Fraser Heston had already written and produced a handful of films (most involving father Charlton Heston as a lead) prior to his 1990 directorial debut, making him a natural fit to mount a period-rich production featuring a superb cast of British thespians.
As the younger Heston recounts in his fairly steady DVD commentary track, his father readTreasure Island [TI] about 15 times to his son, performing all the roles, and instilling a huge fascination with Robert Louis Stevenson's story as it seamlessly drifted between juvenile adventure and adult drama (adult, when one considers its menacing pirates and their murderous, back-stabbing habits).
After the elder Heston had finished what would be his final directorial effort, A Man for All Seasons [M] (1988), for executive producer Ted Turner, the latter wanted a second feature film involving “boats,” which suited the younger Heston just fine, since it allowed him to pitch his dream project of adapting TI for the big screen.
Filmed many, many times before by numerous filmmakers for theatrical and TV venues, by 1989 there were no shortages of TI productions, but Fraser Heston wanted to be faithful to novel, vividly evoking the period by referencing the paintings of N.C. Wyeth, and going for a grittier look with performances that illustrated the nastier side of pirates. The film remained PG-friendly, but edgier than prior versions, and the screenwriting avoided some of the linguistic and archetypal clichés that made lead villain Long John Silver a caricature in prior films, instead of a scheming, sly S.O.B. deserving the hangman’s noose.
Filmed in Cornwall, England, and parts of Jamaica, TI also boasted a perfect cast. Oliver Reed, even when unintelligible, is perfect as the rum-marinated Billy Bones who brings the treasure map to young Jim Hawkins (Christian Bale, fresh from Empire of the Sun, and a bit taller); Christopher Lee is chilling as Blind Pew; and Charlton Heston does a fine job as Silver, giving the character dimensions implied in the novel, but rubbed out in prior film versions. (Each of the three leads also appeared together in Richard Lester's sublime Three Musketeers diptych.)
Also notable are Richard Johnson as greedy Squire Trelawney, chewing the scenery quite a bit, but in tune with his character’s pompous nature; Julian Glover as Dr. Livesey; Cilve Wood as unwavering Captain Smollet; and Nicholas Amer as cheese-hungry Ben Gunn. Pete Posthlethwaite is silent for the film's first half, but he gets chunks of dialogue and action when his character challenges Silver’s dominance over the men.
The H.M.S. Bounty replica made for MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) was rebranded as the Hispaniola, and Heston filmed many scenes on real locations (including the ship), and had his actors climb all over the sails without any safety rigging, adding to the film’s realism.
Paddy Moloney’s score, performed by The Chieftans, is a superb evocation of the period with a vivid array of organic wind and percussion instruments (including a grinding Australian didgeridoo), and the Dolby Surround mix is surprisingly dense and dynamic, ensuring some punchy action through the home theatre system.
The DVD transfer is made from a fine print, and it’s clear Fraser Heston spent a lot of time making sure every aspect of the production was carefully nuanced, including some great action scenes choreographed by second unit director Joe Canutt and edited by Eric Boyd-Perkins (both of whom worked on Charlton Heston’s prior directorial efforts – Antony and Cleopatra [M], and Mother Lode [M]).
This 1990 production stands quite distinct from the beloved 1950 Disney production, and it’s a fine example of the right cast & crew coming together to create a near-perfect cinematic and dramatic translation, running just over 2 hours.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan