The Island at the Top of the World (1974)
I last saw The Island at the Top of the World in 1974 when it was initially released at the theatres. I was seven years old. Going to the cinema was a real event at the time and films such as this were always an entertaining spectacle. They frequently left a marked impression on a young mind. Special effects driven movies were not so ubiquitous during this decade. With these things in mind I recently decided to revisit The Island at the Top of the World. Forty two years watching the movie from an adult’s perspective was quite a different experience. That’s not to say that it’s a bad film; far from it. However it is quite a different beast compared to the modern action adventure movie.
Wealthy industrialist Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) cajoles historian and archaeologist Prof. Ivarsson (Phil Hartman) into helping him find his son, who’s lost in the Arctic. He may well have gone in search of the legendary graveyard of whales. Using his business connections, Sir Anthony hires an experimental French airship, “The Hyperion”, flown by Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin), to take the quickest route to the frozen North. Along the way, they find an Inuit named Oomiak (Mako) who was the last person to travel with Sir Anthony's son. After many adventures our protagonists find themselves marooned on an island shrouded in cloud. Volcanic activity has allowed a secret valley to stay warm and fertile. Furthermore it is populated by Vikings, who have remained isolated from the outside world, entrenched in their ways and customs.
What stands out the most about this movie is the “family friendly” screenplay. The protagonists face danger often through the hostile environment or extreme weather and not through violence. The evil high priest is a caricature who never gets an opportunity to do any real harm. At one point comic relief character, Oomiak, appear to be killed whilst escaping. However he evades death by swimming away under water. The film also rather clumsily endeavours to educate the viewer by introducing various aspect of Viking culture. The narrative takes time out every five minutes or so, to focus on village architecture, the famous longboat or the social structure of the community. Disney had a reputation at the time for its live action documentaries.
Anyone over the age of thirty will remember a time when there were no computer generated special effects. The industry and its skilled experts relied on optical effects, namely filming elements separately and then combining them. Miniatures were used along with intricate matte paintings on glass sheets. These skills had been in use since the very start of cinema and have often produced excellent results. Disney at the time had a reputation for producing effects work of the highest quality. It is not surprising that the work on display in The Island at the Top of the World is very good by the standards of the time. However, those viewing with an unobjective modern eye may not necessarily see this.
Director Robert Stevenson handles the story in a competent fashion and the film does not out stay its welcome. The production, cinematography and casting are all competent. The story follows a suitable arc. This is a classic example of functional film making. As a result after all these years, I still found The Island at the Top of the World entertaining. Yet it does belong to a category of film that seems to have died out of the world. Family friendly movies are few and far between these days. The PG rated movie has fallen to the more robust and commercially viable PG-13. The Island at the Top of the World with its simplicity, educational agenda and lack of brutality would not necessarily endear it to a contemporary audience.