The Island at the Top of the World is a live action Disney film made in 1974. It has been one of my favorite movies since I picked it out at the grocery store video rental store as a child. And despite all the many problems I see when I watch now I still love it. The movie survives on the fascinating ideas in the story, the performances of a select few of the actors, and the music. This is a classic adventure film.
As a child I picked this film out because the cover had both Vikings and a blimp on it. How could that not be an incredible combination? The story follows a wealthy English businessman, Sir Anthony Ross, who convinces an American archeology professor, Professor Ivarsson, to travel with him to the arctic by blimp to look for his son, Donald. Donald was lost some time before while looking for the mythical “place where the whale’s go to die”. However, once they find this mysterious island, they discover there’s a lot more to the island than whale bones. A lost Viking colony has been residing in a lush valley, heated by thermal vents, for hundreds of years. And, of course, lots of adventure ensues.
Is there a better plot to a movie? Maybe. But probably not. That’s pretty awesome. An absolutely beautiful score by Maurice Jarre backs up the plot. Jarre was also responsible for the scores to Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Dead Poets Society, and many others. The music soars through the film along with the blimp, and is one of the perfect examples of adventure film music. I would even say it’s comparable to Basil Poledouris’s score for Conan The Barbarian.
Another thing that sets this movie apart is the gorgeous matte painting. Its strange watching it because you can always tell the backgrounds are matte paintings, but they’re always so beautiful that instead of being bothered by it you end up admiring them. I’ve never experienced that before. They were all done by Alan Maley, who won an Oscar in 1971 for the special effects in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
We’ve looked at the plot, the music, and the matte paintings, all that’s left to discuss is the acting. The acting in this movie is a strange thing to experience. Some of it is great. Jacques Marin as Captain Brieux, the pilot of the blimp, and the always-impressive Mako as the Eskimo guide Oomiak are wonderful. But they are not the main characters. One is portrayed as a silly Frenchman and the other as a feeble minded savage. I guess that was just Disney for you at this time. It’s a testament to the actors that their ability can still be seen through the role. The real stars of the film are Donald Sinden, as Sir Anthony Ross, and David Hartman, as Professor Ivarsson. Donald Sinden has been a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company since the early 1960’s, and you can see it. Sometimes he appears to be playing a role out of Hamlet rather than a modern man stuck in an ancient land. However, the biggest problem with this film is David Hartman. After starring in this film he went on to be the first host of Good Morning America from 1975-1987. And you can see it. Today, he hosts documentary programs for the History Channel. And you can see it. Everything he says in this film sounds like he’s narrating the story to himself. It’s actually rather entertaining.
But despite the mixed acting in this movie, I am still calling it a classic. I have loved this movie since I was 9 nine years old. I still love it. And if you aren’t convinced by my arguments see it for legacy’s sake. Maurice Jarre, who composed the score, was the father of electronic music pioneer Jean Michel Jarre. John Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, is grandfather of modern master Joss Whedon. This is a perfect example of where their creativity came from.
Please watch it.
Still wishing I was a Viking,