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This Film Version of ‘Treasure Island’ Gave Us Our Image of Pirates

Avast, you lubbers!

Yarr! Actor Robert Newton, whose portrayal of Long John Silver became famous, also played Blackbeard in a 1952 film. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Yarrr, maties! It be time for some piratical history!

You probably know what a pirate looks and sounds like: Films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise have served up tricorn- or bandanna-wearing characters, many with eyepatches, who speak in much the same way. They owe that distinctive accent to an actor named Robert Newton. In the 1950s, Newton helped to create the way that many film and TV pirates would speak going forward.

“When Robert Newton first showed up as a pirate in Disney's 1950 Technicolor version of Treasure Island, he had been a vivid presence in plenty of other films,” writes Michael Almereyda for The New York Times. Newton was a British character actor who stood around six feet tall, according to the Internet Movie Database, and had a huge presence.

“As Long John Silver, he seemed convincingly possessed of a lifetime's worth of rum-soaked, roguish scheming,” Almereyda writes. “A good many of his scenes were played opposite a 10-year-old boy, but Newton had a way of making everyone in the movie react to him like astonished children, agog at the snarling, bug-eyed, peg-legged creature in their midst.”

Treasure Island was originally a novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born on this day in 1850. The iconic adventure story with its colorful pirates was ripe for the big screen, and film adaptations date back to the 1910s. The "talkie" version of 1934 shows a ship full of vaguely grubby pirates speaking in British or American accents. Along with his swagger and eccentricity, Newton brought to the 1950 version an exaggerated interpretation of his own rusticated West Country accent, which after his era-making performance became the voice of a pirate. Among his additions: “Arr!”

Long John Silver is “one of the truly great characters in classic literature,” writes Jeff Wells for Mental Floss, and Newton, whose previous experience playing equivocal bad guys included a turn as Bill Sykes in 1948’s Oliver Twist, rose to the role. Wells writes:

Silver is a complicated villain who charms the reader just as he charms young Jim. The one-legged captain is whip-smart and frequently funny, uttering lines like “shiver my timbers!” and toting around a parrot on his shoulder named after his old commander, Captain Flint. He’s a jaded man, a former seaman in the Royal Navy who lost his leg fighting for the Empire, and there are glimmers of his former decency, like when he keeps his men from killing Jim after capturing him on the island. But he’s ultimately a lost soul corrupted by greed.

Newton’s pirate became iconic: two years after Treasure Island came out, he played another complex captain in 1952’s Blackbeard, the Pirate before reprising Silver in Long John Silver, a Treasure Island sequel that was followed by a one-season TV series. The pirates of pop culture since have hearkened back to his example.

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