The other day me and my husband were looking for something to watch and while he was pointing out one movie I saw down below a movie I haven’t seen for a very long time, Swiss Family Robinson. It is an old Disney movie and one I remember watching in my childhood. It is about a family (father, mother and their three sons) who become shipwrecked close to an uninhabited island. The captain and crew have apparently up and abandoned the ship, leaving the family trapped inside. Since the ship was abandoned they now have legal claim upon it and upon reaching the nearby island safely the father and two oldest sons go back to the ship to start bringing its contents on shore and use the materials they find to build a treehouse and other things that the family needs.
The movie has always been kind of a fantasy to me. I have always had vivid memories of the movie but had kind of forgotten about it over the years and I was very happy to see the movie again. It’s a movie that children can enjoy, as there is nothing bad in the movie and children undoubtedly would like all of the animals in the movie but there is also a lot of action, adventure and romance making it a good movie for adults to watch as well.
It’s kind of interesting how this movie has stuck with me over the years. It seems as much a fantasy to me now as it did when I was a child, only in a different way that I couldn’t really perceive as a child. What really stands out for me about the movie is how old-fashioned the movie is. From the very beginning of the movie it is the father and the oldest sons who are responsible for getting the family to shore safely. The oldest two sons have a very strict sense of duty to protect their mother and the youngest son (who looks barely older than maybe ten years old and is not really old enough to do the work the men do yet or make any big decisions). It is the father and oldest two sons that go back to the ship to salvage its contents and it is the father and oldest sons who build the tree house and do all the work Western society has always traditionally assigned to men. As well the father and oldest son always carry the guns to protect the family.
There is a clear hierarchy, which is also clearly stated in the movie, in which the oldest son takes charge if something happens to the father and then it goes down the line to the next son and so on. None of the men in the movie ever talk down about women. They never push any woman around nor treat any woman in a disrespectful way in the slightest. The mother’s position in the family is clearly one of dependence upon her husband and sons but she holds a high status in the family. Her opinions matter and she does have authority within the family. Nobody challenges her nor overrules her when she states that she does not want her youngest son up in the treehouse until it is finished and safe. She and her youngest son stay on the ground while the men are building the house. It is also the mother who ultimately decides that it is time to go ahead and let the two oldest sons travel around the island to see what they can discover and see if they can possibly find help. At every step of the way the mother’s opinion matters and is highly valued.
Later in the movie the two sons set out to sail around the island. They eventually run into the pirates from earlier on in the movie. Their boat gets wrecked and they help to free two captives of the pirates. They are only able to free the youngest of the two captains, who they believe to be a young boy. They lose the pirates and have to make it back to their home on foot. On the way, however, they discover that the captive they freed is actually a girl. Her grandfather (the other captive they didn’t free as he insisted there was no time to free him and to leave him there as he was worth ransom anyways and they wouldn’t touch him) had made her cut her hair and disguise herself as a boy so the pirates wouldn’t know she was a girl. From then on this changes things a lot. The boys insist that if she would have just said she was a girl they would have made things easier on her, which they now do.
The movie is just really old-fashioned all the way through. Traditional gender roles are promoted in the movie. Neither of the two women ever express any desire to do any of the things the men do. The men never ask for assistance from the women in any of their masculine tasks. You don’t ever see the women fighting men twice their size or chopping up wood or doing any of the things the mainstream media today shows women doing. Roberta (the girl they rescued) actually cried when the boys discovered she was a girl because she did not want to have short hair or dress like a boy. The boys take care of her and never act indecent towards her or try to push her to “man up” and get over her circumstances or fight like one of the boys. They even rescue a zebra so that she won’t have to walk all the way back as she was very tired and was having a hard time keeping up. When they make it back to their treehouse Roberta is overjoyed at getting to finally wear a pretty dress again.
There is also some fighting between the oldest two boys over leadership, and predictably, over the girl too, in which the oldest son always wins. Roberta expresses her desire to be back in Europe but in the end she stays on the island and plans to marry Fritz, the oldest son. The boys fend off snakes (Fritz actually wrestles with one) and wild animals on the journey back to the treehouse. Both Roberta and Ernst (the second oldest son after Fritz) actually challenge Fritz’s leadership at one point but end up following him anyways. Although the two sons fight to win Roberta’s affections, Fritz always comes out ahead. Ernst is more studious and Fritz shows more traditional masculinity and it is Fritz that Roberta ends up with, in contrast to today’s romance movies where the girl always falls for the more “thoughtful” or “emotional” type of guy.
This movie is just a rare find. It was just wonderful and traditional all the way through; a very innocent and happy movie. I don’t know that I can recall very many movies at all like this one that was just wonderful in every way or that was so old-fashioned. Even most movies and novels set in the past still find a way to write in feminist heroines and modern-day values. But there was none of that in this movie and I guess that’s why it’s stuck with me so much over the years and why I still love it so much to this day. It’s just something to forever dream and fantasize about.
**Update: The movie I’m referring to is the original Disney movie made in 1960