Welcome to the eighth week of Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten, or unknown film and TV credits. This week’s actor…
The star of this weeks Buried Credits is an actor very dear to me, but we aren’t here for me to get all sappy and emotional. We are here to discuss the lesser known and seldom talked about films starring Christian Bale. Some people may say that he “over acts” with an annoyed tone, but I think he sinks into his roles so well that he deserves all the praise he gets. Most of the general audiences know Bale from his role as Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, as well as slightly more recent ones like American Hustle and The Big Short. Others people know him from his more intense genre films like The Machinist and American Psycho. In 2011, he won his first Academy Award for his role as Dicky Ecklund in the 2010 boxing drama The Fighter. He’s spent quite a few years drastically changing his body, mostly in weight (for example going from 120 lbs in The Machinist to 220 for Batman Begins, then losing more weight because 220 for Batman was too much) but also in other ways, such as suffering a herniated disk from his weight and posture in American Hustle and even having dental surgery for his role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. In recent years, Bale has become an incredibly well-known Hollywood A-lister, working with high profile filmmakers, ranging from David O Russell, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and Terrence Malick. But even an actor with his talent and popularity has quite a few lesser known films throughout 30 year career, and today we start with a very early one.
In 1990, TNT released the TV adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved adventure novel Treasure Island, both written and directed by Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser Clarke Heston. The film, hailed as being quite faithful to the book, stars Christian Bale as the star and narrator Jim Hawkins, while Charlton Heston plays the titular one-legged pirate Long John Silver. The film starts out with a kind – but rough and antagonistic – pirate Captain Billy Bones (Oliver Reed) needing to lodge somewhere to keep an eye out for someone and he happens to find into the inn that Jim’s mother (Isla Blair) runs and ends up staying there. Before long, Billy Bones’ past catches up with him when two pirates, Black Dog (John Benfield) and Blind Pew (Christopher Lee) show up to give him the “black spot,” a pirate omen of death. Billy Bones tells Jim that the pirates will be coming to take their what belongs to them by any means necessary, and instead of giving up the most prized treasure, a mysterious item wrapped in a black cloth, Jim and his Mother run off to Doctor Livesey (Julian Glover), who takes Jim and the item to Squire Trelwaney (Richard Johnson). Once they unwrap it, it is revealed to be a treasure map to Treasure Island where the lost treasure of Captain Flint lays buried. They set out soon after that with a crew of unsavoury folk, as well as the cook Long John Silver, to track down the island and its hidden treasure.
As a whole, this movie feels like a wonderful adventurous pirate film, but not the kind of glorified tale like the Pirates of the Caribbean films (not that those aren’t great); this is more grounded and gritty, but it does possess that feeling of high seas adventure all the same. My biggest complaint is the first half hour or so sets up Bales’ Jim Hawkins as the main character, only for the focus to shift towards the other characters for the bulk of the running time. I was more under the impression that he would get more screen time – as well as his relationship with Silver being further explored – but that’s not the case. The movie does a poor job explaining their relationship, which is a core element of the novel.
Aside from all that, the film is quite good. Its fun adventure vibe worked very well, partly thanks to the fantastic swashbuckling music and wonderful acting from the majority of the cast. Charlton Heston is especially fantastic as Long John Silver, portraying an intense and morally skewed pirate character with a black heart of gold; his love for Jim Hawkins is evident and he clearly cares for the lad. Other fantastic pirates featured are Lee’s Blind Pew, who looks the part so well that he’s almost impossible to identify unless you already knew it was him playing the character going in. George Merry, played by the always underrated and underused Peter Postlethwaite also impresses. Aside from the pirates, a lot of the “good” characters are fantastically acted as well. Johnson’s Trelawney is fun and lighthearted while still being serious from time to time, Clive Wood,who plays the ship’s Captain Smollet is wonderful, Julian Glover’s performance as Dr. Livesey is charismatic, fun and caring – he is by far one of the best parts of the entire film.
However, as fantastic as almost all of the actors in this movie are, it is not Bale’s finest hour. To give him some leeway, this is one of his earliest films; only four movies precede this, but it doesn’t excuse the weakness of his performance overall. He carries his trademark scowl and pursed lips, but this does not work at all for the character he’s playing. He constantly looks confused, curious, and almost a little upset for roughly 90% of his screen time, which works occasionally, but gets tiresome after a while. There are quite a few times where Jim is in danger and Bale just doesn’t appear scared whatsoever. I will say, though, that his narration during a few moments of the film sounds fantastic. He’s got a unique voice, and it’s magnetic during those opening sequences.
Treasure Island is a wonderful tale. The pirates are rugged, dirty, intense and just marvellous; while terrifying – yet entertaining – mutiny, constant twists and turns, gorgeous music, wonderful commentary on morality, and beautiful treasure at the end makes for a grand adventure. If you’re looking for a high seas pirate voyage, this will have you hooked.
Come back tomorrow when we discuss another made for TV film starring Bale, this time as Jesus of Nazareth!