Tag Archives: Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island – by Robert Louis Stevenson

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

After reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and several other of his short stories, I found that I especially liked the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson. He is a beautifully descriptive writer, but not in a dull or prosy way so that the action suffers; he’s writing is exciting, evocative, with imaginative stories and images you don’t forget. And since I’d never read Treasure Island, I thought that it should be my next Stevenson book. I was curious, because Treasure Island is so often dismissed as children’s literature, if it would have a different tone or if the writing would be different.

It was different, though not in a bad way. Partly, this is because Treasure Island is written in first person from the perspective of a boy who is the son of a landlord whose parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. His tone is more straightforward than, say, Mr. Utterson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which is ironic, since Mr. Utterson is supposed to be a staid lawyer, but there is something so outlandish in Dr. Jekyll’s experiments that it unfailingly elicits the most extraordinary descriptions in response). But Jim Hawkins writes in a much more direct fashion. I don’t recall noticing his prose as much. The story is the most important thing.

Which is as it should be since Stevenson had children – boys – in mind when he wrote his first novel. In his book The Art of Writing, Stevenson says that he had the assistance of his step-son and father in writing the novel and they both gave him many ideas. He tried to write exactly the kind of book a boy would want to read or that he would have wanted to read. There were no women involved, he said.

But though Treasure Island is less gothic and more straighforward, there are still some wonderful moments, like when Long John Silver comes to parley with Captain Smollett and his small band, who have taken refuge in a stockade. He and the captain sit outside and smoke their pipes in silence, waiting for the other to begin while everyone within the stockade is so curious about the scene playing before them and the confrontation that occurs that they’ve left their posts – where they’re supposed to be watching for treachery – and are instead watching the two implacable men in fascination.

TI-treasureAnd I love this description, that recalls the haunting, vivid quality of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jim is thinking about how Captain Flint killed the six men who helped him bury the treasure all those years ago.

…I was haunted by the thought of the tragedy that had once acted on that plateau, when that ungodly buccaneer with the blue face – he who died at Savannah singing and shouting for drink – had there, with his own hand, cut down his six accomplices. This grove, that was now so peaceful, must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.

Having seen the 1950 Disney live action version of Treasure Island multiple times (it was a childhood staple), it was interesting to read that Long John Silver is supposed to be blonde, with a face like a “ham.” Sometimes I can picture it and sometimes I can’t. I’ll often see Robert Newton, instead. Another thing I noticed is that in all the movie adaptions I’ve seen of the book, I don’t recall any of them including the scene where Silver tries first to talk a sailor into joining the mutineering pirates and after failing, hurling his crutch at the man so that it breaks his back and then hurling himself on his broken back and ferociously stabbing him to death. If they’d ever included that in a movie, I don’t think the audience would have ever recovered…at least not long enough to hope he gets away.

Long John Silver is less sympathetic in the book. He’s always scheming and playing both sides of the field, and if he can get away with it, perfectly willing to betray anyone. There is not much of that sneaking affection for Jim that redeems Silver in the movies. He is a treacherous buccaneer to his core…just a far more savvy and smart-talking one than your average, run-of-the-mill pirate. He has some education and plans on retiring as a gentlemen after he gets his share of the treasure.

TI-parrotJim Hawkins is an interesting character, too. He’s really not a very reliable boy. He’s always running off on some whim and abandoning his duty, though somehow it always turns out that his disobedience has saved them. At the end of the book, Captain Smollett acknowledges that Jim has saved their lives, though remarks that he would probably never go to sea with him again. Ironically enough, Treasure Island is a book that seems to reward moral ambivalence. Even Long John Silver gets away at the end, with a bag of gold. And Ben Gunn is also a murderous pirate too; who gets to return home and achieve a degree of celebrity and gold (though he spends his share in a matter of weeks).

In the introduction to my copy of Treasure Island, John Seelye argues that the description of Treasure Island matches that of California, which seemed a unique idea to me. Stevenson had traveled to California and never to the Caribbean, so I guess Stevenson just used his memory of California to describe his famous island? While reading the book, I had to confess that Seelye had a point. There are azalea bushes, nutmeg trees, oaks, pines, sea lions, rattle snakes and even very large trees with red bark that suggest Redwood trees. It’s not very Caribbean in flavor. If ever another movie is made of Treasure Island, they should shoot it in Northern California.

Here is Stevenson’s descriptions of Redwoods.

The third [tree] rose nearly two hundred feet into the air above a clump of underwood; a giant of a vegetable, with a red column as big as a cottage, and a wide shadow around in which a company could have maneuvered.

The treasure is buried beneath this tree.

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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Fiction


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The Master of Ballantrae (1953) – Errol Flynn’s Final Pirate Outing

the-master-of-ballantrae-movie-poster-1953-1020250173The Master of Ballantrae is not technically a pirate movie, but I think Errol Flynn’s character is a pirate long enough for it to count, making this movie his fourth pirate film and him the indisputable king of swashbuckling piracy (his other pirate movies were Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Against All Flags (1952)).

