Movie Review – Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

When it comes to classic tales of adventure, one of the finest family-friendly films is none other than 1960′s Swiss Family Robinson.

Swiss Family Robinson is a story about a family of colonists heading from Europe to a new home in faraway and exotic German colony of New Guinea.  Their ship is nearly sunk in a tremendous storm, and the Robinson family finds itself alone and shipwrecked off the coast of a tropical island.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - movie poster

The Robinsons salvage what they can from the wrecked ship, construct a massive treehouse to keep them safe from both the environment and dangerous wildlife, and they explore the local area.  The family is under constant threat of pirate attacks, and the welcoming of a girl into their home complicates matters for the family’s elder sons.

Directed by Ken Annakin, Swiss Family Robinson stars John Mills and Dorothy McGuire as Father and Mother, and James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran play the roles of the boys Fritz, Ernst and Francis.  Janet Munro plays the role of Roberta, a girl who later joins the Robinson family while stranded on the island, and Fritz and Ernst constantly compete for her attention.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - The Swallow finally crashes onto some rocks.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Swiss Family Robinson begins with the ship Swallow being swept through a powerful ocean storm.  The crew has already abandoned ship, and apart from the five members of the Robinson family along with a variety of animals, the ship itself has been deserted.  The Swallow finally crashes on some rocks and her journey is finished.  Down on the next deck, the Robinson family finally breaks free and escapes to the upper deck.

The next morning the storm is finished and the massive wind, rain and waves have finally calmed.  Led by Father (John Mills), sons Fritz (James MacArthur) and Ernst (Tommy Kirk) help Mother (Dorothy McGuire) and young Francis (Kevin Corcoran) to the upper deck.  There they see the extent of the damage to the ship.  More importantly, the family quickly discovers that their ship is just off the coast of a tropical island.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - The family braves the rocks and surf in their small raft.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Ernst declares that the ship and whatever they find on it is theirs since the captain and crew abandoned it, but Father isn’t too concerned about maritime laws.  His main concern is safely transporting the family to shore and finding some sort of shelter.  Francis discovers the two dogs that previously belonged to the ship’s captain along with a bunch of domestic wildlife that was also bound for New Guinea.  They construct a small raft and Father, Fritz and Ernst help push it away from the rocks and towards the sandy beach.  It’s a rough ride but the family makes it past the dangerous rocks and makes a safe landing on the beach.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - A tiger investigates the new islanders.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

At first the island seems quiet and peaceful.  Francis meets a giant tortoise and the family begins setting up a makeshift camp.  But as we see, a tiger quietly sneaks around and investigates the new visitors.  The family isn’t aware of the dangerous of the local animals until Mother is surprised by a Komodo dragon inside of their camp.  Father stays awake that night and guards the camp from any other predators.  He’s aware of the need to construct a much safer shelter for the family.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Here come the pirates!

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The next day, Father, Fritz and Ernst raft back out to the wrecked Swallow and begin salvaging everything they can from the ship.  A ship appears on the horizon, but when Father takes a closer look with a spyglass, he sees that it’s a pirate ship.  He believes it’s the same pirate ship that chased them into the storm the previous day.  The three of them prepare the ship’s only cannon and take aim at the approaching pirate ship, but suddenly the pirates turn and flee.  When Fritz and Ernst question why, Father points to the quarantine flag that he hoisted.  The flag represented the presence of Black Death on-board the ship.

After the pirates have fled the scene, Father, Fritz and Ernst continue their salvage operation.  They raft back to shore with most of the ship’s livestock amongst other items.  Along the way their raft is attacked by sharks, but they fight off the sea predators and make it to shore.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Francis and Rocky, his pet elephant.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

While Father, Fritz and Ernst are salvaging the ship, Francis wanders away from Mother and finds a baby elephant in the nearby jungle.  He sets a trap and captures the elephant, but the tiger is nearby and watching him the whole time.  The tiger attacks the trapped elephant, and Mother hears the noise from the animals.  She panics and has the former captain’s dogs, Duke and Turk, rescue Francis and fight off the tiger.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - A treehouse fit for a king.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

With the help of Francis and his elephant, the men construct an elaborate, multi-floor treehouse there in the jungle.  Once it’s finished Mother is given the grand tour of their new home on the island.  They show her innovations that include running water and a working icebox in the kitchen.  She’s clearly impressed by the tree house and all its amenities, and the structure itself looks like a perfect home for her family.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Having fun at a water hole.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The Robinson family settles into their new home, and at first things seem fine.  But the big question still remains:  Where are they in the south Pacific?  Fritz and Ernst want to build a small boat and sail around what they believe is an island, but Mother doesn’t want her boys to go on such a dangerous endeavour.  While playing at a water hole and swinging on vines, Mother expresses her concern that while their new home is wonderful, it lacks a community.  How are her boys supposed to grow up and raise families without other people?  Father uses that reasoning to convince Mother to allow Fritz and Ernst to explore the area and learn their true surroundings.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Fritz and Ernst begin their journey around the island.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Fritz and Ernst depart the next morning and use their small sailboat to begin exploring their surroundings.  At first their voyage goes smoothly and they catch fish and explore the area.  The boys talk about home as well as finally arriving in New Guinea and what to expect.  Although it’s not stated exactly, it’s implied that the Robinson family is from a mountainous area of central Europe, most likely Switzerland.

