Raoul Ruiz’s extraordinary fold-in collage film of TREASURE ISLAND would be worth devoting hours of study to, but the copy I got my hands on was so horrible that I needed to create some kind of STUNT in order to render it watchable. Not only was the pan-and-scanned image fuzzy and prone to horrendous combing whenever anything moved fast, but the soundtrack, much of it poorly dubbed, was almost drowned out by screeching INSECT MENACE, the cries locusts make when being tortured by John Boorman.* It also came with wildly inaccurate Spanish subtitles which referred to the character Israel Hands as “hands of Israel”. So I was glad I speak English pretty.
So I decided to watch Ruiz’s film at the same time as John Hough’s 1971 version, which stars Orson Welles. I watched ten minutes of one film, then ten minutes of the other. Hough’s film gave me relief from the insect whine and eliptical narrative, offering thick-eared straightforwardness (and more bad dubbing) instead. Of course, since the ’70s version goes like a train, it was finished half an hour earlier that the 1985 job, so I got to follow that one to it’s mystifying, yet strangely splendid conclusion, without further interruption.
The Hough film was produced by international man of intrigue Harry Alan Towers, the kind of scamp Welles often associated with (he’s like a British version of the Salkinds, but even cheaper), and it has a script credited to Wolf Mankowicz and O.W. Jeeves. That O.W. is a giveaway, since Welles worked on the writing himself, but chose not to take a credit. He also chose not to stick around for the post-synching, so that the voice booming from Long John Silver is someone impersonating Welles impersonating Robert Newton.
Ruiz’s film (and I’m going to jump around like this all through this article, so get used to it) was bankrolled by international buccaneers Cannon Films, in the heady days of pre-sales and the booming VHS market, when a film could be in profit before it had even been shot. Nevertheless, I imagine Golan & Globus were pretty surprised when they found out what they’d paid for, almost as much as when they bankrolled Godard’s KING LEAR (the one with Molly Ringwald).
The Ruiz movie is modern dress, and takes place in a world where some but not all of the characters have read Stevenson’s book and use it as a kind of game-plan. Most of his disparate cast, including Melvil Poupaud, Martin Landau and Anna Karina, represent characters from the source novel, but not always consistently — sometimes they change character, and sometimes their part doesn’t seem to have any equivalent in the source text. Jean-Pierre Leaud turns up to write things down as they happen, making him a sort of Stevenson/Ruiz figure, but he later turns out to be another Jim Hawkins. Furthermore, Vic Tayback’s Long John Silver is introduced as a cobbler, and the Hispanola is no longer a ship but a Lebanese restaurant. So it’s fair to say it’s not a very literal adaptation.
Since Ruiz’s treasure in this version is African diamonds, it’s tempted to see the narrative as the refractions of Stevenson’s text in a precious stone, and this effect easily encompassed the Hough film as well, since I was watching it at the same time. Some brutal cutting of the text made minor characters in the Hough almost non-existent, their names dropped only after they themselves had already dropped dead, but Ruiz would then helpfully take up their cause, giving them meaty scenes in his film, although often without any proper introduction (Ben Gunn’s just abruptly there). Soon, the Hough film felt like it had been annexed by the Ruiz.
Everybody’s got something to hide ‘cept for O.W. Jeeves and his monkey (which was immortalised in the screenplay of THE BIG BRASS RING).
Stylistic elements carried over from one film to the next. The deep blue day-for-night photography of Hough’s flick became the spectrum of tinted filters Ruiz likes to shoot through — he’s probably the best user of filters in cinema, since he never pretends they’re other than what they appear to be: pretty illusions. Ruiz’s crazy angles and diopter lens effects, influenced by the comic books of Milt Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), have their equivalent in Hough’s attempts at Wellesian low angles and deep focus. I don’t think Hough ever recovered from the Welles influence.
Extreme perspectives in Hough and Ruiz.
While Hough (best film: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE — Pamela Franklin mercy-fucks a ghost) isn’t quite good enough to use his cartoony extremes in the right places, Ruiz doesn’t even try, preferring to drop in a giant foreground seagull, crab, or gaping human mouth, as a kind of random punctuation. There’s certainly no attempt at making a dramatic point. While the Hough rattles through a familiar story without quite enough focus to bring it alive, Ruiz fractally explodes the story and sifts the fragments, holding them up to the light in search of ideas, images, jokes. As a result, it takes an hour before his buccaneers even set sail. Some of the stuff at “the hotel Ballantrae” (or “Valentry”, if you believe the subtitles) is among the best in the film though, especially in the fever-dream sequence when the walls starts sliding aside, creating a kind of positronic labyrinth.
Hough, like Ruiz, is struggling with a multi-national cast, and a script that insists on everybody being English. Walter Slezak as Squire Trelawney is particularly problematic in this regard. When Blind Pew claims British citizenship it’s actually quite funny, since he has a strong German accent. But none of this would register at all in the Ruiz film, where a French sea captain holds conversations with English-speakers, and both sides understand the other perfectly. He’s like Chewbacca in that regard. And while Poupaud, Leaud and Karina have their performances effectively erased by unsympathetic re-voicing, the looping of Jeffrey Kime (I think he’s playing the Squire) actually gives him a light-comedy insouciance that revitalises all his scene. He sounds like Hugh Grant.
The real star turns in both films are by the actors playing Billy Bones: Lionel Stander and Martin Landau. Gravel-voiced, gravel-faced Stander (basically Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four comics) should sound out of place here, with his Bronx accent, but somehow he doesn’t, probably because he’s a pirate at heart. Landau doesn’t have quite the same rape-and-plunder esprit, but he’s got star quality. Ruiz’s film would benefit from more actors who talk with their own voice, and more actors with the kind of gravitas that it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. Ruiz’s English dialogue is often rather inelegant, whereas Mankiewicz and Welles mainly use Stevenson’s original, flamboyant language.
“I couldn’t see why we even needed the treasure,” says the narrator, who isn’t Melvil Poupaud, who isn’t Jim Hawkins, although they’re all associated in some way. “I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just get along without it.” A gag line like this, which did strike me as hilarious, is really a drama-killer, since it successfully debunks the MacGuffin Stevenson’s story is entirely predicated upon. But Ruiz has never been interested in conventional structures, central conflicts, or dramatic tension as it is usually understood. He IS interested in blurred identities, which he’s able to explore here by grafting game theory and role-playing games onto Stevenson’s story.
The result is that Hough’s film, even when it’s bodged (the relationship between Jim and Silver is thrown away, and it should be the heart of the story: even Ruiz sees the tale as a boy’s search for his father, which he addresses by having pretty much every male character claim paternity) has a forward pull that makes it fly past, and Ruiz’s film requires more wading to get through (but the buzzing locusts don’t help). But once the journey is competed, it’s Ruiz’s film that haunts the memory like a voice echoing in a cave.
*Perhaps an explanation is required. According to The Making of Exorcist II: The Heretic, Boorman had unexpected trouble getting his locusts to swarm — they won’t do it for just anyone — and resorted to snipping the legs off on with his nail-clippers to try and force it to take to the air, perhaps encouraging its comrades to follow suit. But the recalcitrant bug just kind of flopped around on the ground, legless. Boorman’s attempts to get performances out of a bored Linda Blair and a drink-sodden Richard Burton met with similar failure. Burton doesn’t actually flop around on the ground, legless, but always manages to look as if he’s about to.