Walt Disney Studios was chiefly known for their animated projects but after their adaptation of Treasure Island in 1959 they also became quite well known for their live action family adventure films. In 1974 the studio released a family-orientated roadshow package containing the animated featurette Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too along with the feature film The Island at the Top of the World.
The movie is based on the 1961 novel The Lost Ones by Ian Cameron which was a contemporary story that followed the adventures of a father looking for his son who was lost in the arctic, the Disney adaptation on the other hand takes place in the year 1907 and instead of the father using a helicopter, as he did in the book, the change of time period lent the studio to go with a more cinematic vehicle in the form of a marvelous airship.
The movie opens with Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) recruiting Scandinavian-American archaeologist Professor John Ivarsson (David Hartman) for an expedition to find his son who had gone missing while searching for the mythical graveyard of whales. To aid them on their search is French inventor/aeronaut Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin), Sir Anthony having purchased the Captain’s dirigible and services without letting him know what their mission would exactly entail, and this is a kind of running theme with deal ole Sir Anthony. He practically cons Ivarsson into joining the expedition, even having his ship sail with him on board before Ivarsson had even agreed to join the excursion, and later when they make a stop at an Eskimo he practically shanghais Oomiak (Mako) an Inuit man who had went off with Sir Anthony’s son but sadly had returned alone.
Sir Anthony isn’t the real villain of the peace, he’s more a man just overly focused on finding his son and damn the lives of those needed to achieve that goal, but he does do some idiotic things like forcing the dirigibles engines to full speed when they hadn’t been thoroughly worked in which causes a propeller to break and leads to Captain Brieux performing a daring midair replacement job. Later when they arrive at the mysterious cloud shrouded island he ends up pushing the Captain to continue on despite the dangers of the ship being smashed against the island cliffs.
After crashing into the cliffs Sir Anthony, Ivarsson and Oomiak are tossed out of the dirigible while Captain Brieux and the damaged Hyperion floats up into the storm where they both disappear into the clouds. The three survivors trudge through the snow until they eventually come across a lush green valley that seems to be kept in a permanent summer by the islands volcanic activity and hot springs.
The movie has the occasionally dodgy optical effect but the matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw are great.
The valley is occupied by a lost civilization of Vikings, cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, and our heroes are quickly captured by a group of angry locals. Turns out Sir Anthony’s son Donald (David Gwillim) did make it to this lost paradise but with the appearance of these new “barbarians” the Vikings fear that Donald is a spy and that Sir Anthony and company are the forefront of an invasion. No matter how hard our heroes try and explain their true intentions they are not believed because of the dark omen seen flying through the sky (obviously the crippled dirigible), and they are sentenced to death by a religious fanatic named Godi (Gunnar Öhlund).
Lucky for our heroes young Donald managed to get a beautiful Viking girl named Freyja (Agneta Eckemyr) to fall in love with him and she manages to rescue them from a Viking funeral pyre. The group flee up the mountains and across the volcanic craters of Astragard to the Bay of Whales, Freyja is at first against this idea because that place is sacred and taboo but this just means her fellow Viking warriors are less likely to follow them there. It’s not a fun trip as they get caught up in a volcanic eruption where Sir Anthony comes close to being engulfed by a river of lava.
With the Viking warriors hot on their heels the group eventually do make it to the Bay of Whales, after climbing into a dormant volcanic crater and entering through a series of catacombs, and then they are gobsmacked by the sight to hundreds of whale carcasses of every imaginable species. Freyja tells them that her people will not follow them down here because legends tell of sea monsters that guard the entrance to the bay. This seems to be the case as the Vikings just set up camp at the rim of the valley to watch our heroes die. Turns out that the sea monster isn’t quite the Kraken of Norse legend but instead a pod of excessively violent killer whales who try to turn our group into lunch.
Just when the end seems very well-nigh a rifle shot echoes across the valley and the killer whales are driven off with some crack shooting by Captain Brieux. Seems the Hyperion had crashed in this very bay and with a little work of lightening the load, cutting loose the Hyperion’s engines and gondola, our intrepid heroes are once again in the air. Unfortunately the wind shifts and the Hyperion drifts back towards Astragard and the still encamped Vikings. The sight of the massive airship terrifies the Vikings, who all flee in panic, all except one.
The religious nut Godi stands his ground and fires a flaming arrow at the Hyperion, because that seems like a reasonable course of action. The ship quickly catches fire but they are near enough to the ground that everyone is able to escape the burning dirigible. Not so lucky is the idiot Godi who soon finds himself under the plummeting burning wreckage.
The film than jumps to our group back in the halls of Astragard where The Lawspeaker (Rolf Søder) informs our group that the gods were indeed angry but not at them but at Godi for leading their people down the path of hatred and violence. He tells our heroes that they are free to go as long as Donald remains as a hostage; this infuriates Sir Anthony but then Ivarsson steps in and volunteers to stay because Astragard is an archeologists dream. Sir Anthony, Donald, Freyja, Captain Brieux and Oomiak, are allowed to depart in peace, promising not to tell the Outside World about Astragard.
The Island at the Top of the World didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, nixing the plans the studio had for a sequel, but it is a fun adventure story that hearkens back to the pulp adventure tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact there is a lot in this movie that owes itself to the legacy of Burroughs; the hidden paradise surrounded by arctic ice is right out of The Land that Time Forgot, and the mythical whale’s graveyard is an aquatic echo of the elephant graveyard that appeared in numerous Tarzan movies. Tarzan himself took an airship on an adventure to a lost world in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core and there was even an episode of the Filmation Tarzan series where the Ape Man encountered a lost outpost of Vikings. The Island at the Top of the World may not be up with there with such Disney classics as Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but it’s still good wholesome family fun that new generations can find and discover.
Note: Aside from the change in era Disney also altered the ending a tad, in the movie Freyja survives whereas in the book she tragically dies while sacrificing herself to save Donald and Sir Anthony. This kind of change isn’t shocking as Disney Studios have never been all that keen on depressing endings for their family films.
The Island at the Top of the World (1974)
Director Robert Stevenson was one of Disney’s best go to directors for this kind of action film and The Island at the Top of the World is a perfect example of how good he was at his job.