Tag Archives: jules verne

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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Mysterious Island (1961)

One of my friends suggested on Facebook that we be sure to show our son some Ray Harryhausen films. Already planned and shelved and waiting to thrill him! We’ve got a couple more coming before the end of this year, but the first Harryhausen picture for our family was one that didn’t have too many wild beasts from mythology or prehistory. Mysterious Island was made by Columbia in 1961. Unofficially, it’s a sequel to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but we didn’t tell our son that when we got started.

The story is set across several months in 1865, beginning when three captured Union soldiers and a war correspondent escape from a prison in Richmond with a Confederate sergeant as their prisoner. They steal an observation balloon during a mammoth storm and are blown way, way off course. More than a week later, they crash on the other side of the planet. Moving that far, that fast may be the most fanciful thing in this film.

Our stranded heroes rescue two women from a shipwreck and begin the long and arduous process of building a boat to sail more than a thousand miles from this small volcanic island to New Zealand. Along the way, they battle some giant creatures, including a gargantuan crab, a bizarre bird-thing, and a small nest of very big honeybees. So what’s behind all these freaks of nature? It’s none other than Captain Nemo, who did not go down with the Nautilus in 1857 as the world believed. Instead, he steered his damaged submarine to this remote place to continue his scientific experiments in peace.

Earlier this month, I briefly mentioned an episode of Ultraman where scientists were growing mammoth vegetables, and how this trope still hasn’t happened in the real world yet. But it turns out that this idea – growing great big plants and animals to feed the world’s hungry – was one of Jules Verne’s, and a lot older than I suspected. That’s what Nemo’s up to here, and why he secretly assists the survivors from afar. With the Nautilus too damaged to travel, he seizes an opportunity to take some of his experiments back to civilization. Pirates attack the island – my, that happens a lot in the movies we watch – and Nemo sinks their ship and kills them. If they all work together, they can patch the ship and raise it under his instruction, but time is running out. That volcano will erupt soon.

The film’s a good one, if not great. I think it’s one monster shy of where it needs to be, with a little feeling of drag about fifty minutes into the action. Michael Craig is fairly awesome as the Union captain, with great support from Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Joan Greenwood, and Beth Rogen. The stop-motion special effects are completely amazing, even if some of the processing to blend the live actors in with the creatures is fairly obvious thanks to some poor color-matching. The last, not-very-surprising, monster to appear is the most effective of all, with a great jump-out-of-your-seat moment when it opens an eye.

Columbia had an interesting problem in casting Nemo and designing the Nautilus. Disney and James Mason had completely defined the appearance of the character. He and the story were in the public domain, but Disney’s design was not. So the submarine looks ever-so-slightly different, and Herbert Lom isn’t quite James Mason, but he’s very close. He’s cold and distant, but not cruel like we could see Mason’s Nemo.

We’ve had some really odd opinions about movies and shows from the mouth of our favorite five year-old critic, but he really took the cake this time. He told us that he really liked the film and that it was awesome, but his favorite part – very frequently either the climax or the gag right before the end credits – was the “war part” at the beginning when they escape from the prison. “So your favorite scene in a movie called Mysterious Island is a scene before they actually get to the island?” Besides, he hid under a blanket when the giant crab showed up, so I know he liked that.

Nemo is killed – for real, this time, we think – when the volcano erupts, spectacularly, and the others set sail to carry on his mission of using the power of science to destroy the motives for war. But you know that you can’t keep a good antihero down, right? I’m pretty sure that we’ll see him again one of these days…

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In Search of the Castaways (1962)

Our son is at that hilarious age where hot lava is everywhere. Everywhere. So I’m obliged as a parent to show him a movie or two in which some volcanoes erupt. In Search of the Castaways, another Jules Verne adaptation from Disney, and one of six (!) films that Hayley Mills made for the company in the 1960s, has a terrific volcano eruption. It also has an earthquake, a flood, a giant condor, gun runners, and basically one darn thing after another getting in the way of two kids trying to find their shipwrecked father.

Daniel completely loved it. No sooner did the earthquake scene – a bizarre but wonderful moment in which our heroes slide down a mountain on a whacking big rock – end than he begged us to pause the movie and wind it back so he could see it again. He pouted just a little bit when we declined.

Top-billed in the movie is Maurice Chevalier, playing a kindly, upbeat, and wildly optimistic professor, and he’s well-matched with Wilfrid Hyde-White, a spritely young 59, which is a baby in Wilfrid Hyde-White years, who plays an unbelievably naive, yet cynical lord who owns several ships. One of these went down a few years previously with Captain John Grant at the helm. Captain Grant’s children, played by Mills and Keith Hamshere, and the professor have a damaged message-in-a-bottle from their father and persuade Lord Glenarvan to head for the 37th parallel to find him. But is he in South America, Africa, or Australia?

So this globetrotting drama is downright huge fun for kids and it was a mammoth hit in the sixties. It seems somewhat forgotten these days, but its impact remains big on filmmakers. One of the climactic bits in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to take its inspiration from the earthquake scene. It’s nowhere as blatant as the Stagecoach homage in Raiders, but Spielberg clearly knows it.

After some initial squirminess, our son really enjoyed the movie, and I was pleased by the unpredictable one-darn-thing-after-another nature of the search, with a hilarious number of obstacles thrown in our heroes’ way. As with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this began life as a serialized novel in monthly installments, so naturally the film is going to feel episodic, but the director, Robert Stevenson, really makes it work. It only just occurred to me that Stevenson, who did quite a lot of work for Disney, directed four other films that we’ve watched together for the blog: The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Herbie Rides Again and One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

Also appearing in the movie: Roger Delgado has a very, very small part as a sailor, but blink and you’ll miss him; he’s onscreen for not even twenty seconds. Wilfrid Brambell, who either made the first series of Steptoe and Son immediately before or right after this, I’m not sure, gets a meaty bit toward the end as a loony old man. The immortal George Sanders is obviously up to no good as a well-dressed man who may know what has happened to Captain Grant.

I’m not sure why In Search of the Castaways isn’t better remembered. Some of the special effects have dated, but others remain pretty amazing. It’s a great family adventure and we had a ball. Our son even said that he liked it better than 20,000 Leagues. And, once we finished, I was happy to start the film again so that he could watch the earthquake scene one more time.

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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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