Retro Review of the Genre Adjacent – Swiss Family Robinson, 1960 version

For some reason, I’ve been dealing with a desire to rewatch Swiss Family Robinson, the 1960s Disney widescreen, live action, blockbuster-before-there-were-blockbuster films.

I remember it with great fondness, having seen the film and then shortly thereafter visiting the Disneyland installation, the enormous treehouse.  Having a treehouse of my own (a bit more modest to be sure) my friends and I later tried incorporating some of their design elements to very limited success.

With this growing desire to rewatch, I started wondering at the film’s general absence;  rarely shown on television, I began to wonder what it was about this film that put it into the same category as Song of the South, AristoCats and Dumbo.  I couldn’t remember anything as egregious as the crows in Dumbo….

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the “genre adjacent” aspect, its the shipwreck.  Every single “spaceship crashed on a distant alien world” SF story EVER owes its existence to tales of shipwreck (there’s even an SF film title loosely based on what is arguably considered the first “shipwreck” tale – Robinson Crusoe On Mars).  So there’s that.

Unable to ditch this compulsion to rewatch the film, I rented it and sat back to watch.

It was done in Panavision (unusual for Disney at the time as was the widescreen format).  The film itself was a huge success upon its release in 1960 (you don’t build ginormous treehouses in California without being pretty sure people are going to want to tour it).  It was, in fact, a “re-do”.  There was a “truer to the original novel” version filmed by RKO in 1940.  Disney is said to have bought the rights and rounded up all of the copies of that version so that it could not be re-released to compete with his own.  That version can now be viewed on Youtube.)

I was eager to engage in a bit of nostalgia and revisit vague memories of the family’s adventures on the island – the treehouse, the pirates, the tigers, explosions, and what not.

What I found were some fond memories, a unacceptable level of misogyny, animal cruelty, Asian stereotypes, gender discrimination, and the worst kind of unacknowledged colonialism I’ve seen on film for quite some time, made all that much worse by its casual acceptance.

Or, to look at things another way:  a film that could not be made today without engendering a tremendous amount of protest and upset.  Or, to put it a third way, a film that amply demonstrates several tried and true bits of knowledge:  You can’t ever go home again; a lot of change has come to our society over the past intervening 60+ years.

Highlights include:

Asian pirates that are nothing more that complete old-fashioned stereotypes.  At least Pirates of the Caribbean gave their version some intelligence.  These are bloodthirsty and so stupid that they can’t avoid logs rolling down a hill or obvious tiger pits.  They’re also so savage that they routinely kill their own.

Perhaps film’s greatest moment of watching a woman losing her agency – voluntarily.  Ernst and Jack rescue a cabin boy from the pirates, who actually turns out to be Roberta, the granddaughter of the pirated ship’s captain, who the captain tried to conceal from the pirates by dressing her as a cabin boy (though as an aside, given the framing of the initial scenes, it appears that dressing her as a cabin boy wasn’t going to save her from abuse…which might have been another dig at the “Asian” pirates).

Fritz and Ernst are rough on Roberta while still thinking her a boy;  she argues with them successfully, largely holds her own physically, but the moment that the boys realize she is a she, it’s all “please help me step over this rock” and “oh, thank you for saving me (even though I was running away as fast as you guys were)”.  Shown to an audience these days, I imagine that her transformation (back into a “girl”) would be met with audible gasps from the audience.

Colonialism of the worst kind.  So deep and dark that it is not even remarked upon in anyway.  The family was intending on traveling to New Guinea before being shipwrecked, because, naturally, it was a new land, unfettered by the presence of people and ripe for the plucking.

But the animal cruelty stands out most starkly.  They simply aren’t allowed to do these kinds of things in Hollywood anymore.  Using electric shock to make a zebra jump around; mock fights with an anaconda that took 18 people to control (I imagine the snake was having a wonderful time – sarcasm); riding an ostrich (full grown adult male humans doing the riding too);  having two great danes mauling a tiger….

I watched that particular scene several times because it shocked me so much.  At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Then I thought there had to be some SFX work being done, like, the dogs were attacking a fake tiger, or they were actually separated by glass screen, or clever CGI – no, 1960s, remember? – and I simply couldn’t find any.  On the set, with everyone involved in filming a picture like this, they set two dogs on a tiger and filmed it.  For entertainment purposes.  And in 1960, there were no lines of ASPCA protesters marching outside movie theaters.

I suppose I should note in passing that several bits of this film purportedly found its way via homage into The Empire Strikes Back (then again, what hasn’t?).

Nostalgia vs reality is a funny thing.  I can clearly see that my memories focused on the things that pretty much anyone could enjoy, and not those that have become increasingly problematic as time passes.

I can say that I enjoyed remembering seeing various scenes again, though not the film itself.  Its decidedly on the list of “don’t bother to rewatch ever again”, but nostalgically…who doesn’t want a skylight in a treehouse bedroom that lets you look at the stars while you fall asleep?

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