Rated “Arr”

Screenplay by Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg

LONG JOHN SILVER, AKA RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND, directed by Byron Haskin, isn’t any good, but it does have Robert Newton in the title role, and Rod Taylor in a showy supporting part. E.A. Dupont’s RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND, a different film, doesn’t have either of them and REALLY isn’t any good. It’s one of those late-career travesties like Tay Garnett’s CHALLENGE TO BE FREE which is so incompetent and uninspired on every level that it baffles and infuriates, is hard to shake off.

Nevertheless, I did not fail you, reader, I watched the whole damn thing.

The early scenes rewrite Stevenson by showing that Captain Flint secretly survived, and, you know, RETURNED TO TREASURE ISLAND, re-hiding his treasure and killing Long John Silver. Difficult, I suppose, to engage first-class talent for a short prologue sequence like this in a low-budget film, but Dupont, who may have been ill or just very very tired, or disgusted with the whole business, gets a guy from New Jersey called Dayton Lummis to do a Groundskeeper Willie Scottish accent for Flint, and a guy from Indiana called Robert Long to play Long John Silver. His name may be what clinched him the part. He seems… really ashamed to be in a film.

This part of the story is narrated by Tab Hunter, who is not one of nature’s born narrators. The cutting is fantastically terrible. Dupont at his best does have a kind of titanic, granite quality to his images, that seem to fall into their places onscreen with thumps, like stone blocks slotting into place. But now everything’s ill-fitting and higglety-pigglety.

I suppose the parrot acquits itself fairly well, but frankly I have seen better parrots.

Fastforward to the present day, and we are to believe that the Admiral Benbow Inn is a real place, where a burglar is trying to steal a map of Treasure Island. Another guy bursts into shot, they duke it out, leave frame, and a lampshade falls down. That lampshade is showing more initiative than the rest of the film’s cast. Both thugs leave, and the people who belong to the inn enter shot and have a boring discussion. Dupont is very much about flat two-shots in this movie, and here he props his actors against a mantel for even greater stasis and stiltedness.

Still, one of the thesps is Dawn Addams, in vibrant p.j.s. She and Tab will bring an inappropriate porny horniness to the proceedings, though this is not convincingly projected at each other, but outward at us. It’s this softcore flirtation with the lens that makes the movie seem so much like an animated smut mag, with less skin.

The old codger speculates that the burglar was after the map, and Dawn says, magnificently: “Willie! Superstition. Probably tramps.” One of the great lines. No cut-up or fold-in method could produce such eloquent word salad — only the combined typewriters of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, who scripted a couple of other late Dupont’s: THE NEANDERTHAL MAN and THE STEEL LADY.

Now the crumbly remains of Porter Hall come shimmering into view — a terrific character man, member of the Preston Sturges stock company, you’ve seen him in everything from THE THIN MAN to ACE IN THE HOLE. This is his last movie too, and it looks it. He classes the joint up, but he’s still required to stand in flat two-shots, sharing the non-space with non-actors. He announces that it’s night-time, which we would not, frankly, have known from the photography. He also tells us that Dawn’s character, Jamie Hawkins, is the direct descendant of Jim-Lad.

From the hat and coat he carries, I’m assuming he was one of the bad guys earlier, but clearly a stuntman was carrying out the action.

Turns out the clues to locating the treasure are encoded within Captain Flint’s personal Bible — proof that you can make the good book say anything you like. This plot turn is not too bad, but we’ll have to subsist on it for seventy-five minutes.

Soon, poor old Willie has been shot by one of the hoods. This is one of those movies where normal people stand around calmly conversing over corpses. “Poor Willie,” says Dawn Hawkins. “He was a best friend.” She doesn’t even stoop to examine him. (What’s maddening is that the film’s poor director was a very good writer and could have fixed all of this if he’d been allowed, or bothered.)

The shadowy baddie behind all this — although we don’t for a moment trust Porter Hall — is a blind guy called Newman, a sort of Blind Pugh Junior, which I think I’m going to call him.

Everybody’s off to Treasure Island! Dawn dons a sexy low-cut number and declares her love of adventure. “Well, it’s nice to be young,” says the grizzled Captain Cardigan, nonsensically.

