Saturday, April 11, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)

Jules Verne's immortal tale of undersea adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has been adapted to film on several occasions, but it is likely the Walt Disney effort of 1954 that remains, for many viewers and film aficionados, the definitive or "classic" screen version of the novel.

Helmed by Richard Fleischer, the veteran director behind Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan The Destroyer (1984), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea stars James Mason as Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land, Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre as Conseil.

Oh, and did I mention Esmerelda, Captain Nemo's pet seal?

I make note of the seal (a character not present in the Jules Verne story) simply because the cinematic version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea takes some rather significant liberties with the cherished source material. That doesn't make it a bad film, but it does make the movie a decidedly...different experienc

First and foremost, Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea reflects the Atomic Age of the 1950s and the beginnings of the Cold War epoch. In particular, Nemo's magnificent underwater machine, the Nautilis is powered by atomic energy in the movie rather than the electricity of the book. Now, the movie doesn't specifically single out "atomic energy" by name, but Nemo reveals to Aronnax the sub's propulsion unit and and claims that it harnesses "the dynamic power of the universe," which by my reckoning is a euphemism for atomic power. Especially since Nemo profoundly notes that such power could either "revolutionize the world" or "destroy it."

Additionally, one of the film's final (and most resonant) images is that of the archetypal Cold War nightmare scenario: a mushroom cloud blossoming on the horizon. Nemo single-handedly destroys his high-tech island base, Vulcania (another element not exactly taken from Verne's book...) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The result is the mushroom cloud; the tell-tale and ominous indicator of nuclear weapons detonation.

Indeed, much of Verne's novel has been deliberately re-purposed with an eye towards the contemporary (meaning the 1950s context of the film), and specifically the use and mis-use of atomic power. Nemo reveals to Professor Aronnax, for instance, that his wife and child were tortured and then slaughtered when he refused to share the secret of the atom with his captors in the gulag at Rura Penthe ("the white man's grave yard.") Although the death of Nemo's family is clearly inferred in the Verne novel (near the end), the film provides this much-more explicit exposition about the tragedy.

These alterations make the movie's Captain Nemo appear somewhat less misanthropic than his literary counterpart. For instance, in the book, Nemo attempted suicide-by-Nautilus and drove the submarine down into a raging whirlpool, a "maelstrom." He was downcast and sullen over having committed the "murder" of a ship's crew during battle, and desired to end his hopeless, conflicted life. Nemo's last exhortation was a word of surrender: "Enough!"

By contrast, Nemo's demise in the Fleischer film is much more heroic in both magnitude and intention. In order to keep the Pandora's Box of Atomic Energy firmly shut for the time being, Nemo nobly destroys all of his advanced technology on Vulcania and then even scuttles the beloved Nautilus. This final act is not truly suicide anymore, since Nemo has been fatally shot and would have died shortly anyway. Still, Nemo's death in the film brings forth a humanitarian goal: protecting the species from "tampering in God's domain" before it is wise enough to understand that territory.

The film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea then culminates with a decidedly uplifting voice-over from the late Captain Nemo, one that suggests (as his conveyance, the Nautilus, sinks below choppy waves...) that the character harbored some inherent optimism about the future. "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass. In God's good time," he declares beatifically, elevated to the level of saint, if not savior.

This distinctly out-of-character statement transforms Verne's dedicated man of science and unrepentant misanthrope into a something quite different: a pollyanna, a humanist! Again, I'm not stating that the film adaptation is of poor quality, only that it is by no means a faithful adaptation of Verne's original literary vision.

In addition to the "comedy" scenes involving Esmerelda -- Nemo's sea pup mascot -- the Fleischer film relies at points on some unnecessarily broad humor. Kirk Douglas's first appearance as Ned --- with a floozie dangling on each arm -- is a perfect example. In this scene, Ned is comically knocked atop the head by a crutch-wielding charlatan, and then he falls splat in a mud-puddle....after going cross-eyed. Bluntly stated, it's not an auspicious beginning to a remarkable and well-loved film.

Again by contrast, in the book, Ned was a forty-year old of considerable experience, intelligence, and seriousness, and not an all-singing, all-dancing, treasure-greedy buffoon...which is precisely how he comes across in the movie. And don't get me started on his obligatory musical number, "A Whale of a Tale." I accept that films made at this time in Hollywood history had to feature song interludes to net a wide demographic and entertain the whole family, but once more the movie puts up a set-piece of such jocularity that it feels out-of-step with the serious Verne story.

