A lot of thought and talent went into the 1934 version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” directed by Victor Fleming. The story involves a sailing trip for buried pirate treasure by a boy named Jim Hawkins, the son of an innkeeper played by Jackie Cooper. When a crazy drunk named Billy Bones (played by Lionel Barrymore) shows up at the inn, he brings a treasure map that becomes an item desired by a group of pirates. Billy drops dead and the pirates storm the inn, but they are driven off by the village squire.
The squire, village doctor, and a local nobleman decide to outfit a ship to go after the treasure, so they head for Bristol to look a ship, provisions and a crew. Unfortunately, the crew they pick includes a number of the pirates. This sets up a potentially thrilling movie where the pirates overwhelm the villagers and secure the treasure. But as in Stevenson’s novel, the film emphasizes the relationship between Jack Hawkins and a one-legged pirate named Long John Silver, played by Wallace Beery. Beery mugs and connives his way through the film with a big crutch and a parrot on his shoulder. Silver obviously cannot be trusted and the only one who doesn’t know it is Jack Hawkins.
So, the pirate band goes up against the village band, which includes only about 4 people including Jack. Luckily, the villagers hire the very suspicious Caption Smollett, played wonderfully by Lewis Stone. He quickly surmises that most of the crew are not to be trusted and makes plans to limit the damage. Jack develops a strong bond with Long John Silver, who seems charmed by his naivety. Eventually, Jack overhears the pirates’ plotting and reports what he hears to Captain Smollett. This is well into the story, but soon they spot the island and the adventure really begins.
Although I enjoyed Lionel Barrymore’s performance, I thought it went on too long. He seems crazy and unhinged and perhaps that makes a good counterpoint for Wallace Beery easy-going performance. Jackie Cooper was only 12 when he did this movie, and he seems completely guileless. Nowadays, we’re used to thinking of 12 year-olds as much more sophisticated that this Jack Hawkins, but except for a few heroic scenes during the siege of the island, he seems too childlike. When one considers how many characters populate Stevenson’s book, it’s impressive that Victor Fleming made sure that they all don’t seem too similar, but the experienced character actors managed to carry it off.