The movie was adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, which I have not read, but understand to be a bit more grim than the film, about two feuding brothers during the Jacobite Rebellion. In the movie, the feuds more of a misunderstanding than anything else. Errol Flynn is Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae. He is engaged to the love of his life, Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell), but also visits local girl Jessie Brown (Yvonne Furneaux) on the side. His brother, Henry (Anthony Steele) is a much more phlegmatic, quiet and responsible man.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland (Charles, grandson of the deposed James II, of the House of Stuart), much of the country takes up arms with him in an attempt to invade England and put Charles on the throne. However, Jamie and Henry’s father decides that in order to ensure the survival of the estate, only one son should fight for the Stuarts and the other should stay home as a ‘loyal’ subject of King George II. Jamie wins the coin toss and sets out to fight the English.

It all goes very badly, however, and he is on the run and runs into fellow another fugitive, the flamboyant Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey). They become bosom friends on the toss of a coin. If the coin had turned up the other way, they would have fought to the death for the roast chicken. But when the two of them return to Ballantrae, things really go south. The British are crawling over the countryside and Jamie is betrayed by Jessie Brown out of jealousy over his love for Lady Alison. Jamie, however, believes that Henry did it so he could be master and marry Alison himself.

The plaid pants are even worse in color - Beatrice Campbell, Errol Flynn and Roger Livesey

The plaid pants are much worse in color – Jamie makes love to Lady Alison while Burke is anxious to be off

After Jamie is shot and stabbed and such, the friends leave England, get shanghaied on a ship to the West Indies, meet up with the dandy pirate Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier), contrive to steal a Spanish Galleon, contend with piracy and betrayal, and finally return to Scotland to deal with brother Henry.

It’s not a terrible movie at all. In fact, it’s rather fun, if you can overlook the extremely annoying and intrusive narrator who breaks into the story every twenty minutes to explain things that are readily apparent even to the most casual viewer. Did we really need to be told Arnaud was a dandy? You can see the moment he first comes into view!

The Master of Ballantrae came later in Flynn’s career – he would only live another six years – and he doesn’t have the dash and energy of his youth (there appears to be a stunt double used often), but he still brings an enthusiasm and sense of fun to the role as only he can. He fights in castles and on pirate ships, makes love to several different women, joshes with Burke, schemes, escapes from a castle and broods on revenge. He also has a pretty rough movie, getting knocked out at least three times, shot, stabbed with a knife and run through with a sword several times… and almost hanged. I don’t recall Robin Hood having nearly this much trouble.

Annex - Flynn, Errol (Master of Ballantrae, The)_01Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going!) as Colonel Francis Burke, the “talkative Irishman,” is a hoot and he appears to be having nearly as much fun as is possible. He fights with elan, grins and makes comments, and is devoted to his friend Jamie. It’s almost a buddy picture, really. He’s also the only person who sounds faintly like he could be Scottish, even if he is playing an Irishman and is actually Welsh. Everyone else sounds either American or British (though technically Flynn is Australian).

The most entertaining part of the film involves the pirates, their time on the ships and at Tortugas Bay, where they meet another flamboyant pirate called Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner) who has a red beard. I occasionally get a craving to see a swashbuckler or pirate movie, but am leery of beating the few I have to death by too much viewing, so it is fun to see something new and Master of Ballantrae fits the bill. Everyone seems to having a good time (according to the article on TCM, everyone was having a good time and it was an unusually happy and stress-free set), the action is exciting enough and the camaraderie between Flynn and Livesey is great.

Master of Ballantrae was the first movie Bob Anderson worked on and all the fights are choreographed by him, as in this fight between Jamie and the treacherous Captain Arnaud, with help from stunt double Flynn.


Posted by on March 14, 2015 in Adventure


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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Film – 1920, 1931, 1941

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I was looking at adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Wikipedia and there are well over twenty movie and TV versions, in various languages. The first movie was made in 1908 and there are also numerous stage adaptations (and one Broadway musical). However, there are three main films that are best remembered – from 1920, 1931, and 1941 – and I’ve been gradually watching them in preparation for reading the book. Last night, I finished the 1941 version and have therefore completed my Jekyll and Hyde saga. I think I will have to embark on a slightly happier saga, next.

The most critically acclaimed and well thought of is the 1931 version, starring Fredric March, who won an Oscar for his performance. It’s 98 minutes, but it’s a potent little film, very sexually charged and as a result it was not the most enjoyable film for me to watch, even though it was extremely well done.

Annex%20-%20March,%20Fredric%20(Dr_%20Jekyll%20and%20Mr_%20Hyde)_NRFPT_03Dr. Henry Jekyll is a man who is very aware of his shortcomings. He gives much of his time to a free hospital and wants to be a good man and madly loves his fiancé, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), but also is keenly aware of how easily he can fall into temptation, such as when he meets Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), a prostitute who unclothes (off-screen) and hops into bed and offers to show her gratitude for his saving her from being molested in the street. He resists, however, but he urges Sir Danvers, his future father-in-law, to set an earlier date for his wedding to Muriel. Sir Danvers refuses and takes his daughter off on a vacation.

