When Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Beneath The Sea” came out in 1954, it was something of a watershed, if you’ll pardon the unavoidable pun. It was a huge hit for the studio, it was arguably the first genre effects picture to be an unquestioned success with mass audiences, and of course it whetted people’s appetites for Victorian SF on the big screen, and SF in general. Had “Leagues” not been made and successfully marketed, you would not have had a zillion other Verne stories made in to lesser films like this one. Nor would you have had things by HG Wells and others from the era up on the big screen.
This movie sets the bar high. With a comparatively big budget, a good enough cast, and the rights to the sequel to a story that had already been a hit movie, they aimed to re-capture the magic of the flick that started it all.
And they miss by a mile, sadly.
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It’s 1865, and several union prisoners escape from their captors and steal a confederate reconnaissance balloon. Along for the ride is a rebel sergeant they KO-ed in the escape, and a New York Times reporter. As soon as they lift off, they’re caught by “The worst storm in American history” and blown west for five days, until the crash - rather harrowingly - just offshore of the titular “Mysterious Island,” which is composed entirely of Matte shots and the Spanish Coast.
As our heroes all got scattered by the crash, the reporter decides to dine on some of the freakishly big oysters on the island, while the others look for The Captain, who fell off the balloon at sea. They find him unconscious on the beach, with a campfire going. When questioned, he has no memory of how he got ashore, and he says he couldn’t possibly have built the fire.
They scout around the island, and get attacked by a house-sized crap, which they kill (And cook) by pushing it into a geyser. They decide to try and build a boat to get home, and start in on that. Presently, as the film is already dragging, a boat washes ashore with two English ladies on it, one of whom is what passes for hot in 1960 British Cinema, but is mere cute in pretty much every other era. They move into a cave, and then the movie kind of drags again, so they throw in a Giant Chicken attack, then some Giant Bees which threaten the hot chick and Lt. Beefcake. Then pirates attack, but their ship inexplicably blows up.
Out from the surf walks Captain Nemo, played by a surprisingly young and handsome Herbert Lom, with a bad blonde dye job that’s supposed to make him look much older than he is, but just succeeds in making him look like he’s fronting a New Wave band.
Nemo yammers on for a bit about his hatred for war, and his hopes for the freakishly big, dangerous animals he’s been breeding (For food), and then informs them the island is about to explode. The rest of the movie is a race against time to get the ship up and running before everything goes blooey, but, of course, Nemo doesn’t make it and dies.
If all that sounds rather thrilling, it kind of isn’t. There’s not really any getting around the fact that there just isn’t enough story here to fill out a feature-length film. Nearly every scene goes on too long, the dialog is mostly rather ‘why bother’, the acting (With the exception of Lom and Lady Mary) is pretty stiff, and there’s so little going on that we’re subjected to several ‘walking around’ montages.
The stop motion animation is done by Ray Harryhausen, and while it’s competent, it’s hardly his best work. It doesn’t seem particularly inspired, though there’s something kind of cool in the fact that he’s obviously using a real crab he’s hollowed out and filled with armatures for that one scene. Grisly-cool!
This movie is trying really hard to ride on “Leagues”’ coattails. The Nautilus is designed to look as much like the Disney version as the budget will allow, and while they can’t pull off the correct level of opulence, at least it never looks like someone’s rec room.
“20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” was published in 1870, and took place about a year after the Civil War, a period that Verne thought was very exciting, and he set several of his books in that same era. The book follows the plot of the Disney movie relatively closely, though there’s no mention of Nuclear Power or any other such hoo-hah. (In fact, there’s a chapter discussing how the Coal engine works). The story ends with the Nautilus apparently being lost in a whirlpool off the Bay of Fundy, in Canada. Owing to a lack of attention on the part of the author or the editor, “Mysterious Island” takes place *after* “Leagues,” but is set a year before it. In the movie, they say “Nemo disappeared eight years ago, off the coast of Mexico.” Obviously, part of that is a reference to the Disney movie, which came out eight years before this one.
The uniforms in this movie aren’t particularly accurate. The Captain introduces himself as part of the Army Corps of Engineers, but he’s wearing Yellow Facings which were (As I recall) Infantry. Also, no union unit in the war wore black uniforms. I admit they look rather snappy, though.
The goatskin gogo dress Lady Mary makes for the hot (Or merely cute) chick is completely ludicrous, and amazingly impractical. In fact, pretty much from the moment she puts it on, we’re treated to repeated shots of her unmentionables pretty much every time she walks, breathes, or points. Realistically, a woman from the 1860s wouldn’t be shaving her legs either, but I’m rather thankful for both of these departures from veracity. I’m less thrilled with Lt. Beefcake, who gets himself some goatskin shorts, and then goes around shirtless for the rest of the movie. The shorts don’t fit very well, and there’s several scenes when we *HIS* undergarments, generally in the Packageal region. It’s disquieting.
Michael Craig, who plays The Union Captain, is English, but he does a good American accent.
Michael Callan, who plays Lt. Beefcake, is American, but doesn’t really do a good American accent.
Gary Merril plays the reporter, but despite the fact that he looks very much like the shopkeep from Little House on the Prarie, it’s not him. (I know, I was disappointed too)
Percy Herbert plays the token confederate, with just about the worst southern accent I’ve ever heard. (Again, he’s a Brit)
Dan Jackson plays the black union soldier, with what I think is a Caribbean accent. He, too, is British.
The soundtrack is by Bernard Herrmann. It’s all brassy, and the strings are all in minor chords when they turn up at all. It’s neat, though perhaps a bit bombastic. Herrmann did some work for Irwin Allen, and re-used some of the passages from this film in reworked fashion. Some of the Lost in Space music was bodily lifted from this film. Probably because of that, there’s a very Irwin Allen feel to this film, this is perhaps the most Irwin Allen-y movie to have been made without Allen in any capacity.
The (Deservedly famous) Giant Chicken Attack scene is pretty goofy, but I really like the music played over the bit. It’s an almost-but-not-quite fugue.
Oh, other ‘exciting’ bits I forgot to mention: An attack by a Giant Nautilus (Not the sub, the animal) and the ruins of Atlantis. Yawn.
Nemo’s plan to feed the world really doesn’t make much sense: You’ve got starving people, most of whom can’t afford meat because to raise meat, the animals have to have access to grain, and a lot of it. Conversely, if poor people have access to grain, they’re just going to eat that, rather than the animals they can’t afford. Nemos’ plan is to give everyone giant chickens and things, which, presumably, would need to eat VASTLY MORE FOOD in order to get that big, so really it’s just going to make the situation worse.
You can watch the entire movie online here