I’ve read Treasure Island many times, both for my own enjoyment and to my kids. It’s a great novel, an exciting story and a splendid basis for a film. But only one of the many film versions gets it right: 1990’s version for television, directed by Fraser Heston and starring his father Charlton and a young Christian Bale. For years this has been inaccessible except for premium-priced VHS versions, but now it’s finally on DVD in a splendid widescreen transfer.
In the popular consciousness, Treasure Island the novel labors under two misconceptions. One is that it’s a story for children; it’s not. It’s written from the perspective of the grown man remembering his adventures as an adolescent, not as a preteen. So in both the MGM and Disney versions, casting Jim as a small boy fundamentally alters the story’s dynamic. Christian Bale, on the other hand, is just right here. His adventures mark the transition from boyhood to the adult world, and he’s a good enough actor even at age 14 to anchor the film.
The other misconception is that the pirates are merely colorful but essentially harmless rogues, especially Long John Silver. Wallace Beery is friendly to distraction in the 1934 film, and it’s impossible to take Robert Newton’s hammy portrayal in the 1950 Disney film seriously. But what else could be done with Jim cast so young? Silver in the book is a dangerous man, a real flesh-and-blood pirate, fond of Jim but still willing to kill him if it helped get the treasure.
Charlton Heston proves just right for the part. With his history of larger-than-life roles, he’s got the stature and charisma to make the audience share Jim’s affection for him. And he’s a good enough actor that we buy him as a pirate, one vicious enough to intimidate the others.
The rest of the cast is just as solid. Oliver Reed nails the part of Billy Bones, while Julian Glover and Richard Johnson do solid turns as Jim’s compatriots. Even Jim’s mother, a thankless part as she’s the only woman in the story, is given a fiery presence by Isla Blair. The other pirates, from Blind Pew (a scary Christopher Lee) to Israel Hands (Michael Halsey), provide the constant menace that the story requires.
But what makes it work so well is that writer and director Fraser Heston treats the story as a serious life-and-death adventure. Knives cut, shrapnel rips, blood flows and people die. The island is no tropical amusement park, but a dark and sweaty place where buccaneer ghosts might still prowl the shadows. Even the late Captain Flint, the man who buried the treasure and who is usually no more than a name, is given a sense of presence and reality.
This version of Treasure Island is the real deal: well-acted, exciting and faithful to both the letter and spirit of Stevenson’s book. For those who’ve mistakenly considered this a tale for little children, first check out this film, then go back to the novel. You’re in for a pleasant surprise.