christian. I’m intrigued by Black Sails, and I especially appreciated the definitions of the pirate lingo — all these years, and I’ve never really known what a yardarm was! (I just knew that Capt. Bligh used it in his parting-shot threat.) Great stuff.

  6. I can imagine Paddy being quite enthralled with this post and having much enthusiasm and much of interest to add. Your post certainly enthralled me! I hadn’t thought of Treasure Island in a very long time. But as a child – the book, the 1934 and 1950 movie versions shown on TV (which, digressing now, stirs memories of the Hardy Boys ” Applegate Treasure” serial on the Mickey Mouse Club and the song that began, “Gold doubloons and pieces of eight…”). I enjoyed your deep dive into Treasure Island’s past and into pirate lore. Also was interested to learn more about Black Sails. I didn’t realize it was an opened-up rendition of Treasure Island. It seems pirates and buccaneers have always held such fascination – think of all the popular pirate films over the decades, starring everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to Johnny Depp.
    As always, a thoroughly engaging read, Christian, thank you for taking part in Paddy’s blogathon.

    1. I happened to watch the 1934 Treasure Island on TCM which gave me the idea of covering it for the blogathon. Black Sails I watched on cable when it came out and I’ve actually seen the episodes more than once. It
      was a clever idea to cover John Silver’s life as a young two-legged seaman becoming a cook just to get by. And Capt. Flint as a resentful British officer, and bringing in many famous pirate characters. There’s a lot more character development since it was a long-form series. Thanks for your comment Patty and for hosting this commemorative blogathon.

  7. Thanks for joining the blogathon, Christian, and for this wonderful re-visit to a favorite childhood story (for me, the 1934 or 1950 versions). Paddy would have enjoyed the post and probably had a quip and some fascinating background to add. Well done!

    1. Thanks for your comment Jacqueline, and for hosting this wonderful tribute to Paddy. I think many of us grew up with Treasure Island – started with the book but certainly saw the Disney movie. I must
      have seen the 1934 movie on daytime TV but I recently watched it on TCM which gave me the idea for covering it for this tribute.

  8. Paddy was a woman with an adventurous spirit (movie-wise), so I am sure anything pirate related would have been to her taste. And thanks for pointing me towards Black Sails. I have always been aware of it hovering around my “should see” mental list, but never zeroed in on it. Time to change that!

    1. Thanks for your comment Marsha. Yes, I think Paddy would like the adventure of it all. And I think you should give Black Sails a try. It takes a few episodes to get into it but it’s well worth the patience.

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