Wednesday, July 16, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Released nearly fifty years ago, Henry Levin's Journey to the Center of the Earth (based on the Jules Verne novel) is a classic. It's a sprawling, colorful, dynamic, "big" entertainment; the likes of which are no longer made in Hollywood. This movie is truly the whole enchilada: loaded to the brim with action, humor, romance, thrills, special effects and even...Pat Boone's singing (!).

Impressively, none of the various shifts in mode seem out-of-place or jarring in this decades-old adventure tale. I don't want to sound old and stupid or anything if I can possibly avoid it, but this is actually a movie the whole family CAN enjoy, but in a good way; not a vanilla or insipid way. I suspect this is because the film came out well-before "genre fans" were designated as such. The film's purpose is to entertain a wide (but educated...) audience, but it has no need to pander to any certain sect (except, perhaps, the Verne purists). Expectations for a film like this were far different a half-century ago. (Could you imagine Shia La Beouf stopping for a musical interlude in Indy 4? Hugh Jackman pausing for a little tap dance in X3: The Last Stand?)

You are likely familiar with the narrative here, as it has been adapted to film and television many times and in many ways. You might remember the Emo Philips version from the late 1980s (though I hope not...); or the new 3-D model playing in theaters now, or perhaps even the Filmation animated series from the late 1960s. Although I haven't seen the Brendan Fraser version yet, it's highly likely that this 1959 incarnation remains the rolls-royce of Journey adaptations; though I'd be happy to be proven wrong. (Anyone? Anyone?)

Regardless, the story follows Professor Oliver Lindbrook (James Mason) as he leads a pioneering expedition from a craggy volcano-top in Iceland to the very center of the Earth itself. His team includes his horny young assistant Alec (Boone, before he started appearing in anti-abortion films...), a muscular Swede named Hans (Peter Ronson), the lovely widow Goteburg (a smoking hot Arlene Dahl), and...a brave little duck named Gertrude.

The trip to the center of the Earth is a dangerous one for the Lindenbrook Expedition. For one thing, the team is shadowed by the evil Count Saknussem (Thayer David). For another, the group must deal with (in order): high ledges, rock falls, flash floods, giant mushrooms (!), a clutch of hungry Dimetrodons, an underground ocean (replete with magnetic whirlpools), another giant lizard that inhabits the ruins of Atlantis, and - finally - a roller-coaster ride up a volcanic chimney (with hot lava nipping at their backsides).

I hasten to add, all of these events are depicted brilliantly and imaginatively; with both superb actual locations (Carlsbad Caverns) as well as highly creative -- and massive - sets filling in for the fantastical subterranean domain. I was particularly impressed with many of the special effects/optical composites, which have stood the test of time remarkably well. Just look, for instance at the amazing "rock bridge" Alec traverses; or some of the long-shot integrations of the cast with giant lizards. It's all remarkably good stuff.

I also discovered with some interest that there are at least two moments here that appear lifted from Journey to the Center of the Earth and inserted into Raiders of the Lost Ark (admittedly a pastiche of films such as Journey). The first such moment involves a ray of sunlight pinpointing the opening in a rock wall to show the travelers the way to start the journey (operating on the same principle as the Staff of Ra). The second moment involves a large circular boulder being shaken loose in a cavern and rolling relentlessly towards the protagonists as they run for their lives. Interesting, no? Everything old is new again; then old again, I guess.

Thematically, I appreciate how the film dramatizes the notion that "the spirit of man cannot be stopped." Journey captures beautifully and poetically the glory and wonder of exploring a terrain never before broached. "Why does man freeze to death trying to reach the north pole?" one character asks rhetorically in the film, and it was at that moment I realized how much I truly love this film (a love I have carried since very early childhood). This story calls to the same human impulse to explore as the original Star Trek: to go where none have gone before. I dug that as a kid, and I dig it now. I wish there were more of it in the cinema and television of today.

Viewing this old favorite in mid-2008, I realize a film with these qualities simply not be made in this fashion today. The sexual politics are antique (though amusing); the first hour of the film plays much of the drama for laughs (particularly a scene in which Gertrude is thought to be "speaking" in Morse Code") and all the danger/terror is strictly "tolerable." In other words, the family nature of the film precludes the creatures from The Descent (2006) attacking. All these qualities are fine with me, but they don't seem timely or commercial in today's environment. That's why I'm curious to see the new version that was released last weekend. I suspect it will be "darker," more focused, shorter (this film runs two-hours and twelve-minutes), bloodier and all-together more grown-up than this classic version.

That's okay. I'll introduce Joel to the tale with this version. The one I grew up with...


  1. It's funny you describe the film in this way. I've also felt the same way about the original War of the Worlds, as well as the original The Thing, and others. Although great flicks, they really are made in a different style. The danger is played down, the sexual attitudes are different, as are the social attitudes. In the original Thing, the scientists aren't very frightened of the creature. And in WOTW, the focus is on the competent scientist trying to save the world, as opposed to the remake. Not saying the remake was better (although The Thing remake was), but there are profoundly different attitudes at work.

  2. I totally agree with you b-sol. There's something about these older films. It isn't that they are "aged" particularly; but that they aesthetic was different. People going to see a movie in 1959expected the full entertainment package, not just ninety minutes of fun, because TV was still a youthful medium, and no home video or DVD. Thus, movies like Journey had a little singing, a little comedy, a little action, and a few please everyone. What remains remarkable is how good these films are; considering how many different genres they need to satisfy...

    thanks for stopping by!

  3. I grew up with this one too. And yes, it is a good movie.

    Now if I can only forget that silly animated version that Ted Knight used to narrate.Because as much as I hate to admit it, I grew up with that version too...

  4. Thank you so much for discussing this fantastic movie. In the old days, when you had to wait for an older movie to be shown on tv to see it, JTTCOTE was a never-miss when it came on (like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory").

    My sister and I regularly played JTTCOTE, using toys from The Rocky and Bullwinkle show (Boris, Natasha, Mr Peabody and Sherman--you gotta work with what you have!), with the stairway in our house standing in for the pathway to the center of the earth.

    When I discovered to my astonishment that my husband had never seen it, I rented it. I was amazed to find that it had been lovingly restored to its original glory. It looks better now than when it was broadcast on tv. Why was so much time and money put into restoring this somewhat obscure film? I can only conclude that someone with influence in Hollywood grew up playing JTTCOTE just as I did. I hope that "Willy Wonka" will be next.