Their expedition proceeds smoothly until Fritz spots a pirate ship moored on a beach.  They hide behind some rocks and see that one of them is the same pirate ship they encountered earlier.  They sneak in for a closer look but their small boat is wrecked by large waves close to shore.  Fritz and Ernst abandon ship and continue sneaking on land.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - The captured captain and 'Bertie'.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Much closer to the pirates, Fritz and Ernst notice that the pirates have two captives: a ship’s captain and what looks like a cabin boy.  The hostages are tied with rope.  While the pirates fight each other over captured treasure, Fritz and Ernst try to free the hostages.  Captain Moreland (Cecil Parker) urges them to take the boy and not him, and they manage to do so before the pirates notice them and give chase.

Fritz, Ernst and “Bertie” flee from the pirates and hide in the jungle.  One of the pirates gets wise to their location, but Fritz and Ernst attack him and steal his weapons.  The three of them then run further into the jungle and elude their attackers.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Bertie steals Ernst's pistol and threatens to use it.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Now on foot, the three of them begin tracking back to Fritz and Ernst’s treehouse home.  “Bertie” is reluctant but agrees to go with the boys.  He keeps his distance at times and walks at a slower pace.  When it’s time to disrobe and cross a shallow river, “Bertie” steals Ernst’s pistol and threatens to head back to shore to wait for the ship’s captain to return.  Fritz and Ernst are furious, each for their own reasons, and they fight back.  During the struggle Fritz removes “Bertie’s” cap and discovers that he is really a she.

Bertie is really Roberta (Janet Monro).  Her grandfather is the captured ship captain.  She tells Fritz and Ernst that her grandfather disguised her as a boy as it would have been disastrous if the pirates discovered that she was really a woman.

Now knowing the truth, Fritz and Ernst are much more helpful and accommodating to the young lady.  And of course, the boys begin competing with each other for her attention.  Fritz shows off with his muscles and leadership while Ernst shows off his intelligence and book smarts.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Fritz is attacked by an anaconda snake.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

At one point the trek back to the treehouse takes Fritz, Ernst and Roberta through a swamp.  Roberta is spooked by a lizard, but the danger escalates when Fritz is attacked by a massive anaconda.  He’s nearly killed until Ernst uses a knife to attack the giant snake.  During the fight Ernst loses his compass and they’re forced to “guess” their way back home.

After saving a zebra stuck in quicksand from a group of hyenas, Fritz, Ernst and Roberta finally arrive back at their treehouse home.  It’s Christmas night and Father, Mother and Francis are elated at the safe return of their family members.  The three of them are also glad to welcome Roberta into their home.

It’s time for a celebration of the boys’ safe arrival back home as well as the new addition to their family.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Roberta is the center of attention (and desires) at the Christmas party.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Mother helps Roberta into a fancy dress while the men shave and dress in their formal attire.  Well, as formal as a shipwrecked person can be.  The guys are impressed by Roberta’s beauty, and they all take turns dancing with the young lady as Mother plays a festive tune on the organ.  When Fritz and Ernst begin fighting, Father sweeps in there and rescues Roberta.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - What's left of the ship is destroyed in an explosion.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Unfortunately, Roberta’s story and presence with the family means that the pirates will return and try to capture the girl.  Father decides that they need to destroy what’s left of the wreck of the Swallow.  Since their island is part of a chain, it’s doubtful that the pirates remembered which exact island or beach for that matter in which the family was shipwrecked.  As long as they stay fairly quiet, they may be able to hide from danger for quite some time.

A major problem with destroying the wreckage of the Swallow is that they’re basically erasing evidence of their distress from friendly ships.  Unless they find their own way off the island, it’s going to be nothing short of a miracle to be rescued by another ship.  That is, unless Roberta’s grandfather was successfully ransomed from the pirates and he returns to rescue his granddaughter with a fleet of ships.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Fritz works on the rolling logs trap.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Knowing that the pirates are still a very real threat, Father leads the family in constructing a fort on top of a hill.  He, Fritz and Ernst design the fort’s defenses and a series of traps to slow the pirates as they advance up the steep hill.  They’ll use everything from snares to hidden pits to rolling logs to even makeshift hand grenades made from coconuts filled with gunpowder.  Francis insists on having a captured tiger inside one of the pits.  They only problem is that he needs to capture one first.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Fritz teaches Roberta how to shoot a rifle.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

While building the defenses, Fritz and Ernst continue competing for Roberta’s attention.  By this point it’s becoming clearer that Roberta wants to spend time with Fritz, but Ernst continues interrupting the two and trying to impress Roberta.  His efforts mainly upset his brother, and the two of them get into a serious brawl.  Father stops the fight but blames himself for it in the end.  He insists that he’s been pushing the family too hard.  Father declares that the next day will be a holiday, a day of fun for the family.

