When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.
Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).
As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.
Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).
Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.
Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.
Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.
Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****