Walt Disney only ever got one writing credit in his entire career, and even that was under a pseudonym, albeit not much of one. As in, the story for this is credited to Retlaw Yensid. But the idea of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe was his. I don’t know how much of the exact detail he came up with; I don’t know where I’d find that out, if anyone kept track of it. But is one of the last movies produced by the studio in his lifetime, and it’s the only one he did even a little of the writing on, so it’s not a bad end to the career of one of the most influential men of his era.
The movie itself . . . well, it’s a movie. The eponymous lieutenant is a Navy pilot played by Dick Van Dyke. He is on “a routine mission” in the South Pacific when his plane catches fire. For, you know, reasons. He ejects and spends a day or two floating at sea before washing up on a deserted island. It is also the home of a giant stone god. And, it turns out, a Project Mercury space chimp named Floyd (Dinky). One day, he sees a woman he of course dubs Wednesday (Nancy Kwan), because of course he does, and she tells him about her father, who has essentially sacrificed her.
So he leads her, and eventually all of her “sister-cousins,” in a revolt against her father, Tanamashu (Akim Tamiroff). He writes letters to his fiancée, Jane (A Picture of Risë Stevens), which he sends in bottles in the hopes that she’ll get them, and Wednesday is less than thrilled about this, because she is falling in love with him herself. But they of course also know that Tanamashu will not let them live peacefully on their island, for two reasons. One is that they live on the island with the statue of Kabuna on it. The other is that the women’s rebellion is damaging his authority.
Okay, so Tanamashu is played by an Armenian, but most of the other “native girls,” as they are of course credited, are Pacific Islander or Asian of descent. And they do name-check Sessue Hayakawa, who also did a Disney movie, though he appeared to have retired from acting from the time this movie was made. Then again, Rob calls Tanamashu a savage without any sense of irony or personal judgement—it’s just true that the chief of a South Sea island would be a savage. Never mind how many islands in the area were US possessions.
And there is also a certain Great White Savior aspect to the whole thing; the women need the assistance of “Admiral Honey” and a freakin’ chimp to free themselves from Tanamashu’s oppressive regime. And, of course, the supplies scavenged from a convenient World War II Japanese submarine, including a flamethrower and a whole bunch of flares. (Which of course are animated when they explode, because of course they are.) Tanamashu does get the good question of why the angry Kabuna speaks English, but we don’t even know how many of the people he’s brought with him would understand it.
Still, Kauai is lovely, and there’s more characterization to Wednesday—even if we don’t ever really learn her name—than there is to most of the Islanders in The Castaway Cowboy put together. And Tanamashu is no dummy; he’s been playing the “the god only speaks to me” routine for years, and everyone seems to go along with it. Honestly, Wednesday herself is no dummy, probably smarter if less educated than Rob by quite a lot. I don’t think the movie disagrees, either.
The ending is frankly disappointing, but it’s because it’s 1966; I don’t think we could get the right ending in that era. Dick Van Dyke isn’t going to end up with Nancy Kwan; it just isn’t going to happen. It’s just that I wish they’d figured out a better way to have it fail to happen, if it had to not happen. Maybe she could turn out to be letting him down easy because she didn’t want to tell him about the handsome, athletic, intelligent Boy Next Door that she was in love with that her father didn’t want her to marry? It would have been more dignified for both of them. As would just not having her fall for him in the first place.