In the annals of films with an influence completely disproportionate to their quality or latter-day popularity, the 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island stands out as a genuinely iconic work of pop art. I can think of no film that has influenced so many people who have never seen it in such a narrow way: it is nothing less than the movie that nailed down the pirate accent as we know and love it today. In playing Long John Silver, the most famous buccaneer of literature, Robert Newton of Dorset took his cues from the history of famous pirates who'd hailed from the West Country of England, and cranked up his own native accent to an absurd, cartoonish exaggeration. While this was probably not an invention per se, it was the first time the accent had been married to piracy in a movie, and it proved definitive: in the short term, Newton played variations on the role in film and television multiple times in the few years remaining of his career and life, solidifying his instantly-popular interpretation of piracy in the pop culture firmament. In the long term, Talk Like a Pirate Day.

It's only fair, really, given that Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 children's adventure novel codified pretty much all of the other iconography we associate with pirates: missing limbs, parrots on the shoulder, "pieces of eight" and "dead man's chest", buried treasure on deserted West Indies islands, maps with arcane physical landmarks and an X marking the spot. And just like Newton's accent, all of these things have antecedents earlier than Stevenson (that author was himself working from the pseudonymous 1724 A General History of the Pyrates), but things have a way of becoming more real when there's a phenomenally popular piece of art to hang them on, even when that piece of art has become, as Treasure Island has in the modern age, one of those things that absolutely everybody has heard of, though comparatively few people (especially younger ones) have read or seen.

On top of everything else, the '50 movie of Treasure Island had the benefit of being produced by one of cinema's all-time great inventors of new myths, Walt Disney; both before and after its namesake's death, Disney was a studio that had made an art form of adapting public domain stories and marketing them in such a way that it's virtually impossible not to think of their version before all others. And if somebody had to invent, in the mid-20th Century, the way would henceforth think about pirates, it might as well have been Disney (and just to complete its takeover of the very concept of a type of human being who lived and were active over a fairly long stretch of history, there's also Disney's theme park ride Pirates of the Caribbean, which I suppose has done more to perpetuate the new stereotype of pirates than any movie).

This was all accidental and after-the-fact, though. In 1950, the stakes for Disney were very different: Treasure Island was the company's first all live-action movie, made as the international market for animated films was economically constricted after the Second World War had constricted it for other reasons. It was still the era when that studio was perpetually living hand-to-mouth, with the economic security of Disneyland five years in the future; but 1950 was very, very good to the company, between this and the monstrous success of the fairy tale musical Cinderella. Having that kind of revenue stream open itself up was obviously too appealing to pass up, and from 1952 onward, the production of live-action films (cheaper, easier to export, faster to make) became a key element of Disney's business model, though it would take a few years before the real explosion happened, with Disney ranking alongside the better-established studios in terms of volume.

It would be even longer before Disney's live-action broke terribly far outside of the mold established by Treasure Island: Technicolor adventures with storybook locales and a bright "boys' own tales" tone that one can easily imagine ol' Walt himself talking about with the boyish gleam he got on his TV show anytime he spoke of something that reminded him of being a youth in those giddy days in middle America, when breezy swashbuckling yarns were all you needed to be a perpetually-entertained kid, getting into boyish scrapes and all. And I'm well aware that I said "boy" three times in one sentence, because that's very much where Treasure Island has its head located; Stevenson's book was already a bit of a sausage fest, but the adaptation written by Lawrence Edward Watkin (who'd remain a bit of a Disney mainstay over the following years) removes even the solitary female character of the source material. This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be about, and it tackles its goal of being the kind of exotic boys' adventure that would inspire things like Frontierland and Adventureland with minimal dross and fuss. Say anything else about it, but Disney's Treasure Island is a brisk, efficient beast with absolutely no patience for any kind of bullshit over the course of its tight 96 minutes.

The plot is, of course, the stuff of legends: at the Bristol inn owned by his widowed mother, young Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll, Disney's go-to child actor) is busily protecting the secretive Captain Billy Bones (Finlay Currie) from the mysterious figures hunting for him in the West Country dusk, Black Dog (Francis De Wolff) and Blind Pew (John Laurie) - so committed is this adaptation to cutting out the deadweight that it cuts out all the backstory and opening scenes to have Bones already secreted in the Admiral Benbow Inn. Bones is delivered with an omen of doom called a "Black Spot", and before he dies, apparently of fright, he hands Jim a map to protect. Jim takes this to the two adults in his life with the most stability and sense, Squire Trelawney (Walter Fitzgerald) and Dr. Livesy (Denis O'Dea), who recognise it as the map of legendary pirate Captain Flint; with visions of pirate gold in his eyes, Trelawney outfits a ship, the Hispaniola, under command of Captain Smollett (Basil Sydney). Trelawney and Livesy aren't nearly the conspirators they'd like to be, and even while admonishing Jim, now the ship's cabin boy to keep quiet about everything, they manage to tip off several waiting ears in the Bristol seaport about their mission. The fatal mistake, though, is in hiring as ship's cook a particular one-legged man named Long John Silver (Newton): his disability squares with a description Bones gave to Jim of the one man above all men to be feared and avoided, and while the old rascal quickly wins Jim's affections by treating the boy with fatherly respect like nobody else ever has, it turns out that he's the very many Bones was warning about; Flint's old quartermaster, and the leader of a ring of pirates that he's able to sneak into the Hispaniola's crew. By the time the ship arrives in the West Indies, Silver has made his move and commandeered the vessel, leaving the heroes forced to hunt for treasure and fight pirates at one and the same time.

