Treasure Island was Disney’s first live action film. It is also a fantastic movie that has held up well for nearly 70 years.* Treasure maps, pirates, sword fights, double-crosses and double-double-crosses (is the latter just being ‘crossed’?, or is it a ‘quadruple-cross’?), this movie has absolutely everything.
The plot is surprisingly involved for a movie only about ninety minutes long, and numerous themes run through the film. One of the most interesting of these is the idea that a part of coming of age is growing to understand the complexities of character. An aspect of transitioning from childhood into adulthood is realizing that human character is often a mix of good and evil. We are all of us both made in the Image of God and tainted in every part of ourselves by original sin.
This by itself would be sufficient to complicate life, but in addition to the jumble of good and evil that makes up each individual we have the further fact that this jumble is not always clearly visible even under close scrutiny. We present a facade to the world which can either reveal or conceal our inmost natures. The evil person can get by in society by throwing up a camouflage of good. (A good person can also appear to be evil, though I suppose it’s much less common.)
Jim Hawkins has to learn all of this and more in Treasure Island. The movie opens with Jim surrounded by people who are what they appear to be. Squire Trelawney is a good-natured bumbling incompetent (though perhaps he’s a better local aristocrat than he is a ship’s outfitter—we’re not given much of his backstory); Dr. Livesey is competent and decent; and Billy Bones is an affable drunk. To be sure, we learn that Billy Bones is more than that, but he’s not less.
Even new characters entering the story are by-and-large the kind of figures that a child would expect to encounter in the world. Black Dog and Blind Pew are sinister villains who bring destruction; while Captain Smollett and Mr. Marrow are no-nonsense, hard-working, and virtuous.
But then we meet Long John Silver, who adds a level of complexity to Jim’s world (though of course he doesn’t know it at the time). Silver appears convivial and friendly, and the food at Long John Silver’s is fantastic!** But we also know that at best he’s plotting mutiny. When his plans are revealed prematurely he shows himself to be capable of escalating to kidnapping and threatening the life of a child (Jim himself).
At this point, it seems that appearances and reality have been brought in line. Silver has been revealed as the worst sort of pirate and open conflict between good and evil is the order of the day.
And yet, just when we think we’ve gotten him pegged as a bad guy, Silver shows that even that appearance isn’t completely accurate. At some risk to both his command and the search for the treasure, Silver cares for Jim’s wounds and gives him the opportunity to escape. At the end of the movie, Silver risks recapture and the loss of his portion of the treasure rather than harm Jim (though he does threaten to shoot him at least once).
In other words, Jim has learned—at least, we assume that he’s learned—that people are complicated and that appearances and reality do not always align the way we expect them to. Long John Silver is genuinely a bad person and genuinely Jim’s friend. Neither of these truths are worn on his sleeve; they are only revealed with time and through mature wisdom gained by experience. Seeing the world as an adult rather than as a child involves the ability to see people as more than simple caricatures of good and evil.
Jim Hawkins went in search of buried treasure as a child surrounded by tropes from a child’s imagination. He returned as a man surrounded by complex people in a nuanced world.
Again, this movie is excellent. There are other versions which are serviceable enough, but you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t see this one. Tim Curry’s and Eddie Izzard’s portrayals of Long John Silver are fine (Charlton Heston’s is… much less so), but none of them match the performance of Robert Newton. If you’ve not seen it I strongly encourage you to do so as soon as you can if only to see the inspiration for functionally all later cinematic pirates.
*No doubt in part this is because it is based on fantastic source material. After all, who could ever forget Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island? I certainly can’t—mostly because I’ve not read it.
**Feel free to quote that out of context, though I don’t necessarily remember ever actually eating there. For what it’s worth, the fact that Long John Silver is an excellent cook should tell us that he’s not all bad.