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Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I might have dropped a hint or two in these pages about movies we plan to watch a little down the line. One of these, a little later this year, is At the Earth’s Core. But I felt I’d be doing our son a disservice by not introducing him to the concept by way of the fellow who popularized traveling down below into worlds of crystal caverns, luminescent algae or rock formations, and big monsters.

We had a quick recap about the author Jules Verne before beginning the lengthy 1959 20th Century Fox adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. It’s 130 long minutes, and the first three-quarters of an hour move at the speed of a glacier. Five is too young to absorb this material without a grownup; ten would still be pushing it. Much of the material happens far offscreen and is only deduced by the bold Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, played by James Mason. He and his young associate Alec McEwan head from Edinburgh in 1860 to an Icelandic volcano, following a clue and trying to get ahead of two competing parties.

Ewan is played by Pat Boone, of all people. Boone was, then, at the height of his pop stardom, sings one song, and seems to be here mainly because he looks good with his shirt off. The movie also features Arlene Dahl, who starred in several movies in the 1950s, the best of which was possibly the film noir No Questions Asked in 1951. To be fair, though, I really don’t know that much about her. One of the rivals in this scientific expedition is the sinister Count Saknussemm, whose ancestor vanished three hundred years earlier trying to prove there’s a lot to discover underground. He’s played by Thayer David, and twenty years later, he got to play Nero Wolfe in an unsold pilot for ABC in the seventies.

For audiences waiting for the trope of the underground civilization of primitive savages, this movie offers a big surprise: there isn’t one. There’s really not a lot that goes on in this movie at all. It’s imaginative and very nicely designed, but there’s not a great deal of conflict. What we do see is resolved really quickly. There’s a little promise during the very long opening sequence that Mason and Dahl will be at loggerheads, but it proves to be about a sixty second delay before the inevitable “you can’t come with us! you’re a woman!” scene.

There’s a brief moment during the expedition where Boone and Dahl make goo-goo eyes at each other before she reminds him that he has a young lady waiting back in Scotland. She’s played by Diane Baker, who went on to have a massively successful career but is totally wasted here. It’s interesting, though, that the script explains that this expedition goes on for many months, at least ten. One of the movie’s many flaws is that the production doesn’t really show this by showing the actors’ hair growing from scene to scene. Ten months and they’re a bit bedraggled, and Boone and the other young fellow lose their shirts, but I don’t buy that they even packed enough provisions for that long, much less felt it.

To be honest, the movie really does mark time waiting for the monsters. Here’s the most likely reason that Land of the Lost‘s third season producer decided that Torchy, their fire-breathing dimetrodon, would be the size of a bus: because there are a half-dozen gigantic dimetrodons hanging out on the beach of an underground ocean.

You’ll forgive the lack of a photo. The dinosaurs are iguanas with sails glued to their backs and they’re either shot without any point of reference to make them appear gigantic, or in a matte shot so distant that they don’t have any detail, so the screencaps all look lousy. Later on in the film, there’s a salamander or something given the same treatment. They don’t do special effects like that anymore, do they? Frankly, I’d have preferred somebody have phoned Ray Harryhausen and commissioned him to do these in stop-motion.

As I implied earlier, this was far from our son’s favorite film. He struggled gamely through the long, long setup, and lost interest for the most part. He played with a favorite Lego “Mixel” while the heroes get separated, and finally started paying attention when a dinosaur spots them in the cave full of giant mushrooms. The monsters were very successful, but they were the only things here that were. Well, we’ve one or two more trips into the center of the Earth to come. Maybe they’ll go over better.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

We sat down to watch Disney’s fabulous 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this morning and I enjoyed it like I always have. It’s a real classic. In the last sixty years, there have been a whole lot of adventure movies that follow in this one’s footsteps. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, who later helmed a couple of other movies I may show my son one day.

In some of the other stories about Disney films at this blog, I’ve praised the studio’s excellent casting. Man alive, did they ever nail it here. James Mason is the iconic Captain Nemo, and Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, and Kirk Douglas play his guests – slash – prisoners, and you couldn’t cast better than those four in 1954. Mason’s just perfect. In these more sensitive times, there’s a backlash to casting an actor of European ancestry in the role of Nemo, but Mason’s performance is so defining that it may be a very, very long time indeed before audiences will even understand an Indian actor (like Naseeruddin Shah, who played Nemo in the ridiculous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) in the part.

It’s not flawless. While it’s mostly undated, the ooga-booga cannibals of a south Pacific island are very cringeworthy, and I really had to question whomever gave the order to start firing when the landing parties start coming over the ridge at Volcania. You’d kind of think that whatever military or privateer force that was would want some answers before they started trying to murder everybody in that lagoon, you know?

Other than these issues, it’s a massively entertaining movie. The themes are a bit over our son’s head, and we did have to pause to explain that in the 1860s, submarines on the scale of the Nautilus simply didn’t exist, and that Verne’s novel was a work of science fiction speculating about technology that was impossible in its day. He was okay. He’s done better with movies, but he’s also had a lot on his mind lately, getting used to our new home and getting ready to begin a new school, so he’s not been on his very best behavior.

While the climax of the film is the incident at Volcania, the real centerpiece is the battle with the giant squid. Holy anna, it’s amazing. Of course, any remake could certainly do as good a job today with computer effects, but you won’t convince me anybody will ever actually surpass it. And of course, it scared the pants off Daniel. He didn’t flee like he had done from some of the threats and villains we’ve seen in earlier shows, but he was crawled into his mommy’s lap, babbling to himself to keep himself brave.

Captain Nemo is killed and goes down with his boat in this movie, but this is certainly not the last time that we’ll meet the character as we watch classic adventures together in this blog. I am, however, reasonably confident that none of the actors who followed Mason in the role ever got to deliver a line like “Mr. Baxter, if you think you’re seeing mermaids and sea monsters, you’ve been submerged too long!” We’ll find out for sure before too long.

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