Bright Lights Film Journal

I Knew Long John Silver, Mr. Sparrow. Silver Was a Friend of Mine. And You, Sir, Are No Long John Silver!

One of the appeals of the PIRATES… etc. films with Depp are the morally ambiguous nature of Capt. Sparrow as a leading character. While the rest of kid-friendly cinema chokes on the double-sided, good vs. evil, black vs. white with no gray area moral battleground, Depp’s Sparrow minces long in between like Lewis Hyde’s proverbial Trickster, he screws everyone over, and they all love him anyway.

While you are still high on the seas after seeing the WIT’S END, I recommend you buy (not rent!) the original 1934 version of TREASURE ISLAND starring Wallace Beery, Otto Kruger, Lewis Stone, Lionel Barrymore, little Jackie Cooper and a host of marvelous character actors (did I forget to mention Nigel Bruce, young fellow m’lad? and what about Chic Sale?!)

I love this film for myriad reasons but one that jumps to mind is its gleeful shucking of romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkin’s going after treasure, loot stolen by pirates from murdered men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It aint like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners… no sir.

In this film you root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail, “they ‘aven’t got shit all over ’em” – but you also root for smooth talking Silver, played with great dog-eared goofiness by Wallace Beery and his rawther repulsive looking band of brigands.

There’s a real palpable sense of bonding between Hawkins and Silver here (Beery had won an Oscar working with Cooper in THE CHAMP earlier) which takes the place of a usual dull romance as the film’s central “evolving” relationship. Basically what we see is that Silver wins out, evil as he is, because he’s good with children. He knows how to stoke the fires of Hawkin’s imagination and greed and together they come out ahead even as everyone is dying all around them. You have to appreciate as well the sight of a young boy shooting a pirate and killing him dead without a second thought… no moral hand-wringing and all the crap you’d have to go through with the ratings board and parent orgainizations in today’s hellishly overprotective climate, ole Cooper just pops that skeevy pirate with a pistol and watches in pleasant surprise as the blaggart tumbles down to his death off the mizzenmast. Other highlights? Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, telling horrible tales of warming his rum with the blood of slaughtered royalty and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow Inn to sing “Bottle of Rum.” Lots of great wind effects, great Victor (Wizard of Oz) Fleming direction and a real live parrot!

So avast, ye, matey! This here version of Treasure Island is smart as paint! Keep the spirit of moral ambiguity alive this summer and tell ’em old Captain Erich sent ya.