Swiss Family Robinson is a 1960 American adventure film starring John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin Corcoran in a tale of a shipwrecked family building an island home. It was the second feature film based on the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, a previous adaptation having been released by RKO Pictures in 1940. Directed by Ken Annakin and shot in Tobago and Pinewood Studios outside London, it was the first widescreen Walt Disney Pictures film shot with Panavision lenses; when shooting in widescreen, Disney had almost always used a matted wide screen or filmed in CinemaScope.
Upon its release, Swiss Family Robinson was a major success with both critics and audiences and remains one of Disney’s most beloved live-action feature films.
A Swiss family from Bern—Father, Mother, and their three sons—are relocating to a colony in New Guinea to escape the Napoleonic Wars when their ship is attacked by pirates and flees into a storm. The crew abandons ship, leaving the family on board, and the ship grounds on rocks off an uninhabited island. The family makes their way ashore along with the captain’s two Great Danes. Father, eldest son Fritz, and middle son Ernst salvage supplies and livestock from the shipwreck. The pirates locate the ship, but Father scares them off by putting up a quarantine flag, signaling disease aboard.
The family soon discovers that the island contains a diversity of wildlife, including a dangerous tiger. To provide safety and comfort, Father, Fritz, and Ernst construct an elaborate tree house complete with a water wheel. Youngest son Francis collects various animals including a young Asian elephant, a monkey, and an ostrich. The bookish Ernst theorizes that the island may once have been part of a land bridge connected to Asia. As the family settles in, Father opines that by going back to nature they have found everything they need in life. Mother, however, worries that her sons will never have the chance to raise families of their own if they are not rescued, and consents to allow Fritz and Ernst to circumnavigate the island in an outrigger boat they have built to map it and search for other settlements.
During their expedition, Fritz and Ernst come across the pirates, who have captured another ship and taken its captain and cabin boy captive for ransom. They rescue the cabin boy, but the captain stays behind as they escape the pirates. Making their way through the jungle, they learn that the cabin boy is really a girl named Roberta; the captain, who is her grandfather, dressed her as a boy to disguise her sex from the pirates. They survive an attack by an anaconda but become lost. The brothers fight over what to do, the rugged Fritz insisting that they press on. They rescue a zebra from predators and, using it as a mount, arrive back at the tree house just in time for Christmas.
Anticipating that the pirates will come looking for Roberta, the family scuttles their wrecked ship to hide their location. They fortify a rocky clifftop, building defenses and booby traps. Fritz and Ernst become rivals for Roberta’s affections. Believing that her grandfather will return for her once ransomed, she intends to return to London; Ernst is interested in going to school there, while Fritz would rather go on to New Guinea to build a home of his own. Despite this, a romance develops between Fritz and Roberta, and the brothers come to blows over her. To relieve tension, Father declares a holiday to be held. That night, Francis manages to catch the tiger in one of the pits they have dug.
The holiday begins with a race, the boys and Roberta riding on various animals. The pirates, sailing nearby, hear the sound of the starting pistol and come ashore. The family retreats to their fort, and the attackers fall victim to their traps and defenses. The pirate captain demands that they hand over Roberta, while his men sneak up the cliff side and attack from the rear. As the family is about to be overwhelmed, a ship captained by Roberta’s grandfather appears and destroys the pirates and their ship with cannon fire.
The captain offers to help Ernst get into a London university, and to take the rest of the family back to Europe or on to New Guinea. Father and Mother, however, decide that they would rather stay on the island and keep Francis with them for a few more years. The captain speculates that the island will become a new colony, and that Father will be nominated to be its governor. Fritz and Roberta, having fallen in love, also decide to stay on the island.