It is the inability to wait for his wedding that drives Jekyll into Hyde. Although he had posited at the beginning of the film his belief that man was two – good and evil – and had succeeded in creating Hyde, he seems to have been somewhat alarmed by the creature that came out. He only turns to Hyde again when he decides that the months of waiting for Muriel are too long, and he hasn’t forgotten Ivy.

Fredric March as Hyde and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy

Fredric March as Hyde and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy

This is where the movie gets too much for me. Hyde locates Ivy and then keeps an apartment for her where he can visit, keeping her there through sheer terror and brutality. Miriam Hopkins plays the role excellently, but her terror is so well played and Hyde’s lustful evil is so well played that it is deeply disturbing to watch. March’s Hyde is one of the scariest characters I have ever seen; he plays him like an animal. As Jenny Davidson pointed out in her notes to my Barnes & Noble edition of the book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came out the same year as the famous Universal monster and horror movies (Frankenstein, Dracula) but is far more frightening than either, which I have to agree with.

When my sister and I first saw Hyde, she remarked that he looked like the missing link. They were, apparently, going for the ape look and March said that he played Hyde as a separate entity, a monster, who takes over Jekyll. He also makes Hyde a highly athletic character, jumping over railings and down stairs. His Hyde has a frenetic energy and will for living. His Jekyll, on the other hand, strikes just the right balance between showing his capacity for genuine goodness, nobility and concern for others, his genuine loathing of what he’s done, his passion for Muriel, but also the desires that lurk inside him. His Jekyll has just as much zest for living as Hyde, only expressed in different ways.

10030576_2The 1941 version is a fairly close remake of the ’31 version: the sequence of events are the same, certain lines are the same, but somehow it lacks the tension, urgency and emotion of the other. It was made during the code, which means it is far less explicit, but I am not sure that alone accounts for the disengaging quality of the film.

Spencer Tracy seems miscast as Jekyll/Hyde. He doesn’t really look like he belongs in the period; he’s too reserved as Jekyll and does not really project embodied evil as Hyde. Tracy reportedly agreed that he was not suited for the role and tried to get out of it.

The film also stars Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner and as soon as I saw that I said to my sister “and you can guess who plays which role,” but I was wrong. Ingrid Bergman was tired of playing saintly women and requested the role of the prostitute (who has been transformed into a barmaid in this version), but she still makes for a pretty refined barmaid with a cockney/Swedish accent. Lana Turner, on the other hand, seems woefully inadequate and young for the role of refined fiancé.

Tracy as Jekyll and Bergman as Ivy

Tracy as Jekyll and Bergman as Ivy

Tracy’s Hyde does not look as different from Jekyll and at one point Ivy (Bergman) almost thinks she recognizes Hyde when she sees Jekyll. It is an intriguing idea, but is never really followed up or explored. Perhaps another part of the problem is that in this version, Jekyll considers madness to be a result of the imbalance of the good and evil in man; madness is when good is absent and there is only evil. It is in his attempts to find a means to cure madness that he first creates Hyde. The problem is that his Hyde seems more unhinged than truly evil and the affect is diluted.

Where the ’31 and ’41 versions are about sexual repression, the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is all about John Barrymore. Although he’d made a few movies before 1920, none of them were especially well received and it wasn’t until his much praised work in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that he made his successful transition from stage to screen. It’s a silent film, only 67 minutes, but actually quite good.

thO5HJ3I2JBarrymore’s Dr. Jekyll is a saintly doctor, so saintly that his friends wonder at the man. No man can be that good, they say. One friend (what friends!) suggests that in serving others, he is neglecting his own development as a person. Jekyll and his friends all agree that man has two selves, but Jekyll begins to wonder if there is a way for him to participate in the pleasures described, but without fear for his immortal soul. In this version, then, he is not necessarily trying to make Jekyll good and separate out the good and evil; he is just trying to create an outlet for his evil without it affecting him (a concept found in the original book).

What most people talk about in this movie is the transformation scene where Barrymore initially demonstrates the change from Jekyll to Hyde without makeup and solely through the changing of his expression. What is also different about his Hyde is that he is old, decrepit and hideous.

John Barrymore as Hyde

John Barrymore as Hyde

Another difference is that the highlight, the moment when Hyde commits his ultimate act of murder, is when he kills his fiancé’s father, whereas in the other versions it is when Hyde kills Ivy. But that illustrates the difference in focus between the movies. The others are about evil specifically in regards to lust and this one is more concerned with evil overall, in all areas of life.

Poor John Utterson (who narrates the story in the novel) fares rather poorly in all three movies, which is understandable. In 1920, he is a good, stalwart friend (rather younger than in the book) who also seems to be in love with Jekyll’s fiancé. In 1931, he is reduced to being just a random houseguest and in 1941 he is eliminated altogether and emerges in the character of Dr. Lanyon, who is a composite of Utterson and Lanyon.


Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Horror, Silent Films


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