Thursday, June 02, 2016


During the unsettled times of the Napoleonic wars, William Robinson (Thomas Mitchell), a Swiss watchmaker who lives in London, decides to move his family out of harm's way to Australia. His wife Elizabeth (Edna Best) is not happy about it, nor are her sons: foppish Jack (Freddie Bartholomew), bookworm Ernest (Terry Kilburn), and cocky would-be soldier Fritz (Tim Holt), nicknamed "Fisticuffs" by Jack (toddler Francis, the fourth son, has no opinion). William is not especially happy with the way his sons are developing and says he hopes to train them to create, not destroy. On the way to Australia, the ship they're on runs into a major storm. The crew is washed overboard but the Robinsons survive and the wreck drifts close to a deserted island where they drag the few provisions they can and try to survive. Father rallies the dispirited family and together they build a treehouse and slowly adapt to their new life, but tensions rise when Elizabeth realizes that, while the sons remain on the lookout for passing ships to rescue them, William is more than ready to stay put—he believes their trials and tribulations are part of God's plan for them.

This is not the Disney version of the Johann Wyss novel with which most of us are familiar. In addition to being shot in a studio rather than on location, and having a lower budget, this is also a little grittier and darker, probably closer to the novel—though it's been over forty years since I read it back in school. It is also difficult to see since Disney bought the rights to the RKO film back in 1960 when they produced their version and it apparently has never had a legitimate home video release. The print I saw on YouTube is murky and a bit splicy, but clear enough to show that it deserves a restored DVD release. This is not a larky boy's adventure like the Disney film but a more serious coming-of-age story in which the focus is on how the three sons change during their time on the island. All three actors playing the boys (pictured above from left: Kilburn, Holt, Bartholomew) are quite good, especially Tim Holt. The film was nominated for a special effects Oscar and, though not in the same league as the Disney film in terms of production values, the storms in particular are quite effective, as is the giant spider-web cave scene. An entertaining and interesting version of the story. [YouTube]

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