I've discussed rather fully how Fleischer's adaptation veers away from the trajectory of Verne's novel, but I haven't discussed yet the plethora of ways in which this classic, much-loved film succeeds on its own merits.

First and foremost, the visual aspects of Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remain ambitious...glorious, even. Everything -- from the superb miniature (model) work, to the fantastic set design, to the harrowing action-sequence involving an attack on the Nautilus by a giant squid -- still works. The film's visual effects remain compelling, ingenious, and yes, even fresh. There are some moments at Vulcania and beneath the sea wherein the special effects don't appear to have aged even a day. Which is a pretty amazing feat since this movie was released just about sixty years ago. It's one thing to write convincingly of a hunting expedition at the bottom of the sea; it's quite another to see those images play out before your very eyes, rendered entirely plausible...and wondrous.

Furthermore, while one can (and should) make extensive note of the myriad ways the movie changes some conceits in Verne's book, one might also remember that some clever updating of a nearly century-old book was likely necessary. An electricity-powered submarine just wouldn't seem like a very interesting vehicle of fantasy to audiences in the 1950s, would it? The deliberate infusion of Atomic Age moral questions into 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea grants the film a didactic quality, and more importantly, a relevant one.

Admirably, the Fleischer film also fully preserves the Arronax/Nemo philosophical debates of the original text. We learn in the film -- just as in the book -- of Nemo's ingenuity and invention when it comes to diet ("the sea supplies all my wants"), harnessing resources (we actually get to see his men farming at the bottom of the sea...), and inventing new technology (the amazing Nautilus itself). We view his commitment to vengeance, and are afforded some dramatic close-ups of an anguished Nemo at the wheel of the Nautilus, on the attack against those who have so egregiously wronged him. The film also preserves Arronax's first-person narrator role in the form of a voice-over, whether recounting the sinking of the Abraham Lincoln (a vessel not named in the film...) or his first experience with the "twilight world" under the sea.

In the book, Nemo had a manifesto of sorts: the captain's dedicated declaration of independence from nationalism, civilization, and "unjust" wars. That manifesto too survives the translation to Fleischer's film. Mason delivers a calculated, seething, and most importantly, pragmatic monologue about the ways that Man's "evil drowns on the ocean floor," and that -- only beneath the waves -- does there exist true independence; true freedom. I found this speech to be one of the film's finest, most transcendent moments.

In fairness, the Captain's darker side isn't totally ignored, either. I appreciate that the movie provides a sense of balance; making more than mere passing notations about the classic anti-hero's darker side. "The power of can fill the heart as surely as love can," the movie notes of Nemo, and that observation is right on the money. Aronnax likewise ultimately calls Nemo a "murderer" and a "hypocrite," while Ned terms him a "monster." These declarations seem very accurate to the spirit of the book, and I can't really complain that the movie seeks to provide Nemo a more explicit redemption than that found in the text; so that 20th century audiences return to the light of day with a sense of moral uplift.

It's often quite difficult to judge objectively a movie that you grew up with and which you still love so emotionally. Nostalgia inevitably creeps in and colors perception. In terms of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, I can say with some certainty that the film remains a technological marvel; that Mason's Nemo endures as an inscrutable, larger-than-life icon, and that the film overall is fast-paced, exciting, and scary in good measure. I'm quite aware that books can't be movies; and movies can't be books: that the two media have as many differences as they do similarities.

Yet, here's the crucial difference in intent: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea concerned a misanthrope who had given up on man entirely; an anti-hero who had cast off the auspices of "modern" civilization for an exile under the sea, taking only man's best "art" with him (music, paintings, books). Nemo was finished with the world above the waves and no longer cared what we did with our domain above the waves.

In the movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Captain Nemo is a great inventor with a tragic past who simply believes man is not ready for his new science, a man who actually protects and preserves the corrupt human race by destroying his miracle technology before it can do harm.

That's a pretty big difference isn't it? Maybe not 20,000 leagues worth; but certainly enough to drive a submarine through...


  1. This film is still my favorite live-action Disney effort. I remember seeing it a very impressionable age and the squid attack sequence scaring the crap out of me.

    I watched it a few months and it still holds up. I really enjoy Kirk Douglas' robust performance and James Mason's elitist take on Nemo.

    I really enjoyed reading your take on the film.

  2. I love the film too, and in general feel incredibly guilty leveling any criticism at it...because it's been good to me over the years. It's still a great film (especiall in terms of visuals and action quotient), just not quite the intent of the book.