Though it's hardly the earliest adventure story of its sort, Treasure Island quickly became the one against which all others have to be measured, because it just works really damn well: the creepiness of the opening, the vibrancy of the sea material, the exoticism of the tropical island. You'd have to do something incredibly dimwitted, like setting it all in a fantasy version of outer space that nonetheless looks exactly like 18th Century England, to actually fuck the story up. On top of how neatly it cycles through all kinds of appealing genre material, the relationship between Jim and Silver is one of the great character studies in English language children's literature, and while I suppose it's possible to break it with poor casting, this film doesn't do that (the other way to break it is the one Disney explored in its next adaptation of the book, 1996's Muppet Treasure Island, in which the filmmakers simply didn't give all that much of a shit about Jim).

The last thing this film has is poor casting: while, sight-unseen, I'd have said it was impossible for any cinematic Long John Silver to improve on Wallace Beery from the 1934 Treasure Island, Robert Newton does exactly that, pushing as far as he could into being a ludicrous live-action cartoon, somehow managing to have a pronounced squint and bugged-out eyes at one and the same time, on top of his robust voice work; but not so far that he couldn't pull back as needed to find the humanity and tenderness required to make the Silver/Jim relationship function. Driscoll, to be sure, is no Jackie Cooper: owing, perhaps, to overlit sets designed to make sure the lavish full-color sets would register proper in Technicolor, the young actor spends most of the movie with his face bent up in a squint that makes him look perpetually disgusted, like something smells just absolutely foul and he's not going to start acting till he figures out what it might be. But Newton's good enough to carry the film for the both of them.

Meanwhile, as raw spectacle, Treasure Island is more than good enough for a pleasant matinee adventure, though it shares the peculiar tendency of all Disney live-action films into the '70s, even the ones that had a lot of money thrown at them, to look singularly artificial. I'm not sure that's entirely by accident, as it surely was in other cases; at its best, such as the early scenes at the country inn, this feeling gives the movie the feeling of a rich watercolor illustration, and certainly between director Byron Haskin and cinematographer Freddie Young, we have two pretty damn talented on hand, even if for both men, their best work was still in the future (Haskin's career would oscillate between genre masterworks, like this and The War of the Worlds, and completely forgotten genre junk; even so, he'd already established himself as a top-notch special effects artist. Young, of course, would eventually shoot Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most gorgeous movies ever made). So even though a couple of individual scenes fall flat - the Bristol seaport is so transparently a soundstage, it looks like they were filming at the yet-unbuilt Disneyland - the whole effect is genuinely transporting, with wonderfully bold colors that bring a certain more-alive-than-life feeling to the entirely non-realistic, but agreeably lavish, sets designed by Thomas Morahan.

It's not great art, not at the level of Disney's animation of the same period (and even that was a step down from Disney's animation of 10 years prior); but Disney's live-action filmmaking wouldn't ever really pretend that it was trying to be great art. It was always a way of bringing live to thrillingly innocent adventures of a kind that were already old-fashioned when Disney made them, creating fantasy worlds for kids to live in - and be marketed to, though that wouldn't be nearly as big a thing until a few years later - and for their parents to enjoy well enough. It's simple escapism, not like the more complex escapism of the animation studio, or even of Disneyland itself, for that matter; but effective escapism nonetheless, and for all its heavy-handed, traditionalist idea of what an adventure story could and should be, it's about as much brisk fun as any pirate movie out there, and twice as pretty as any of them.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1950
-The Oscars host a Grand Dame-off between a haughty, bitchy Bette Davis in All About Eve and a bug-eyed, oversexed Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.
-Director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart collaborate on the first of their legendary Westerns, Winchester '73
-The first big-budget prestige sci-fi picture of the post-war era, Destination Moon, is sniped on its way to theaters by the first cheap indie space adventure, Rocketship X-M

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1950
-Kurosawa Akira directs Rashomon, which will prove to be the West's first significant exposure to Japanese cinema
-Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman collaborate on Stromboli, leading to her pregnancy and temporary moral exile to Italy
-Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl completes the documentary Kon-Tiki, about his famous raft trip across the Pacific