Treasure Island Review

As soon as I found out that Ruscico were releasing a Russian version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s perennial favourite Treasure Island, I couldn’t wait to see it – even if it turned out to be terrible, the chances are it would still be irresistibly entertaining, if only to see what on earth a Soviet spin on such overwhelmingly familiar material would be like. For starters, what’s the Russian for “Arr, Jim lad”, “Pieces of eight!”, “Shiver me timbers!” or “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”?

Well, the answer to the last of these is revealed in the first few seconds, thanks to a well-chosen title song, and all the other legendary lines are present and correct (has any other single novel contributed quite so many memorable phrases to the language?) – indeed, purely as an adaptation this is hard to fault: it sticks like a limpet to the original text, it’s played commendably straight throughout, the production values are surprisingly high, and at 82 minutes it can’t remotely be accused of overstaying its welcome.

For those who have somehow never managed to encounter Treasure Island in any form, it kicks off in the Admiral Benbow inn, where a violent encounter between the sinister Blind Pew and former pirate Billy Bones leads to young Jim Hawkins’ discovery of a map promising untold riches hidden away on a mysterious island. Teaming up with Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey and Captain Smollett, Jim finds himself the cabin boy on the ‘Hispaniola’, bound for the tropics and crewed by some decidedly dodgy-looking individuals assembled by the cook, the one-legged parrot-toting Long John Silver. And, sure enough, as soon as they reach the island of the title there’s a mutiny, and when Jim sees the skull and crossbones flying from the ‘Hispaniola’s mast, he knows that this isn’t going to be quite as easy a salvage job as he imagined…

The film’s virtues are those of Stevenson’s original story, which despite countless adaptations (I’ve seen at least three that I can recall) still manages to be as entertaining as ever. Sadly, though, this version is ultimately it’s a little too stolid and conventional to be as compelling as I’d hoped: it’s neither good enough nor indeed bad enough. Respect for the text is paramount, to the extent that all the original English names are retained (albeit with a few Russian quirks – Israel Hands becomes “Meester Gands”, for instance), production and costume design is exactly what one would expect (i.e. eighteenth-century English, right down to the look of the Admiral Benbow inn), and for anyone who’s already familiar with the basic material there won’t be too many surprises in store.

Even more disappointingly, there’s been little attempt made at making the material particularly compelling from a cinematic point of view. I remember the novel being far more involving – Blind Pew in particular scared me rigid, while the pirates had a sweaty authenticity that’s mostly absent here: the debate between them and Long John Silver over the latter’s authority has all the fire of a particularly tedious Politburo session (enlivened somewhat by the parrot Captain Flint shifting from side to side throughout, an impressively clairvoyant display of mimicking of the likely audience reaction).

But given that the opening credits make it clear that this was made primarily for Russian children, it’s hard to be too churlish. It certainly looks great – the 2.35:1 aspect ratio gives it a suitably expansive feel, and there’s little to fault in terms of production values: the ship is clearly real, and I couldn’t detect any matte work or similar visual trickery: the scene where Jim Hawkins escapes up into the rigging with Israel Hands in hot pursuit (dagger clenched in his teeth) is impressively vertiginous.

Mind you, that’s about the only exciting thing that Jim does – in most other respects Aare Laanemets’ characterisation is as bland and blond as any 1950s Disney hero, and even though I’m writing this mere minutes after the film ended I find it hard even to visualise his face, let alone remember anything else especially distinctive about him. Far more entertaining is Long John Silver, given an intelligent and insightful reading by Boris Andreyev, and he radiates more than enough charisma to make it wholly convincing that he’d have these men eating out of his hands. He’s the main reason for watching this version – and it’s a pity he wasn’t given something more substantial to really get his teeth into.

Whatever the film’s cinematic merits, it’s very hard to fault this disc on a technical level – the print is in astonishingly good condition considering its age, with virtually no spots and scratches at all, and none of any significance. An even more pleasant surprise was how true the colours rang – Soviet colour films can be notoriously wayward in that department, but the characteristic colour shifts are kept to an absolute minimum here. And considering much of this film takes place in dark, smoky environments (the inn, the ship, the stockade), shadow detail is commendably high, and the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 has been respected.

As for the transfer, there’s even less to complain about – it’s anamorphic, digital artefacting has been kept to a minimum, and while there’s a very faint hint of edge enhancement in a couple of sequences, this is almost certainly much more noticeable on the large-screen system used for this review: on most setups, it won’t be an issue at all. The biggest bonus is that I couldn’t detect any of the niggles that have plagued other discs on this label – momentary freezes, duplicated frames and the like – visually, it’s one of the best Ruscico transfers I’ve seen to date, and I find it very hard to imagine we’re ever going to get a better DVD version of this particular film.

