20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) & Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Let's Get Ready to Rumble | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Square-jawed men and passive women at odds against nature.

Just like his devoted readers, the world of cinema has had a great fascination with the inventive French fantasy/adventure novelist Jules Verne. His novels projected our minds to the future, where flying machines and underwater contraptions were a reality. He took us to mystical lands, though they often weren’t far from our own. While our minds had to provide the images for a few decades, the cinema trailed just behind with its first adaptation, A Trip to the Moon, in 1902. More than 100 years later, we’ve seen dozens of Verne’s novels adapted into films, but none have been as striking as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), both coincidentally starring James Mason.

20,000 Leagues opens in San Francisco, where mariners are spreading reports of a large sea creature hunting down and sinking their ships. A French science professor (Paul Lukas) and his assistant (Peter Lorre) decide to organize an expedition to find this rumored creature. Just like the others, however, the creature finds them first and sinks their ship. The professor and his assistant, as well as a muscle-bound harpooner (Kirk Douglas), swim to safety, only to find the creature is an intimidating submarine called The Nautilus. The wide-eyed and crazy Captain Nemo (James Mason) heads the futuristic ship as its dictator or god, and has spent nearly his entire life at sea.

In Journey, Mason plays a Scottish sexist named Professor Lindenbrook, who discovers a strange object in a piece of Icelandic rock. The object carries the symbol of Arne Saknussemm, a scientist who vowed to journey to the Earth’s core. From there, Lindenbrook leads an expedition to complete Saknussemm’s findings with student Alec McEwan (singer Pat Boone), Aryan muscleman Hans, his duck Gertrude, and a colleague’s widow (Arlene Dahl).

20,000 Leagues is Disney’s second live-action film and has incredible sets shot in a beautiful Cinemascope production. The film garnered two Oscars for art direction and special effects, with a nomination for editing as well. However filmgoers will forever remember this film for one scene in which a giant squid attacks The Nautilus and the crew attempts to fight off the beast. This scene alone took up about a quarter of the entire film’s budget and director Richard Fleischer opted to re-shoot the scene after the original take revealed the rubber squid and its wire pulleys. Walt Disney came up with the solution of shooting it at night and during a ferocious storm to hide the fakeness. This Disney film spawned several other Verne adaptations, including 1956’s cameo-packed and mediocre Around the World in 80 Days. An interesting self-reflexive version of Journey to the Center of the Earth came out in 2008 with Brendan Fraser, who goes on the journey after finding scientific proof to back Verne’s novel (though the movie plays out like a contrived video game).

Although it also includes a treasure expedition and shark attack, 20,000 Leagues has its cheesy moments, such as Douglas playing with a pet seal and singing Whale of a Tale. All things considered, 20,000 Leagues is, without a doubt, the most critically acclaimed and popular of all Verne adaptations, but is undeniably boring (specifically the extensive dialogue and anti-war commentary) for youngsters hoping for non-stop action.


Journey to the Center of the Earth, though quite dated, provides a bit more action with kidnapping, attempted murder, giant mushrooms, crystal caverns, the lost city of Atlantis, and dinosaurs (costumed Iguanas). In this non-Disney film, director Henry Levin takes his sweet time to get to the adventures as nearly an hour expires before the group begins the expedition. Much of the film’s shortcomings are due to cheesy subplots involving Pat Boone serenading a love interest, but once they begin the trip down a volcano the more than two-hour film picks up.

“I neglected to tell you sir, I have a nervous fear of heights,” Alec tells the professor.

“Well, you’ll get over it after the first million fathoms or so,” Lindenbrook responds.

Film lovers who have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies will spot several scenes in Journey that the Spielberg films pay homage to, including a chase scene involving a giant boulder. While adults will likely laugh at several moments (especially the believability factor) or experience some degree of nostalgia, kids will enjoy this fun flick plenty. Even if the film’s effects are dated and the subplots are kitschy, Verne’s stories are timeless exercises of the imagination.

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