Johann David Wyss' 1812 novel has gone down as one of the classics of adventure, both in print and on screen. Most are familiar with the 1960 Disney version, with its traditional Disneyisms of songs, romance and wacky animal races. That more famous version, if being steadily forgotten over time, was predated by another. That version, sadly, has not merely been forgotten but actively suppressed.
We know exactly where this 1940 RKO production is, however: in the Disney vault. When procuring the rights to Swiss Family Robison for their 1960 version, Disney also bought up the 20-year older version in order to avoid any unflattering comparisons. Today the best available version of the 1940 film is an abridged supplement to the Disney DVD.
What one sees in this first take on the story is a much more dramatically deep tale set against one of the great jungle epics of the golden age of cinema. The sets easily rival those of King Kong and Tarzan and his Mate for Doré-esque sublimnity, and the tension easily outstrips the Disney version. Instead of a love triangle with Roberta, the main conflict is between Mother and Father Robinson. While there is a little squabbling in the Disney film, the couple is still, ultimately, standing tall as the solid rock of the family. In RKO's version, their marriage is the first thing to painfully break down after Father so imperiously decided that they were going to leave the comforts of civilization for this godforsaken island. Then the relationship between father and sons is strained when he is working so hard to make fine men of them. If that weren't enough, the spectre of the Grim Reaper looms over the family's youngest...
Where later versions focus on the adventure aspect, this version stays truer to the original novel's pedagogical purpose. The Robinsons are definitely a Christian family, struggling with their beliefs, morals and identity out in the wilderness. An even larger conflict serves as the backdrop. Orson Welles, in his first and uncredited screen roll, narrates that the family flees a Europe darkened by the shadow of Napoleon... an easily-discerned allegory for another dictator in whose shadow Europe feared in 1940. Upon landing, the family erects a flag out of their former altar cloth: a symbol for a new land welcoming all who would live in peace. The commentary is not only on the struggles of the family, but the struggles of a world bound in war.
It is only a shame that such a film is locked away, never to be seen in its full version.