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.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (June, 2017 Edition)

As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.

June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)

Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.

June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.

June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)

Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.

June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)

Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?

June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)

Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.

June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)

For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.

June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)

For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.

June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.

June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.

June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.

…Til next time!