Captain Nemo Double Bill
On Sunday, the American Cinematheque concludes its 7th Annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror & Science-Fiction Films with a double bill of titles inspired by Jules Vern: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), starting at 7:30pm in the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It’s been an age since I’ve seen the latter film (which is one of the best to feature stop-motion monster by Ray Harryhausen), but 20,000 LEAGUES has shown up on the big screen here in Hollywood several times in recent years, usually when Walt Disney Pictures is ginning up a little promotional buzz for yet another release on a new home video format (first VHS, then laserdisc, most recently DVD). The nice thing about this is that Disney owns one of the best movie palaces on Hollywood Blvd, El Capitan, which dates back to the Golden Era of film-going; it’s hard to think of a more magical place to enjoy a classic film. I don’t think the Egyptian Theatre can quite match the experience, but that shouldn’t’t stop Los Angeles-area genre fans from taking advantage of this rare opportunity.
20,000 LEAGUES, Disney’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s famous novel, is quite an achievement, a film far superior to the majority of genre efforts from the period (or any period, for that matter), with production design and technical effects that have dated hardly at all. Even more amazing, for a Disney production, is the level of complexity in the characters, especially in James Mason’s portrayal of Captain Nemo. Kudos also to Earl Fenton’s script for condensing Verne’s loosely structured tale into something resembling a dramatic plot.
The novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seais generally considered to be Verne’s masterpiece. The story follows Professor Arronax, his servant, and harpooner Ned (more or less recreating the triumvirate of professor, faithful servant, and reluctant traveling companion from Verne’s earlier work, Journey to the Center of the Earth) as they are imprisoned aboard the Nautilus, a submarine that has been mistaken for a sea monster and which has been destroying the various whaling vessels that have tried to “kill” it. The Nautilus is commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo (whose adopted name is Latin for “no one”), who has withdrawn from the society of humankind, preferring to live in a world under the sea, where his technological genius enables him to achieve feats beyond the capabilities of whole nations. (As he responds when Arronax upbraids him for making decision not in accordance with decent civilized society: “I am not what you call a civilized man! I have broken with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right to assess. I, therefore, do not obey its laws, and I advise you never to allude to them before me again!”)
As with Journey, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues succumbs somewhat to the flaws symptomatic of its era. At a time when books were the closest thing to “virtual reality”—a way to transport readers into another world, where they had never seen—the amount of detail lavished on descriptions of places and on the minutia of travel to diverse settings separated by large distances, can be quite wearying for modern readers. In effect, the book is a fictionalized version of a travelogue, telling the reader when and where the narrator has been, and what he saw while he was there.
Much time is spent describing the wonders of the nautical world in which the story is set, including lots of didactic material meant to educate the reader about ocean life. Fortunately, there are also numerous episodic set pieces that add excitement and adventure (for example, the famous battle with the giant squid), but what truly makes Leagues interesting is Captain Nemo, easily Verne’s most memorable creation. On a superficial level, the novel (at least in its English translation) seems almost as plotless as Journey, but there truly is a story of sorts, and it all has to do with unraveling the mystery of the anonymous undersea Captain.
The various adventures seem to be Nemo’s way of impressing Aronnax, a scientist who can appreciate what the captain has accomplished, even if the professor is not entirely ready to break permanently with the world of land. But all the while, Arronax is trying to unravel the mystery of who Captain Nemo really is and why he is in the habit of sinking ships that are pretty much incapable of harming the Nautilus.
The mystery is never really solved in the original novel. Verne had planned to reveal Nemo as a Polish aristocrat whose family had been killed when his family was invaded by Czarist Russia. For political reasons (Russia and France were on good terms at the time), Verne’s publisher convinced him to drop this element. All that remains in the published text is the portrait of a family whom we can presume to be dead.
Earl Felton screenplay for the film had to condense Verne’s lengthy narrative down to a manageable level. The script also laid the story out in a way that was easy to understand. In his first scene with Aronnax (Paul Lukas), Captain Nemo (James Mason) pretty much lays out his entire rational for living under the seas (since his family was killed in war, he’s dedicated himself to destroying the weapons of war). Although this interpretation adds some sympathy to the character, Nemo is portrayed as someone who has carried his ideal to dangerous extremes and is therefore to some extent seen as the villain. Thus, whereas the film is about the wonders of the ocean deeps, with a loose series of incidents gradually giving us hints into Nemo’s psyche, the film becomes a story about a “prison break” (in the words of director Richard Fleischer), with Ned (Kirk Douglas) and Conseil (Peter Lorre) conspiring to rescue the professor from Nemo. Ned, in effect, becomes a fairly conventional machismo hero, the common-sense counterbalance to the appealing yet corrupt scientific mind of Nemo and the (perhaps naive) mind of Professor Arronax, who is in some sense “seduced” by Nemo’s plans.
Film also modernizes the method of propulsion aboard the Nautilus, which seems to be nuclear powered (in the book it ran on galvanism – i.e., electricity). The film Nautilus does not resemble Verne’s description, which suggested a vessel with a smooth surface, resembling a giant torpedo. In the movie, we get a wonderfully Victorian-looking vessel that genuinely seems to have been bolted together using the available technology of its day; it’s one of the most memorable screen creations ever in the annals of cinefantastique.
Whatever the changes, the 1954 film stands (or, more to the point, swims) on its own as a fine example of what a Hollywood studio can achieve when all the departments are working at peak performance: sets, special effects, and photography are all excellent, combining on the screen like an artist’s paints on a canvas, to create a continual stream of astounding images that truly convey an imaginative “sense of wonder.” 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA may occasionally succumb to some of the problems inherent in the source material (the episodic nature does slow the pace), but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, making this one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made.
Of less exalted stature, but still quite entertaining is MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, a sort of semi-sequel that is based on Verne’s own literary follow-up. Having left Nemo’s identity a secret in Leagues, Verne was urged by readers to supply answers in this sequel, which also ties in with two other Verne novels. Despite the connection to Leagues, the novel of Mysterious Islandhas little science fiction in it; its plot focuses more on a Robinson Caruso-tale of survival on a deserted island. The main characters escape from a Civil War prison camp in a balloon and find themselves on the titular island. The “mysterious” element takes the form of inexplicable help from some unseen hand that intervenes just when they need it. In a late chapter, Verne reveals that this aid has come from an aging and infirm Captain Nemo, the lone remaining survivor from the Nautilus. The captain tells his history to the grateful island castaways: before creating the Nautilus, Nemo was Dakkar, an Indian prince whose family was murdered by British colonialists. He expresses regret (or at least doubt) about the value of what he did since then, but the sympathetic survivors assure him that he has not lived in vain, enabling the captain to die in peace.
The 1961 film adaptation from Columbia Pictures is far more recognizably a piece of science fiction, thanks to the presence of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. The script retools the story, introducing the idea that Nemo, who once fought the weapons of war, is now taking aim at the causes, including hunger, so he has found a way of breeding enlarged food animals to feed the world’s starving masses. This allows for the inclusion of several oversized stop-motion animals: a crab, a bird, bees, even a type of cephalopod that’s probably supposed to be a nautilus (an inside joke, perhaps?). The film is one of the better Harryhausen efforts, with a good script and strong direction by Cy Enfield to hold attention even when the effects are not onscreen. The cast is decent, and Herbert Lom does a good job of filling in for James Mason as Captain Nemo.