Disney’s ‘Treasure Island’ Fails to Impress Historian Due to Pirate Stereotypes

Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll in Treasure Island

Renowned pirate history expert Rebecca Simon recently undertook a comprehensive analysis of Disney’s 1950 classic, “Treasure Island,” revealing significant discrepancies between the film’s portrayal of piracy and historical realities. Directed by Byron Haskin and adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel, the movie remains a cornerstone of Disney’s early live-action endeavors, yet it has drawn criticism for its perpetuation of common pirate stereotypes.

In a video feature for Insider, Simon delved into various scenes from “Treasure Island,” shedding light on the exaggerated depiction of pirate culture, particularly through the character of Captain Long John Silver, portrayed by Robert Newton. Newton’s distinctive Cornish accent, accentuated with phrases like “Arr, matey,” became emblematic of the pirate stereotype, despite lacking authenticity. Simon emphasized that pirates hailed from diverse backgrounds and did not adhere to a uniform accent, challenging the film’s portrayal as historically inaccurate.

Furthermore, Simon debunked the romanticized notion of pirates seeking buried treasure, a narrative propagated by popular culture and reinforced by “Treasure Island.” She clarified that while tales of buried treasure, such as those associated with Captain Kidd, persisted, they were largely fictionalized. Historically, pirates pursued tangible goods like textiles, spices, and captives for ransom or trade, rather than burying their plunder for later retrieval.

Cast of Treasure Island gathered around a treasure map

In light of these discrepancies, Simon awarded “Treasure Island” a paltry score of two out of ten for historical accuracy, underscoring the film’s failure to align with authentic pirate history. However, she acknowledged its significance in Disney’s cinematic evolution, marking the company’s inaugural venture into live-action filmmaking. Despite its shortcomings, “Treasure Island” served as a catalyst for subsequent live-action productions, including “The Story of Robin Hood” and “The Sword and the Rose,” as Disney diversified its storytelling repertoire beyond animation.

While Disney’s animated features, such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Alice in Wonderland,” remained the cornerstone of its reputation, “Treasure Island” laid the groundwork for the company’s exploration of new cinematic territories. Despite its historical inaccuracies, the film’s enduring legacy underscores its pivotal role in shaping Disney’s trajectory and cementing its status as a cultural icon.

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