As they prepare that night for the holiday, Francis amazes everybody and actually catches a tiger in one of the pits.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Father and Mother officiate the race held during the holiday.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Flags, banners and festive decorations decorate the landscape the next day as the island observes its first official holiday.  Everybody is wearing festive gear for the day.  The main event is a race around the yard with each person riding a different animal.  Roberta has to ride a zebra, Fritz a jackass, Ernst an ostrich, and Francis riding his pet baby elephant, Rocky.  Even the spider monkey that Francis caught earlier in the film is riding one of the dogs.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - The pirates return to the island in search of Roberta and the shipwrecked family.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Unknown to the Robinson family, the pirates have returned to their island that day.  They make a landing on one of the beaches and start looking around, wondering if they’re at the correct island.  Their suspicion is confirmed when they hear Mother fire the pistol to start the race.  The pirates slowly head in land and start searching for the islanders.

Back at the tree house, the race is as crazy as one would believe.  Hardly any of the animals cooperate with their riders.  Roberta’s zebra runs off course and carries the girl to the beach.  She falls off the zebra, and when she finally looks up, she sees the pirates.  Roberta runs back to the family and stops the race.  Father has the family quickly head to their fort and prepare to repel the pirates.

The pirates find their way to the mountain fort and begin their assault.  Some of them fall victim to the snares and hidden pits, and a few unlucky pirates fall into the pit with Francis’s captured tiger.  Still the pirates advance and Father and the boys begin igniting explosive traps hidden on the hillside.  The defenses work and the pirates’ advance is slowed.  After a devastating attack with a bunch of rolling rocks, the pirate captain sends some of his men around to the back of the mountain, a near vertical climb to the fort.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - The pirate captain is down but not defeated.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The pirates try attacking again with a different angle on the mountain, but this puts them in the path of the rolling log trap.  As they near the summit, Father unleashes the logs, sending them rolling down the mountain and nearly wiping out the pirates.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Fritz fights one of the pirates.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The pirate captain tries to make a deal with Father, telling him that they only want “the boy.”  He doesn’t know that the cabin boy is really a girl.  Father doesn’t give in and tells the pirates they’ll have to attack if they want their prize.  So they do and slowly climb the mountain again.  This time the family uses their homemade grenades to slow the pirates.  It slows them but the pirates continue climbing up the mountain.  The family is forced to shoot with their muskets and then use hand-to-hand combat against the pirates.  The danger increases when the pirates climbing up the back of the mountain also reach the fort.

Just when all hope is lost, the pirates suddenly turn back and flee the fort.  As they’re racing back to their ship we see that Roberta’s grandfather has returned.  Captain Moreland’s ship fires at the pirates and attacks them.  The pirate’s row boats and main ship are all destroyed by the English warship.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Captain Moreland is welcomed onto the island.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The Robinsons welcome Captain Moreland into their home and serve him a first-class meal.  Afterwards, the captain explains that since the Robinsons have settled on a previously unsettled island, this island will now become the colony of New Switzerland, making Father its first governor.

Swiss Family Robinson ends with Ernst leaving with Captain Moreland to study at a university in England and fulfill his dream of being a ship’s navigator.  Francis is too young to leave and stays with his parents.  Roberta chooses to stay with Fritz, and the two of them plan on marrying and continuing to live on the island.

So is 1960′s Swiss Family Robinson any good?

As a whole, Swiss Family Robinson is a fantastic adventure story that can safely be enjoyed by the whole family.  Despite the film’s age it still translates rather well with today’s audience.  It’s fairly similar with 2000′s shipwrecked story of Cast Away, just without the pirates.

With Swiss Family Robinson, most of the cast is part of the Disney family and also star in other Disney films such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and Pollyanna.  The performances are high quality, and the scenery shots will have you convinced that you’re in the South Pacific with the shipwrecked family.

Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom - Adventureland - Swiss Family Treehouse - 01 Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom - Adventureland - Swiss Family Treehouse - 02 Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom - Adventureland - Swiss Family Treehouse - 03

Swiss Family Robinson‘s legacy continues in the Magic Kingdom theme parks with the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction.  Built to resemble the famous island home in the movie, Swiss Family Treehouse is a walk-through attraction that takes park guests into the massive tree and past the amenities and rooms used by the Robinson family.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) – extended movie trailer

If you’re looking for a solid adventure story with exotic locations, wild animals, and a terrific encounter or two with fierce pirates, you can’t go wrong with 1960′s Swiss Family Robinson.  Don’t let the age of the film fool you.  This is still one terrific film that’s great for today’s families.

four stars

Fritz – “What’s that?”
Father – “That? Oh, that’s a quarantine flag. Warning that there’s Black Death aboard.”
Ernst – “How did you know that?”
Father – “Well *I* do a bit of reading, too, you know.”


Father Robinson – “What did I tell you? Anything we need, the island will produce it for us, even a girl.”
Mother Robinson – “*A* girl. But we have three sons.”