She’s going for an evening swim when she overhears the crew talking mutiny — like her forebear in his apple barrel, only she’s on a rope ladder by a porthole in her swimsuit. I don’t mean the porthole is in her swimsuit. Though it would enhance the entertainment prospects if it were. Dawn Hawkins listens impassively as the men plan to cut cards for her favours. Again, stuff that doesn’t belong in a family film, but there it is. She tells Porter Hall about it and he says he has everything under control.

“For almost a year I had lived on Treasure Island alone,” narrates Tab Hunter as Tab Hunter in a fluffy beard rises into view amid the palm trees, “the involuntary master of my domain,” getting a snigger from the Seinfeld fans.

Tab is going to spend the film shirtless. As shirtless as the day is long. And this is June, so that’s very shirtless indeed. He will, however, I predict, get a shave and a haircut.

Dawn rises and puts on a cute sailor cap and a sexy halter top in case the mutineers cut cards for her favours. And sure enough, they’ve taken over the ship. Captain Cardigan is tied up in knots. Porter Hall turns out to be leader of the mutineers. Gentlemen, I am shocked.

The original Treasure Island is a virtually all male show, with Jim-Lad’s mum, Mrs. Jim-Lad, given nothing to do and dropped from the story as soon as decently possible. So Treasure Island, as conceived by RL Stevenson, is lacking in bondage scenes. Pollexfen & Wisburg have fixed that. A good director for this would have been Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Anyhow, Dawn Hawkins escapes but Captain Cardigan gets a hole in him. All this is narrated by Tab with a disinterested, dreamy quality more suitable, I would have thought, for Brideshead Revisited, not HORNY TREASURE ISLAND.

I’m not kidding about Tay Garnett’s last film, by the way. The sound of “loveable” wilderness person Mike Mazurki humourlessly intoning “HA. HA. HA,” will follow me to my mausoleum. Compared to that, this is a delightful romp. Still, every single movement the actors make is self-conscious, awkward and weird. I’ve heard of director’s shooting rehearsals for spontaneity, but this looks like Dupont was aiming more for uncertainty. And he’s achieved it, masterfully.

Dawn and Tab shack up in an abandoned fort and Dawn naturally has to take a bath, gawped at by the lecherous parrot, who is no doubt a direct linear descendant of Captain Flint’s parrot. He doesn’t quite caw “Pieces of ass!” but his squawks have a lubricious flavour. And yes, Tab has a shave. Evidently he could have done this at any time, but he didn’t have anyone to look his best for.

Porter Hall in Decent Line Shock: “Ever see a cat at a mouse hole? We’ll emulate that patient creature, gentlemen.”

Now Dawn swims out to the ship wearing short jeans and a knotted shirt. Bouncing on deck, she manages to avoid the anticipated display of clingy charms. The distractingly sexy films are always the ones that don’t deliver.

Incidentally, I’ve started wondering — this movie is set in the same fictional world as Stevenson’s novel. Which means Treasure Island, the novel, doesn’t exist in this movie. So it’s not clear how everybody seems to know the story.

It turns out Porter is responsible for Blind Pugh Junior’s signature disability, having blown him up with careless dynamite, but the scene in which we find this out is very ineffectively staged, a flat two with the actors facing forward. Hard for one guy to menace the other without being pointed at him. I presume they had no time to make this film. Otherwise it could’ve been a lovely fun picture to make, if the weather was good.

As the story goes on, sadism rears its ugly-beautiful head. Blind Pugh Junior whips Jim-Lass as she’s bound to a tree, while Tab, shirtless, bound and perspiring (which sounds like a law firm for perverts) writhes on the ground at everyone’s feet, getting kicked. My.

As if that isn’t enough, the Blind Pugh Junior, who lost his sight in a dynamite accident arranged by Porter Hall’s character, Maxie, gets blow up twice more. And survives, though we last see him pinned under rubble in a sealed-off cavern, taking potshots at Porter. He must be cinema’s most exploded man.

“We met Maxie. He was reduced to a harmless cipher with fear,” drones Tab.

Some of the cave scenes seem to be shot in a real cave, some against a cliff face in broad daylight, and some with some kind of day-for-cave gimmick that has turned the colours psychedelic. The entire film could have been improved by that treatment.

Our heroes get the treasure, since they’ve blown everyone else up. That’s how civilisation works.

I say, Tab!

RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND stars Todd Tomorrow; Zeta One; Judge Alfalfa J. O’Toole; Lost Motorist (uncredited); and Bit Part (uncredited).

12 Responses to “Rated “Arr””

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Jim Hawkins narrates the book “Treasure Island” in first person, so one could argue it exists here as a memoir rather than a novel. The bigger question is why everybody knows the story but never spots the obvious and useful parallels to their present situation.

    Most versions of “Treasure Island” highlight Long John Silver becoming Jim’s idol. Disney’s “Treasure Planet” — not a bad movie, by the way — explicitly presents Silver as surrogate father to the teenage Jim. I suppose we can be grateful that Jim-Lass didn’t bond with Porter Hall.

  2. roberthorton Says:

    Well, this makes me want to see the movie. But your comment about “one of those movies where normal people stand around calmly conversing over corpses” makes me think of last evening’s viewing, when my wife and I talked about this exact thing. In the Amicus DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, which I like just fine, the werewolf section has the shock lycanthropian death of the foxy young housekeeper at a remote Hebridean mansion, and even though one of the people there is the dead girl’s manservant grandfather (Peter Madden), nobody much bats an eye because there’s exposition to be made – the body’s getting lugged around while people sort out what exactly was the nature of the centuries-old curse on the place. Real Scottish sangfroid.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Are you familiar with Raul Ruiz’s “Treasure Island”? It’s a modern dress adaptation with Jean-Pierre Leaud, Lou Castel, Anna Karina, Martin Landau and Vic Tayback (of US TV’s “Alice”) as Long John Silver.

    Adore Dawn Addams. She was the female lead in a pair of late period films by cinematic masters: Chaplin’s “A King in New York” and Lang’s “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.”

    Tab is an Axiom of the Cinema AND a Gay Icon at the same time. Having him run around shirtless I his movies is essential to his cinematic persona.

  4. I doubt Tab was ever more shirtless than this. A chemise-free zone is Treasure Island for him.

    I’ve seen the RR TI but mainly was baffled. I think I’ll enjoy it if I see it again, it took me aback a little. Like, “Why did he want to film Treasure Island if he didn’t actually want to film Treasure Island?” But RR had his own MO.

  5. Link doesn’t work.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Indeed he did. He was an incredible filmmaker and a marvelous man who loved storytelling for its own sake — the shaggier the dog story the better.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’s an interview I did with him circa “Treasure Island” Cannon (remember them?) had put up the money but had no intention of releasing it he’d discovered.

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Christian Bale’s best performance is probably EMPIRE OF THE SUN.

    Casting Ramses as the bad guy in Exodus offends Egyptian people especially because he’s a national hero there, and the tradition of him being the bad guy in Exodus is a recent phenomenon and doesn’t make much historical sense. Edward Said among others said it was a case of making Exodus speak for modern day Israel (hence the title of the Preminger movie from the Uris book).

    I always saw Tony as the more talented of the Scott brothers. I like revisiting his films — The Hunger, The Taking of Pelham 123, Deja Vu, Man on Fire — far more than his brother’s films. As for Alien and Blade Runner, while Ridley Scott’s work on both is commendable, I don’t think he should be considered the auteur of both. I’d give it to Giger and Dan O’Bannon for Alien, while Blade Runner is a kind of The Wizard of Oz-esque perfect collaboration where many of the best stuff (Rutger Hauer’s speech at the end) came from the actors themselves, from the screenplay, the VFX work, and Ridley’s one unique contribution (the idea of Deckard being a Replicant) plainly a case of a man who misread his story and trying to sabotage his movie.

  9. Well, Scott selected the actors, the VFX, the designers, or at any rate was a vocal participant in their selection. Impossible to imagine Alien and Blade Runner looking like they do without him. I think O’Bannon wanted Geiger but nobody listened to him until Scott joined the project. And if the films didn’t look like they do, would we care?

    Surely it’s hard to ready Exodus without Ramses being the heavy? Or certainly the chief obstacle to the Israelites’ freedom?

    Perhaps one reason the film didn’t perform is that more people are disenchanted with Israel.

  10. “Poor Willie,” says Dawn Hawkins. “He was a best friend.”

    That indefinite article…

  11. It’s remarkable. It *might* have been written as “our” and just came out wrong. If so, I love the fact that nobody noticed or thought it worth fixing.

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