Review: Treasure Island (1990)

>> Saturday, April 20, 2013

USA/TV/C-132m./Dir: Fraser Clarke Heston/Wr: Fraser Clarke Heston/Cast: Charlton Heston (Long John Silver), Christian Bale (Jim Hawkins), Julian Glover (Dr. Livesey), Richard Johnson (Squire Trelawney), Oliver Reed (Billy Bones), Christopher Lee (Blind Pew), Isla Blair (Mrs. Hawkins), Michael Halsey (Israel Hands), Nicholas Amer (Ben Gunn), Pete Postlethwaite (George Merry)

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest--
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest--
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

That little ditty, invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure novel, Treasure Island,is the primary reason why we associate pirates with rum to this day.  Sure, the alcoholic buccaneers featured in Stevenson’s story were not without historical precedent.  Eighteenth century privateers traded rum and sailors of all sorts certainly drank it; but after the publication of Treasure Island it was impossible to disassociate pirates from their drink of choice. 

Rum plays a central role throughout Treasure Island.  When ex-buccaneer Billy Bones takes lodging at the Admiral Benbow Inn, he spends his evenings swilling rum and singing the seafaring song printed above.  Overindulgence in the drink leads to Bones’ death and in turn fuels the plot, as Jim Hawkins, the inn-keeper’s son, discovers a treasure map amongst the dead man’s possessions.  When the boy hero takes to sea in search of pirate gold, he discovers that most of his crewmates are old shipmates of Bones with plans of mutiny, larceny, and murder.  Hawkins is nearly discovered overhearing the mutineers’ plans, but his neck is saved when the pirates are distracted by their thirst for rum. Rum continues to serve as Hawkins’ ally for the remainder of the book, as the dim-witted buccaneers are defeated at nearly every turn by their weakness for the drink. 

Not only is Treasure Island the most important of all pirate tales; it is also the most often filmed.  The story has been adapted for film and television more than fifty times, including multiple silents, iconic MGM and Disney classics, animated shorts and features, and a Muppetized version.  However, the most faithful and in my opinion the best of all of the Treasure Island movies was a 1990 made-for-television production, produced, written, and directed by Fraser Clarke Heston (the son of the most forceful of all ham actors, Charlton Heston).

Don’t let the fact that the picture was produced for basic cable stop you from seeking out Fraser Heston’s take on the oft-filmed tale.  The production values are excellent (with the tall ship from the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty standing in for the Hispanola), the cinematography is lush, and the soundtrack by The Chieftains is appropriately seaworthy.  Best of all is the cast.  A teenage Christian Bale makes an admirable Jim Hawkins; noted drunkard Oliver Reed is perfectly cast as the boozy Billy Bones; and Christopher Lee is wonderfully slimy as Blind Pew.  Finally, in the pivotal role of Long John Silver, Heston has cast his dad.  I’ve never been a big fan of the over-actor I like to call “Cheston.”  However, Cheston makes one of the best movie Silvers, capturing both the ruthlessness and the folksy charm that the part requires.   

Heston the younger wisely chooses not to try to improve upon a classic.  The dialogue is more than 90 percent Stevenson, and the story sticks close to the text, with the exception of a few judicious cuts.  Consequently, if you are a fan of the book, the 1990 movie version will be the one you'll treasure.  It is a film that can be enjoyed with the whole family, or better yet with a bottle of rum. 

Drinks Consumed--Rum (with water and straight), port wine, and ale

Intoxicating Effects--Harmonizing, staggering, slurred speech, bickering, brawling, physical violence, passing out, and death

Potent Quotables--DR. LIVESEY (to Billy Bones): I have only one thing to say to you, sir.  If you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel.  

Video Availability--DVD (Warner Brothers)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Cheston, Oliver Reed, and Christopher Lee also co-starred in the best adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckler with The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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