Excellent Films for the Family: The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

The film has a wondrous spirit of adventure and discovery… Setting off on an expedition with the accompanying exploration and risk is a needed vision—especially as the modern world has progressively enshrined the idol of “safety” in the hearts of millions.

When considering which films to make a part of your family culture, it is important to be critical of the people and organizations responsible for producing the content. The power to shape and mold is something of which our Enemy is profoundly aware. I can think of no other company that has used media so devastatingly as Disney. The scope of the destruction Disney has wrought upon the character and minds of children across the globe is truly incalculable. While some have pointed to the promotion of sexual immorality and occultism by Disney, another theme is the oft-repeated refrain to “follow your dreams” or “trust your heart” and numerous examples of encouragement for children to rebel against their parents or duties in order to pursue the idolatry of self-realization.

As a rule, I strongly encourage parents to keep their children far away from the mouse’s claw. However, Disney did produce some quality material in the past. The Island at the Top of the World is an unassuming gem that promotes familial love and loyalty. The film is based on the 1961 novel The Lost Ones written by Donald Gordon Payne under the pseudonym Ian Cameron. The score, which is surprisingly excellent for such a little-known film, was composed by Maurice Jarre, who produced the scores of such films as The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and A Passage to India (1984).

The story’s main character is Sir Anthony Ross. He is a rich English businessman who is overbearing, officious, and none too concerned about bending the rules and stepping on toes to get what he wants. We meet Sir Anthony preparing to embark on a search to find his son. Donald, whom Sir Anthony raised in his overly pushy manner to be his successor, is reported lost on an expedition to find the “graveyard of whales”—a legendary island in the Arctic. Being a resourceful and industrious man, Sir Anthony begins by recruiting the men he needs to help him accomplish his mission.

Sir Anthony gains his first companion, Professor Ivarsson, by somewhat tricky means—drawing the professor into the mystery and starting out on the journey before Ivarsson formally agrees to accompany him. However, Ivarsson’s curiosity is observably piqued and he eagerly joins Sir Anthony. After realizing that he is already along for the ride, Prof. Ivarsson observes, “Sir Anthony, you’re a devious man.” Sir Anthony replies, “Yes, I am, aren’t I?” with a mischievous grin. Professor Ivarsson, a reserved, analytical archeologist explorer, and Sir Anthony have an odd couple dynamic between them. The friendship that develops between these two very dissimilar men is the foundation upon which the film is built.

Next Sir Anthony must bully, cajole, and inspire Captain Brieux of the airship Hyperion to make the dangerous journey. The Hyperion is one of the most memorable features and images from the film. Captain Brieux is a capable man who knows every inch of the Hyperion and can fix and rebuild components in extreme conditions. Coupled with a turn of the century setting, the film has a wondrous spirit of adventure and discovery. The need to actually travel, using supplies and equipment with which one must be competent, reflects a great contrast to the all too frequent sedentary “discovery” that takes place today through glowing screens. There is a time and a place for inspiration through the appreciation of novels and screenplays—or else I wouldn’t be writing this review! However, setting off on an expedition with the accompanying exploration and risk is a needed vision—especially as the modern world has progressively enshrined the idol of “safety” in the hearts of millions.

Unfortunately, Sir Anthony not only bends rules, but also breaks them as he is at times reckless in the pursuit of finding his lost son. At their last stop before the discovery of the island, Sir Anthony is able to speak with Oomiak, the last man to see Donald alive. Though Oomiak had been a loyal companion to Donald, he refuses to accompany the party on their journey. Sir Anthony resorts to luring him aboard the Hyperion and kidnaps him. Though Sir Anthony’s goal of finding his son is laudable, he consistently endangers the lives of those around him, forcing his companions into his desired course of action.

The rescue party eventually reaches the island and finds Donald living among a lost colony of Vikings. He has been taken in by one of the chieftains and has fallen in love with his daughter, Freyja. Unfortunately, the outsiders are brought to the Viking Council under suspicion of being spies for an imminent invasion. While the Lawspeaker of the council wishes to allow them to speak and explain themselves, the Godi, the pagan high priest, insists that they ought not be heard but rather be immediately executed. It is telling that the chief pagan force in the land is bloodthirsty and has no interest in due process or trial as opposed to the council. There is even a suggestive nod to the possibility that there was (and perhaps still is) Christian influence and believers within the isolated colony. One of the headstones at the farm where Donald had been living has a prominent cross carved into it at the top. While this religious division is not further explored in the movie, it is thought-provoking. Neither Sir Anthony nor the other outsiders seem to be especially devout Christians, yet as heirs of Christendom they still reflect and inhabit, at least in an outward sense, a Christian worldview. The Godi on the other hand, reflects a paganism in full bloom, despising even natural law or the common-sense concerns of the Viking Council.

Ultimately, the movie is about the love of family and loyalty to one’s friends. Just about every member of the party winds up saving the rest of the group at some point in the adventure. But the respect and love between father and son is what truly sets this movie apart from what is typically seen on film. Donald honors his father even in tense and dangerous situations, holding his tongue and obeying him when he speaks. Donald truly loves his father. Sir Anthony believes that he is to blame for his son getting lost, but Donald corrects the record. It is true, he wanted some adventure. Yet, unlike the wretched Disney movies of today, he always desired to come home and share in his father’s work and responsibilities.

In the end, Sir Anthony gets back his son and Captain Brieux gets his glory. The closing scene is the juxtaposition of Freyja leaving her family for the man she loves and Ivarsson remaining on the island in a Scandinavian archeologist’s dream. Both characters are embarking on new adventures, yet who gets the better deal the movie purposefully leaves an open question.


David Ramirez

Rev. David Ramirez is Pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Union Grove, WI and is on the Planning Committee for the Bugenhagen Conference.

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