Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Treasure Of Matecumbe
There is some dispute over which movie should come next in this chronological survey of Disney films. Wikipedia and IMDb both claim that Treasure Of Matecumbe was released on July 1, 1976. But Disney’s own official list says it came out on the 9th, which would make Gus, the Don Knotts comedy about a football-kicking mule, next up since it debuted on July 7. Ordinarily, I go by whatever the studio itself says. But since I just covered another silly Don Knotts comedy, I decided I could use a palette cleanser. Sorry, Gus fans. Your day will come.
Not that Treasure Of Matecumbe is the high-stakes, spooky adventure you might expect from its skull-emblazoned poster. Based on the novel A Journey To Matecumbe by Robert Lewis Taylor (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Travels Of Jaimie McPheeters provided the basis for the TV series starring Disney alum Kurt Russell), director Vincent McEveety (most recently responsible for The Strongest Man In The World) and screenwriter Don Tait (The Apple Dumpling Gang) keep things surprisingly light considering some of the story’s dark turns. In fact on more than one occasion, the movie reminded me of a later Disney-adjacent comedy, the Coen Brothers’ Touchstone-produced O Brother, Where Art Thou? I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say Joel and Ethan were influenced by Treasure Of Matecumbe but if one of them copped to it, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. It kind of feels like the sort of deep cut reference they’d throw into an interview to see if anyone’s paying attention.
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The scene that plays out beneath the title sequence might lead you to expect the worst. Under a funky-by-Disney-standards title song, we see a Black man running for his life. By the way he’s dressed and the tribal beat of the percussion, we’re clearly meant to think this is a runaway slave. In fact, we’re in the Reconstruction Era and this is ex-slave Ben (Robert DoQui) running back to the family who once owned him. As ever, Disney’s racial optics are kind of all over the place.
Ben has been off fighting for the North in the War between the States. He’s returned…well, let’s call it home, I guess…to Grassy, a rundown plantation now occupied by young Davie Burnie (Johnny Doran) and his two maiden aunts, Effie (Jane Wyatt, best known to sci-fi fans as Spock’s mom, Amanda, on Star Trek) and Lou (Virginia Vincent from The Million Dollar Duck). Davie’s father told Ben he had hidden a map to a buried treasure somewhere in the house. His dying wish was for Ben to help Davie find the map and seek out the treasure.
They soon find the map printed in invisible ink in an old book. But no sooner have they discovered it than another interested party arrives. Captain Spangler (Vic Morrow, who also appeared in the Disney TV production The Ghost Of Cypress Swamp right around this same time) is described by Ben as “the devil hisself”. He makes his evil intentions clear right from the jump, breaking into the house with his men and fatally shooting Ben in the back as he’s trying to escape. Davie doesn’t have time to mourn his friend, however. With his friend Thad (Billy “Pop” Atmore, soon to become a Mousketeer on the groovy, disco-flavored 70s version of The New Mickey Mouse Club) along for the ride, Davie grabs the nearest boat and heads downriver.
At the next town, the boys get cheap tickets on a steamboat to New Orleans. While they’re making themselves comfortable among the livestock, they come upon a stowaway decked out in a wedding dress. Free-wheeling Lauriette Paxton (Joan Hackett) has left her would-be groom at the altar and aims to get as far away as possible. Davie and Thad help hide her when her brother and fiancé come looking for the runaway bride, earning them a very little bit of gratitude.
On the run and broke, Lauriette pops down to the gambling deck where she spots a con man (Dick Van Patten, last seen engaged in corporate cereal espionage in The Strongest Man In The World) grifting passengers at three card monte. She turns the tables by taking him for $500 and asks the captain to upgrade her accommodations.
That night while Davie and Thad are fast asleep, a roughneck (played by future replicant Brion James in what sadly appears to be his only Disney appearance) sneaks up to pick a pocket or two. He makes off with Davie’s coin purse, containing all his money and the map, but not without a struggle. When Lauriette emerges from her cabin to see what all the commotion is about, she ends up getting knocked overboard. Davie and Thad jump in after her in a pretty sorry attempt at a rescue.
The little group makes it to the next town where Lauriette promptly turns the boys into the sheriff as runaways. It doesn’t slow them down much and they’re soon back out on the road where they encounter snake oil salesman Dr. Ewing T. Snodgrass (Peter Ustinov in his final Disney appearance). The good “doctor” agrees to take the boys on as apprentices, which means working the crowd while dressed as Indians. Apparently Ustinov was contractually obligated to work some offensive racial stereotype into every performance back then.