There’s also little to quibble with sonically – as ever, it’s a 5.1 remix from a presumably mono original, and follows the usual format of spreading the soundstage across the front three speakers, with very occasional interjections from the rears and subwoofer (the latter being used to pump up gunshots and cannon fire). Sound quality is excellent – an impressively wide dynamic range considering the age of the recording, no obvious dropouts and convincing integration (or rather reintegration) between dialogue, music and sound effects (the sea in particular is nicely enveloping, and the shootout in the stockade has been mixed for maximum surround potential).

Note that these comments refer to the original Russian version – I had a listen to a couple of scenes with the English dub, and they weren’t at all bad provided you make the usual allowances for lip-sync. Intriguingly, Captain Smollett’s men all have English accents while the pirates have American ones, a witty piece of vocal casting that adds an unintentional political subtext to the material, though it’s unlikely the children this soundtrack is clearly aimed at will appreciate this!

There are twenty-four chapter stops – more than enough for an 86-minute film – and the English subtitles are superb. I didn’t check them against Stevenson’s novel, but I suspect they may well have been drawn extensively from it: there’s an authentic period tang about the nautical and piratical colloquialisms in particular that suggests that it’s more than just a straight translation of the Russian dialogue. As usual with this label, there are no spelling or grammatical errors of any note (it’s safe to assume lines like “he weren’t no proper sailor” are true to the original!) and they’re admirably sharp and clear.

There’s a reasonable package of extras – not up to Ruscico’s best, but certainly covering the basics and throwing in some genuinely fascinating surprises, such as clips from two earlier Russian versions of Treasure Island. They start off with the usual goodies: filmographies for director Yevgeny Fridman, co-writer Edgar Dubrovsky, composer Alexei Rybnikov and actors Boris Andreyev, Laimonas Noreika, Algilmantas Masiulis and the unfortunately-named Ludmila Shagalova - and there are quite a few buried trailers therein, for films as diverse as The Tale of Time Lost, The Cold Summer of ’53, Ilya Muromets and Vassily Buslayev (though not, curiously enough, for Treasure Island itself). And the stills gallery is the usual superbly-presented effort, with eleven colour stills easily selectable via filmstrip thumbnails, together with the poster.

The three other extras all cover Treasure Island from various angles. First of all, there’s the original production featurette, though it’s not anything to get too excited about – like most such Soviet featurettes, it’s in black-and-white 4:3 and was clearly shot silent, with a voiceover added later. Worse, unlike, say, the featurettes for Amphibian Man, this one has little to say of any interest, other than that it was shot in Yalta in the Crimea – the rest of the voiceover just itemises the director and actors. Its running time of just one minute is a bit of a giveaway as to the acreage of ground that it covers! The voiceover is in Russian, with subtitles available in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

Far more intriguing are two clips from alternative Russian versions of Treasure Island - clearly a popular subject for Russian children. The first dates from 1937, directed by Vladimir Vainshtok and starring Kapitolina Pugachova, Ossip Abdulov and Eisenstein favourite Nikolai Cherkassov, and is unsurprisingly in black-and-white 4:3 with mono sound (the print is in pretty good condition physically, but surprisingly soft). On the evidence of the brief clip shown here, it’s a rather lower-budget and more obviously studio-bound version, lacking the physicality of the 1971 version - the bare walls of the Admiral Benbow look nothing like any pub I’ve ever been in! Language and subtitle options are the same as for the featurette, and the clip runs just under three minutes.

The second clip is from a 1982 TV miniseries directed by Vladimir Vorobyov and starring Fedya Stukov, Oleg Borisov and Victor Kostetsky that ran nearly three-and-a-half hours end to end. This particular clip covers the siege of the stockade, and I have to say it looks a fair bit livelier than the main feature on this disc – even in just over three minutes it packs in as many quirky visual ideas as its rival managed in nearly thirty times the length, and the shooting and editing style is noticeably more dynamic. The transfer isn’t anything to write home about, though – sourced from film transferred to videotape, it suffers both from excessive print damage and the kind of flat, bland, somewhat smeary colours that anyone familiar with 1970s British TV will instantly recognise. Again, language and subtitle options are the same as above.

All in all, I enjoyed this disc, though it wouldn’t be anywhere near my first choice either for people wanting to dip a toe into Ruscico’s collection (thus far, Viy and Amphibian Man are the standouts among the titles not generally known in the West) or indeed those wanting a definitive adaptation of Stevenson’s novel. It’s hard to fault Ruscico’s transfer and presentation – but they can only work with what they’ve been given, and what they’ve been given isn’t anything like memorable enough to usurp the better-known English-language versions. On this evidence, Robert Newton’s claim to be the definitive Long John Silver isn’t about to be challenged any time soon.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:02:03

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