DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.

24 thoughts on “DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

  1. NDJ

    Memory tells me that Disney hadn’t wrapped up all the rights to these movies when I was a kid and I saw them all in local theaters as part of the weekly—natural disasters couldn’t stop them—cavalcade of Saturday matinees. Plus they showed up on television under Walt’s control.

    Like you, several made very strong impressions on my young imagination: “Treasure Island” (yes, he was the best Long John Silver ever), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (I don’t remember the creature as being as special as you do but your memory is a decade or two fresher than mine) (I do a funny James Mason impression, though not as good as my Elmer Fudd-singing-Elvis), and especially “Swiss Family Robinson” (which I recently saw because of your mentioning it in another post).

    I also saw “The Man on the Mountain” a few months ago—again due to your encouragement—and enjoyed it immensely!

    I just ordered “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood,” “Moon Spinners,” and “20,000 Leagues” from the library and look forward to the fun of seeing them again and the possibility of a few bouts of nostalgia. I will see

    Ta!

    EDN

    • I saw 20,000 Leagues in elementary school (not just while I was in elementary school, at the school–no idea what they were rewarding us for!). But when I watched it again a few years ago I was still impressed by the sets/effects. Better than CGI at any rate!

      I also think we bring our childhood memories to these things. I saw Darby O’Gill and the little people when i was about seven. Last time I slept with my parents….and that banshee STILL gives me a chill!

          • I’ve heard him say that he got more comments about Darby O’Gill than he did about the Bond films. (His comment was along the lines of: “They don’t tell me what they think…but they tell me they remember me.”)

            And what really scared him was the thought of having to sing a duet with Janet Munro, who not only had a beautiful singing voice but was the daughter of a Scottish entertainer who, fame wise, was something like Scotland’s Charlie Chaplin, I don’t remember the exact quote but the basic thought was “If I screw this up, I can never go back to Scotland.” Apparently, using a dub would have been considered even worse.

  2. Hayley’s Disney movies are the bomb! I love The Moon Spinners because it’s filmed in Crete. I love anything filmed in Greece. The plot is absurd but it’s such a delight to see the Hollywood-British contrasted with the Mediterranean backdrop. As if Hayley’s character couldn’t have found someone sexier in Greece to fall for than insipid Peter McEnery (who he?).

  3. I apologize, John, for the criticism of McEnery because my mouth (fingers) get ahead of me all the time. I hadn’t read closely each movielogue and see you praised him for a film I don’t believe I have seen, unless it was on TV as a kid. I will keep my mind more open!

    Is it me or was Disney’s the last studio to offer fading Hollywood stars roles in truly “A-pictures”?

    • Never fear to speak your mind. We brook disagreements around here!…I like McEnery well enough in The Moon-Spinners but it’s clearly Hayley’s show. He was a true lead in Fighting Prince of Donegal and to my mind he was excellent (for starters, he didn’t do any fake Irish accent!…for second, though he has a love interest, it’s secondary to the plot…I have a feeling he might have been one of those male actors–George Clooney comes to mind, as does Frank Sinatra–who had much better chemistry with men than with other women). Give that one a try if you can find it!

      And yes, I believe Hollywood’s older character actors in particular were given their best late period roles by Disney….I mean Buster Keaton ended up in the Frankie and Annette beach movies…I’m sure he would have LOVED a shot at a Disney picture or two!

  4. Well, we had a friend over for Thanksgiving dinner and the movie we watched was “The Moon-Spinners.” About 3/4 of the way through it, we had an interruption of about an hour. After the interruption, none of us wanted to turn “The Moon-Spinners” back on: we thought Mills not believable and Wallach rather stiff, although we liked Negri and especially McEnery (who looked like he should have had a long and fine career in movies but didn’t). The cats weren’t bad, either, if rather testy.

  5. Error correction: When I said “we liked Negri” in my comment above, I meant “we liked Joan Greenwood” as Hayley’s Aunt. We still have “Treasure Island” and “Robin Hood” for the next few evenings.

  6. Berni and Mike and I watched “Robin Hood” last night. Richard Todd did make an excellent Robin and the cast of merry men were top of the line. The script was good but the whole thing didn’t gel as well for us as it did for you. We liked Joan Rice just fine as Maid Marian although, of course, she’s not Olivia de Havilland. We thought there was slight resemblance between Peter Finch’s Sheriff of Nottingham and Chris Sarandon’s Prince Humperdinck in that other swashbuckling movie.

    • Sounds like you enjoyed it at least which gives me a reason to smile! I’m not really down on Rice, except in comparison to Glynis Johns. Since you liked this you should keep an eye out for The Sword and the Rose (I think we had this discussion before and your library didn’t have it but hopefully you’ll run into it somewhere). Much of the same cast and crew, only with a practice run under their belt so everything is a little bit better, with Johns giving even De Havilland a run for her money in a Maid Marian type role.

  7. Berni and Mike and I also watched “Treasure Island” last night. Still a fun movie! Robert Newton chewed up the scenery and was everything my faded memory of Long John Silver recalled and more.

    The surprising thing to the three of us was that Peter Jackson’s Gollum was more than a little inspired by Geoffrey Wilkinson as the long-marooned (and wackadoodle) pirate Ben Gunn.

    Did you know that Newton reprised his role in a 1954 movie titled “Long John Silver”?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_John_Silver_(film)

    • I did know about Newton’s other Long John movie but I’ve never had a chance to see it. He played it like Falstaff, all or nothing, and it worked.

      I hadn’t thought about the Gollum connection but now that you mention it, I see it completely. Jackson is a year younger than me, so it’s possible he’s as steeped in Disney as Lucas and Spielberg were. These films were pretty available in the sixties and seventies, between re-releases and television. Not sure how much filtered down to New Zealand, but you never know!

      Also, I meant to mention this the other day: Since you liked Peter McEnery in the Moon-Spinners you should keep an eye out for The Fighting Prince of Donegal which is a real showcase for him (though alas, it is even harder to find).

  8. We enjoyed i enough that I placed holds on five different “Robin Hood” movies: Douglas Fairbanks (1922), Errol Flynn (1938), Cary Elwes (1991), Kevin Costner (1991), and Russel Crowe (2010). We have a lot of men in tights before us …

    • Oh goodness…while you’re at it see if you can find the Patrick Bergin version from 1991. That’s probably my favorite of all, even though Uma Thurman, whom I’ve enjoyed in other things, is not my idea of Marian!

      …and then there’s the Sean Connery/Audrey Hepburn version from the seventies which I haven’t seen in ages but have fond memories of.

      Envy you the Fairbanks. I haven’t seen his Robin, but his Zorro and Thief of Baghdad were outstanding.

  9. I am looking forward to the Mel Brooks version.It’s the only movie of his I really like after “Young Frankenstein,” but all I remember is the “We’re Men in Tights” singing and dancing scene. And with that I have to go back to bed for my mid-morning nap.

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