During one of these performances, the boys are spotted by Spangler and his men. Davie heads for the hills but Spangler corners him on a cliff overlooking the river. Things are looking pretty bleak for Davie but Lauriette rescues him in the nick of time, forcing Spangler and his cronies to jump off the cliff themselves.
Convinced now that the map did exist, Lauriette and Snodgrass have Davie try to recreate it from memory. In the meantime, Davie suggests recruiting his Uncle Jim (Robert Foxworth) to help. They find Jim at the end of a rope, about to be hanged by the Ku Klux Klan! While Snodgrass and Thad lob Molotov cocktails into the Klan meeting, Davie grabs a rifle and shoots the rope strung around his uncle’s neck.
The crew continues to make their way downriver, pulling in for supplies at a small outpost that looks a little rough. Snodgrass decides to charm them with music and before you know it, an all-out dance-off has erupted on the dock. I swear I’m not making any of this up and no, none of this makes much sense while you’re watching the movie, either.
Having survived the Klan and a bunch of dancing roughnecks, the crew is once again attacked by Spangler. Jim leads the bad guys into the woods while Snodgrass rigs his own boat to explode and the others take command of Spangler’s steamboat. Jim is seemingly killed in the fight but the rest get away safely, leaving Spangler once again without a means of transport.
At long last, the group makes it to New Orleans where they hire a guide named Cooter Skaggs to lead them the rest of the way. Because Cooter Skaggs is played by Don Knight, the guy who stuck Bill Bixby with The Apple Dumpling Gang, it comes as no surprise when Skaggs double-crosses them and delivers them straight to Spangler. Spangler takes Davie’s re-created map and abandons our heroes in the swamp to be eaten alive by gators and swarms of ravenous mosquitoes.
But before they meet their fate, who should come paddling along in a canoe but the very much alive Uncle Jim and his Seminole buddy, Charlie (Valentin de Vargas, last seen as the troublesome Sam Eagle Speaker in The Bears And I). Jim rallies the troops but cautions everyone that they’re entering the territory of the hostile Cougar tribe. And to make matters worse, a hurricane is due to hit Florida at any second.
The intrepid treasure hunters hit Matecumbe just as the hurricane makes landfall. An enormous wave washes Snodgrass out to sea and the others are forced to shelter in a sacred burial ground. After the storm, they claim the treasure but they barely have time to glance at it before Charlie warns that a Cougar war party is headed their way. Just as they’re about to leave, Spangler’s men attack. The good guys gladly give up the treasure and head for cover, leaving Spangler to confront the angry Cougars. Furious at the desecration of their sacred land, the Cougars capture Spangler and his men, leading them back to camp for a lifetime of enslavement.
Once the coast is clear, Davie and the others emerge from hiding and reclaim the treasure chest. As they make their way back to the beach, Dr. Snodgrass turns up again, battered and wet but otherwise unharmed. Thrilled with how everything has turned out, Davie invites Jim and Lauriette, who have fallen in love because why wouldn’t they, and Dr. Snodgrass to come stay at Grassy. So it’s a happy ending, at least until Aunt Effie and Aunt Lou get a load of the weirdos Davie and Thad brought home with them.
Treasure Of Matecumbe is by far the strangest movie this column has dealt with in quite some time and I was willing to make that claim even before the Klan randomly showed up. For a while, the movie feels like a fairly serious boys’ adventure with Morrow leading a team of genuinely threatening villains. But Morrow and the rest of the bad guys act like they’re in a different movie from the rest of the cast. Tait and McEveety keep trying to push the movie toward comedy whether it’s appropriate or not. Lots of familiar comedic actors pop up in bit parts, including Dick Van Patten, George Lindsey and Jonathan Daly. Peter Ustinov and Joan Hackett fit right in whenever a scene calls for a light touch. But McEveety will switch tones on a dime and he isn’t quite able to get his actors to pivot that quickly.
All that being said, I’m not sure I would classify Treasure Of Matecumbe as a good or even successful movie. However, it’s a lot more entertaining in its own peculiar fashion than some more conventional Disney projects. It wasn’t exactly a huge hit but it did OK and received some better-than-average reviews at the time. Disney hasn’t gone out of its way to promote it but Treasure Of Matecumbe is available on Disney+ (they have a lot of things with the word “treasure” in the title, so you might have to dig a little), just waiting to confound and perplex a whole new generation.
VERDICT: I’m not going to forget it anytime soon, so I guess that qualifies as a Disney Plus.
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